'Life Itself' Remembers the Humble Beginnings of Siskel and Ebert

Matt McDaniel
Managing Editor
Yahoo Movies

Opening Soon at a Theater Near You is a pretty unwieldy title for a TV show — even a movie review one produced by a Chicago PBS affiliate — which is why after two seasons it was changed to the catchier Sneak Previews.  And it was under this new name that the show — hosted by local film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel — began airing to a national audience and turned this unlikely pair into household names.

In this clip from Life Itself, director Steve James’s new documentary about Ebert, it’s clear that even on their very first episode in September of 1975 the elements that would make the show an institution were already in place. Never mind that neither host had TV-friendly looks: there is something electric in seeing the shaggy-headed Ebert and mustachioed Siskel awkwardly seated on director’s chairs and reading off clipboards.

Producer Thea Flaum recalls: “It was stiff and wooden, but there was something there. It was interesting to hear two people who knew what they were talking about talking about a movie.”

[Related: Roger Ebert’s 5 Most Surprising Best-Movie Picks]

The pair did have the good fortune of having a classic movie — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — to review on their first show. The drama had just premiered the week before at the 11th annual Chicago International Film Festival (for perspective, the festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year). While the two critics would later become famous for their fiery disagreements, they both had positive, if not quite gushing, things to say about the film. Ebert said in the show, “It’s a little bit of a disappointing film, I think. It wasn’t quite the overwhelming experience that I expected.” Though he did accurately predict that Jack Nicholson would win his first Oscar for it (the movie won five overall, including Best Picture).

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in 1983
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in 1983

Siskel and Ebert appeared on Sneak Previews on PBS until 1982, then they moved their show to syndication until Siskel’s death in 1999. Ebert’s own battle with cancer forced him to leave the show in 2006. Director Steve James (whose film Hoop Dreams was selected by both Siskel and Ebert as the best film of 1994) filmed Ebert during his final months for Life Itself, and he used the audiobook recording of Ebert’s memoir as the narration for the movie.

Life Itself will be in select theaters and available on demand on July 4.

See if Life Itself is playing near you on our Showtimes and Tickets page.

Photo Credit: Kevin Horan (1983)/Magnolia Pictures