8. They Filmed an Episode in Black and White
To demonstrate that point about black and white cinematography, Siskel and Ebert filmed an entire episode in black and white. Ebert confirmed that their approach worked: “Siskel & Ebert was the first, and often the only, television show of any kind to deal with many of these subjects,” he wrote. “It would be fair to say that most mainstream Americans who have formed an opinion on colorization and letterboxing were inspired to do so because of our program.”
Their philosophy has endured to this day. Both critics produced quotes that have become synonymous with movie criticism. Ebert used to say “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough” and “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” Siskel had a golden rule when it came to movies: “I always ask myself, ‘Is the movie that I am watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?’”
7. A Coin Toss Determined Whose Name Would Be Listed First In the Title
According to the Archive of American Television, Siskel and Ebert decided whose name would come first in the title of their new show by a coin toss. They originally planned to switch the order of their names every two years. But the title became so well-known that they decided not to change it.
Ebert described the tension-filled first days. Ebert wrote: “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, then here came Siskel with the arrogance to say I was wrong, or, for that matter, the condescension to agree with me.”
6. They Turned Audiences’ Attention Onto Some Independent Films and Documentaries
A bad review of the Fisher King led to a villain named Siskel in The Ref. Ahead of the 1992 Academy Awards, Siskel and Ebert ran a pre-Oscars special where they discussed that year’s nominees and Siskel announced The Fisher King, written by Richard LaGravenese, among the least deserving nominees. Two years later, while watching The Ref, also penned by LaGravenese, Siskel noticed something odd: The bad guy’s name was Siskel. “I think it’s a strange form of revenge,” Siskel said. “I don’t know that it’s the most effective form of protest. I think people may be waiting for a Roger Ebert joke after that.”
5. They Used To Have a Dog Sidekick, Then a Skunk
When they were first starting out, Siskel and Ebert used fun little gimmicks here and there. First, there was Spot the Wonder Dog, who helped the duo reveal the worst movie of the week (a.k.a. the “dog”). When asked about the canine, Ebert told The Washington Post, “You want the story of Spot, I’ll tell you the story of Spot. Spot was fired by PBS because of his salary demands. He was getting $40 a week.” Then came Aroma the skunk, who introduced the critics’ Stinker-of-the-Week.
The duo trademarked the phrase “Two Thumbs Up.” Siskel and Ebert popularized the idea of a thumbs up/thumbs down rating system, with “two thumbs up” being the holy grail for any filmmaker lucky enough to have his or her film reviewed by the duo. This practice strayed from the longstanding tradition of ratings with a number of stars or other symbols. As the show became more influential, studios would proudly advertise when their movie got “two thumbs up.”
4. The Balcony Seats Were Eventually Destroyed
Like many movie props before them, the balcony seats the film critics kept for so many years were eventually destroyed. Ebert was not happy. He wrote about how “one of the most iconic set ideas in … television history, which had survived for more than half of the life of the medium” and which he believed belonged in the Smithsonian were instead thrown “in a dumpster in the alley.”
Aside from movies, Gene Siskel was also an extreme Chicago Bulls fan. When asked to describe his favorite things about Chicago, he said “Mayor Daley” and “Michael Jordan.” Siskel was a season ticket holder and is often seen courtside at Bulls games. He occasionally did reporting and commentary on the Bulls for WBBM-TV, including interviewing a champagne-soaked Michael Jordan after their fourth championship victory.