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Singer’s 'Opposable Thumbs' is an entertaining history of Siskel & Ebert

Book cover of Matt Singer's new book: two men sitting in a theater watching a movie, a film projector light in background. Left side is a photo of the author, Matt Singer.
Clayton Rathiel, Penguin Random House
Matt Singer is the author of "Opposable Thumbs."

“Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever” shows how Siskel and Ebert influenced how we talk about the movies.

The story goes that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, film critics and hosts of the popular At The Movies with Siskel & Ebert television show, were so competitive that they even squabbled over what to order for lunch. The staff was so tired of the bickering, they forced the two men to get the same lunch every day: tuna salad in a pita with lettuce and tomato.

This is just one of the stories in writer Matt Singer’s new book Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever.

In a recent What We’re Reading interview, Singer noted the competition between Siskel and Ebert was legendary and began even before they agreed to do the show together. 

"If the two of them were still around … I mean, the Siskel & Ebert podcast alone — it would have been the ultimate."
Matt Singer, author of "Opposable Thumbs"

“They considered each other, like, mortal enemies. One would be the Yankees and the other would be the Red Sox. It was their job to beat the other at everything and anything,” he said.

The show eventually found its groove and was a hit, thanks to Siskel and Ebert’s competitive nature, which created compelling dialogue and energy between the two, even though they would grow to become genuine friends. 

Singer noted neither Siskel nor Ebert set out to become film critics. 

“They were not trained film critics,” he said. “They were film lovers from childhood but learned on the job.” 

Ebert, who worked at the Chicago Sun-Times, was one day simply offered a film critic job, while Siskel, then a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, decided he wanted the job when the current film critic was about to leave on a sabbatical. 

Siskel persuaded his editor to give him the job through a boldly written letter slipped under the editor’s door. Singer said, “It sounds very fanciful, but years later someone went in his personnel file and found the letter. So, it is a true story.”

Aside from tuning in to learn about new movies and to enjoy the lively debates between the two, Siskel & Ebert helped change how we watch and talk about movies. Siskel and Ebert themselves were witness to decades worth of movies, including many changes in cinematography and how we watch movies. 

Siskel died in 1999; Ebert in 2013. When asked how Siskel and Ebert would have fared as movie reviewers today, Singer wasn’t sure that the show would still be on the air. 

“But if the two of them were still around … I mean, the Siskel & Ebert podcast alone – it would have been the ultimate.” 

Check out the video below for an interview extra on Singer's favorite thing he learned while researching and writing the book!

Author Matt Singer

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Tammy works at Bemidji State University's library, and she hosts "What We're Reading," a show about books and authors.