The recent announcement that Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper were severing ties with "At the Movies" brought back a flood of memories for me, going all the way back to the early 1980s.

That's when the original predecessor to "At the Movies" — a PBS program called "Sneak Previews" — was airing nationally (after starting out as a local Chicago show).

"Sneak Previews" gave Ebert his first national stage, along with his partner Gene Siskel (who died in 1999, which eventually led to Roeper coming onboard).

Siskel and Ebert — or Siskbert, as show-biz insiders began to refer to them — had a huge impact on the television landscape, as well as American film criticism.

At one point there were no less than three movie-review shows on national TV, though the competition failed to rise to the level of those two Chicago newspaper guys verbally sparring over the latest releases.

Of course, it helped that they had been working at competing papers for several years — Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times and Siskel at the Chicago Tribune. They knew each other well, they had chemistry, they were both witty and articulate, and they knew their stuff.

Most important, they loved movies, and it showed.

When Siskel and Ebert both gave a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" to the same movie, it made for a lively discussion. And when they disagreed, it was electric, funny and sometimes even suspenseful. (Would they actually come to blows?)

Their success also opened the door for local movie critics around the country ... for good or ill. Good because it encouraged better moviemaking and thoughtful moviegoing. Ill because sound-bite equivalents to the "thumb" reviews replaced thoughtful analysis.

Personally, it gave me a career. In 1982 I somehow talked KSL-TV into hiring me as the station's movie critic, a post I held for 13 years (while I was also the movie critic for the Deseret News). I had no previous TV experience — but I loved movies, I was passionate about them (still am), and it was enough to carry me through.

Without Siskel and Ebert, however, it wouldn't have happened.

Of course, my local success in Salt Lake City couldn't even approach theirs. But I had a good run, riding on their coattails.

Sadly, Siskel is gone, and Ebert has been off the air for a couple of years due to a bout with cancer. And watching the new incarnation of "At the Movies" with E! Entertainment's Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz provides renewed respect for the talent of Ebert and Siskel.

Mankiewicz seems to know his movies, but Lyons is glib and unwatchable, while the show itself feels rushed, cluttered and overedited. ("At the Movies" airs at midnight Sunday ... or is that Monday morning? ... on Ch. 5 — but I'm guessing, not for long.)

But don't take my word for it. Although the atthemoviestv.com Web site is dominated by the two Bens, if you want to see Siskel & Ebert in their heyday, go into the archives and search for a movie from the past 30 years. It's a blast from the past.

And thankfully Ebert is still reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times. Whether you just want intelligent, captivating writing, or simply informed opinions about the movies, check out his Web site at rogerebert.com.


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