Roger Ebert offers a touching remembrance of his partner in crime, Gene Siskel, on the 10th anniversay of Siskel’s death (Feb. 20, 1999).
We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing. “You may be an asshole,” Gene would say, “but you’re my asshole.” If we were fighting–get out of the room. But if we were teamed up against a common target, we were fatal. The first time we were on his show, Howard Stern never knew what hit him. He picked on one of us, and we were both at his throat.
We both thought of ourselves as full-service, one-stop film critics. We didn’t see why the other one was quite necessary. We had been linked in a Faustian television format that brought us success at the price of autonomy. No sooner had I expressed a verdict on a movie, my verdict, than here came Siskel with the arrogance to say I was wrong, or, for that matter, the condescension to agree with me. It really felt like that. It was not an act. When we disagreed, there was incredulity; when we agreed, there was a kind of relief. In the television biz, they talk about “chemistry.” Not a thought was given to our chemistry. We just had it, because from the day the Chicago Tribune made Gene its film critic, we were professional enemies. We never had a single meaningful conversation before we started to work on our TV program. Alone together in an elevator, we would study the numbers changing above the door.
Making this rivalry even worse was the tension of our early tapings. It would take eight hours to get one show in the can, with breaks for lunch, dinner and fights. I would break down, or he would break down, or one of us would do something different and throw the other off, or the accumulating angst would make our exchanges seem simply bizarre. There are many witnesses to the terror of those days. Only when we threw away our clipboards and 3×5 cards did we get anything done; we finally started ad-libbing and the show begin to work. We found we could tape a show in under an hour.
As interesting as their relationship was, both professionally and personally, in these matters it’s always the strange stories that resonate.
In Vegas, I played the $5 poker tables but Gene was over in the more talented section of the room. At his bachelor party, he swept the tables with his winnings. At my bachelor party, he was a big loser. I asked him what went wrong. “What went wrong,” he said, “is that your friends don’t know how to play poker. A good player can never win against someone who makes a bet just for fun.”
He had season tickets for the Bulls going back to the 1970s, and told me they were a “good young team.” When Michael Jordan joined the team in 1984, Gene began to follow Jordan and the Bulls with a passionate intensity. He and Marlene even bought front row tickets–not cheap, but more important to Gene than a car. He was a fan, but not a mindless fan. He became a student of the game. He looked in basketball for the kinds of “tells” a poker player looks for. He said Jordan was better at reading another player’s tells than anybody else in the game.
He asked the coach, Phil Jackson, “Why does Dennis Rodman almost always miss the first free throw?”
Jackson said, “Why do you think?”
Gene said, “For some reason, he thinks he has to.”
Jackson nodded thoughtfully.
“He didn’t tell me what he thought,” Gene said. “A good coach would never do that.”