Gene Siskel: 1945-1999

Thumbs Up For A Gentle Man:

It isn’t every day that a news flash comes over your car radio saying that your friend has just died. But that’s what happened to me on Saturday.

The reason I’m telling you is that you knew him, too, in a way. He was Gene Siskel, the film critic for the Chicago Tribune and half of the team of Siskel & Ebert.

Gene and I were classmates at Yale (class of ’67). Our class has its share of celebrities (poet Paul Monette, composer Maury Yeston, conducter John Mauceri, New York Governor George Pataki and Clinton defender Lanny Davis, to name a few), but Gene was easily the most famous.

And yet he never thought of himself as The Great Gene Siskel. Let me tell you from painful personal experience, it’s all too easy to let celebrity go to your head. But Gene never succumbed to that temptation.

I used to see him whenever he and Ebert came to town on a promotional tour, and I marveled at the way he always treated everyone – down to the humblest gofer who was fetching him a cup of coffee – with infinite kindness and courtesy. I don’t know what the opposite of “prima donna” is, but Gene was it. I’ll leave it to others to assess his place in the history of film criticism. (Although it’s this layman’s guess that he ranks at the very top, right up there with James Agee and Pauline Kael.) But as a human being, the verdict is already in. He was that all-too-rare commodity these days, a gentleman.

All the more remarkable when you consider that he had a childhood straight out of Dickens. He was orphaned before he was 10, and was raised by relatives who packed him off to a military academy. It must have been a terribly lonely life for a little boy; and, although he never talked about it, I’ve always thought that was why he lavished such love on his own children, and why he always championed family values in his movie reviews.

Since his passing on Saturday, I’ve been getting e-mails from our classmates, all of whom echo the same feeling: This is like a death in the family.

One of those is Barry Bardo, who was the chairman of our 25th Class Reunion. The highlight of that reunion, the one event everyone was looking forward to, was to be Gene’s multimedia presentation on “Scorcese, Spielberg and Lucas.”

But just hours before the event, Barry discovered Gene and two assistants still feverishly working on the final technical preparations.

“He seemed surprisingly nervous for someone who makes his living in front of television cameras,” recalls Barry. “I suggested that he had no reason to be nervous, because his classmates and their families were very much rooting for him. And he said, ‘I’ve got to do my best for these guys, because they’re the ones who matter most to me.’

“As the hall was filling with eager audience members, Gene opened his briefcase and pulled out a handful of envelopes. He took the wad of letters, walked over to a group of old friends, and said, ‘These are what helped me get through the Army during the Viet Nam war.’ He wanted his friends to know how much their letters meant to him at the time, and ever since, because he had saved them for more than twenty years.”

P.S. Needless to say, Gene’s presentation that night was a tour de force: brilliant, charming, informative and deeply personal.

The week before, he had been a guest on the last week of “The Tonight Show” before Johnny Carson’s retirement. And the next week, he was due to be a guest on the show again when Jay Leno took over. “But you know what?” he told Barry. “I don’t give a (deleted) what those people think of me. But I care very much about what you guys think of me.”

But let’s let Gene have the last word. It’s a Yale tradition to have everyone write a little essay for the 25th Reunion Yearbook. I’m too embarrassed to tell you what I wrote; it was so full of hubris and self-importance. But Gene wrote about some precious wisdom he received from his College Master, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey. Gene wrote:

“The best part of my Yale education may have been a graduation week lunch I had with Mr. Hersey. He gave me three pieces of advice that I have passed along to thousands of other students at various graduations:

  1. “Don’t do anything for money. In America if you do anything well, money will follow — if you want it.
  2. “Have more than one career. Don’t be trapped into working for one company, in one profession for your entire life.
  3. “Don’t view life as a test on which you can get a perfect score. Life is problems. Therefore don’t be unhappy when you’re unhappy. Strive for and appreciate moments of serenity, a much more reasonable goal.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hersey.”

Thank you, Mr. Siskel.

– Martin M. Snapp, Jr.