He was the fat one, Gene Siskel was the other one. That's how lots of us thought of them when they teamed up to review the movies and bicker with each other, though not necessarily in that order, back in the long ago ... when was it, the otherwise undistinguished Seventies?
They were fun to watch. They were habit-forming, those two, in part because Americans could still understand movie critics; they spoke English then, not artspeak. And though not all of us may have realized it, the movie was replacing the novel as the form of literature that bound Americans together, the new visual canon. You just went to the movies every Saturday night the way you always did, and you knew what Ebert & Siskel were talking about.
You were likely to have just as strong opinions as they did about the movies they reviewed. Indeed, their separate but equal reviews of those movies, and often enough their equal but opposite reactions to them, could be a lot more entertaining than the entertainment they were supposedly reviewing. Siskel & Ebert may have been the best double feature playing.
And then a not so funny thing happened to the fat one. And the thin one, too. Gene Siskel, usually the straight man, died of a brain tumor in 1999. He was 53. Roger Ebert developed cancer -- of the thyroid, salivary glands, chin, you name it, anything facial and he had it. Along with the surgery to combat it.
He could no longer eat or drink or speak. And he went from being amusing to being -- I can't think of a better word for it -- heroic. When he lost his voice, he found it. By writing better than he'd ever spoken. By writing about, among other things, his illness, his disfigurement, and the human condition. Without changing his personality or persona. Or his spirit. It remained the same, only deeper and finer. His death this week at 70 seemed beside the point, for he had overcome death years ago in his unsinkable life. Two thumbs up.