Siskel and Ebert
The new book by Matt Singer
Long before the invention of the Tomatometer, millions of moviegoers decided what to see and what to skip based solely on the positions of Gene Siskel’s and Roger Ebert’s thumbs. A more unlikely pair of TV celebrities is hard to imagine, but thanks to their incisive opinions and epic verbal sparring matches, the dueling duo revolutionized film criticism and became media icons in the process. Now, their improbable rise to fame is chronicled in Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever, the first comprehensive history of the twenty-four-year-long partnership.
Written by award-winning editor and film critic Matt Singer, the book — to be published October 24 — covers everything from their bitter rivalry as Chicago newspaper critics to the cringingly awkward early TV episodes to the remarkable impact their Emmy-nominated series had on the way we discuss movies.
“To me and a lot of people, Siskel and Ebert were the perfect gateway to film criticism,” Singer says. “There were other critics on television at the time, but it was always just a single person talking directly at the camera. Siskel and Ebert’s innovation was to turn that monologue into a dialogue, and viewers really responded to that.”
After their show debuted on Chicago’s PBS station in 1975 as Opening Soon ... at a Theater Near You (renamed Sneak Previews with a 1977 syndication deal), the two critics created At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in 1982. But it was their memorable appearances on network talk shows that truly launched them into stardom.
“Their early guest spots on Late Night with David Letterman, in particular, became an important advertisement for their brand,” Singer says. “They had certain qualities that gave them a huge advantage. For example, if one of them rambled on or froze, the other would always jump in and make fun of them, which turned every flub into great television.”
Framing the duo’s groundbreaking show as a precursor to modern reality TV, Singer paints a revealing portrait of Siskel and Ebert as two brash and highly competitive journalists whose unscripted televised arguments frequently exploded into off- camera hostility. “They had a unique relationship and an amazing chemistry, and part of that was because they genuinely disliked each other, especially in the beginning,” he says. “Of course, they eventually came to respect and begrudgingly like one another, but they were still often very combative on the show, almost until the very end, and I tried hard to capture that spirit and energy in the book.”
This article originally appeared in emmy Magazine issue #10, 2023, under the title "All Thumbs."