For those who remember Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s longtime movies-reviews TV show (variously titled, from the ’70s to the ’90s, “Sneak Previews,” “At the Movies,” or just “Siskel & Ebert”), here’s a treat: Slate.com this week presents an exclusive excerpt from a new 25,000 oral history of the duo (published in The Chicagoan, and available as a paid download to Kindle, iPad, etc.). These guys were, by all accounts, frenemies. Here are just a few samples; to read the entire excerpt at Slate. click here.
They would literally argue about everything–from the lineup of movies to the graphics to who would talk first. At the beginning, I was sort of in shock. I thought, “They don’t do anything but argue! It’s exhausting.” [executive Mary Kellogg]
It was important for every executive producer to carry a quarter with them because the quarter was the agreed-upon currency for reaching consensus when there wasn’t any. The flip determined who sat next to Johnny Carson all the way down to where we would order lunch on a particular taping day. [executive producer Donna LaPietra]
You needed to agree ahead of time, however, about what was being resolved by the flip. For instance, if the issue was which critic should speak first at a lecture, did winning the toss mean that the winner would go first? Or did it mean that the winner had the option of choosing which critic would go first? [associate producer Stuart Cleland]
Do you know how long it initially took us to produce At the Movies? Six hours! They would argue incessantly. If Roger talked for four minutes of a six-minute segment, Gene would holler, “That’s not right!” The same thing happened whenever Gene would talk longer than Roger. They demanded that the other didn’t get one more second of screentime. [executive producer Joe Antelo]
The worst was when we had to reshoot a cross-talk segment because a crew member made a technical gaffe. Now, Gene and Roger knew what the other one was going to say about the movie they were reviewing. That started a cascade of, “You wouldn’t have thought of that line if you hadn’t already known what I was going to say!” [LaPietra]
I remember the on-air disagreements, but also the invigorating energy of those shows, and the passion for movies that shone through. Siskel died in 1999; Ebert, long battling cancer, can no longer speak (though he continues to write, prolifically and wonderfully). Reading this, you can almost hear their voices again.