How Gene Siskel Became Movie Critic of the Chicago Tribune

by Owen Youngman

When I came to the Tribune in 1971, Gene was new enough as film critic that he was still establishing a routine. That meant I’d often see him padding around the Sunday room in his stocking feet late on a weekend night, working his way through his thoughts for the next review or, taking a break from those thoughts and challenging the overnight copy boys to a 2 a.m. poker game.

Many years later, we went to lunch at the Arts Club to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Gene’s arrival at the Trib. As we were reminiscing about those nights, he paused to tell all of the story (I heard it in bits and pieces before) of how he came to get the job of movie critic. It’s a classic, emblematic of both Gene and a newspaper culture that now is long gone.

"Cliff Terry had just won a Nieman," Gene said. (A Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University is one of the most prestigious honors in journalism—it means a year off from daily deadlines to devote to study.) "And so the idea was, that half-a-dozen people would write reviews while he was gone, in rotation, and, in a year, Cliff would be back."

But Gene had a different idea. Sure, he was only a reporter in "Neighborhood News"—sort of the Tribune’s boot camp for rookie writers—but he sensed an opportunity. Seven months before, he had stunned his aunt, uncle, and family, liberal Sun-Times readers all, by taking a job at the then-still-conservative Tribune. Now he was going to try something even more audacious, if utterly in character.

"Late one night, just a day or two before Cliff left," he continued, "I put some paper in my typewriter and wrote a memo to the Sunday editor. I told him how much the Tribune had to lose if there wasn’t a single voice reviewing movies, like all the other papers in town. And I told him it should be me.

"I put it in an envelope, put it on his chair, and went home. I didn’t really expect to hear anything about it, actually. But the next time I went to work, they called me in, asked me a couple of questions, and gave me the job!" Gene had applied for a job that didn’t exist—and gotten it.

It was more than a great story, it had the makings of legend. So I went back to the office to rummage through my files—specifically, the bulging "Gene Siskel" personnel folder in my credenza. And sure enough, there it was, in among the salary forms and his job application—the original, audacious, carefully argued, late-night memo that would change the course of movie reviewing in America.

The Tuesday after that Arts Club lunch, when Gene came in to file his "Flicks Picks" for the Friday section, I sidled up to him and slipped him the note (after photocopying it for the files, of course). "Recognize this?" I asked.

His eyes widened. "Unbelievable!" he almost shouted. Waving the piece of paper as characteristically as he might wag his index finger at Ebert, he went on: "You know, by now, sometimes I almost wondered if I really did this, or if I made it up. I guess this proves it."

Gene didn’t make it up. Instead, he made it happen, with an amazing combination of talent, hard work, competitiveness, occasional self-promotion, sound reasoning, and perfectionism.

Owen Youngman is a professor of digital media strategy at Northwestern University and is a member of Libertyville Covenant Church in Illinois.

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