13 Facts About Siskel and Ebert At the Movies

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YouTube

While 1986 was a big year for films—with a varied slate of movies including Top Gun, Platoon, Back to School, Aliens, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off dominating the box office—it was an even bigger year for film critics. On September 13, 1986, Siskel and Ebert and the Movies (which was later renamed Siskel and Ebert At the Movies) made its television debut, and turned arguing about films into a national pastime.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST TIME GENE SISKEL AND ROGER EBERT DISAGREED ABOUT MOVIES ON TELEVISION.

Throughout its lifespan, what eventually became known as At the Movies adopted (and discarded) a variety of titles. Though the iconic film review series began its run on September 13, 1986 as Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, it wasn’t the first time Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had collaborated on a television program. From 1975 to 1982, the two critics had co-hosted the PBS series Sneak Previews. And yes, they often disagreed about the quality of the movies they reviewed.

2. A COIN TOSS DETERMINED WHOSE NAME WOULD BE LISTED FIRST IN THE TITLE.

According to the Archive of American Television, Siskel and Ebert determined whose name would come first in the title of their new show in the fairest, most democratic way they knew how: a coin toss.

3. THEY USED TO HAVE A DOG SIDEKICK, THEN A SKUNK.

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For all their intelligent opinions about movies, Siskel and Ebert weren’t above using a fun little gimmick here and there—going all the way back to Sneak Previews. First there was Spot the Wonder Dog, who helped the duo declare the worst movie of the week (a.k.a. the “dog”). When asked about the canine cineaste, Ebert told The Washington Post, "You want the story of Spot, I'll tell you the story of Spot. Spot was fired by PBS because of his salary demands. He was getting $40 a week." There were other dogs, and then Aroma the skunk, who introduced the critics’ Stinker-of-the-Week.

4. THEY TRADEMARKED THE PHRASE “TWO THUMBS UP.”

Siskel and Ebert popularized the concept of a thumbs up/thumbs down rating system, with “two thumbs up” being the holy grail for any filmmaker lucky enough to have his or her film reviewed by the duo. To maintain the sanctity of that glowing accolade, Siskel and Ebert trademarked the phrase. "We made television history, and established the trademarked catch-phrase 'Two thumbs up,'” Ebert once explained.

5. DISNEY CLAIMED THAT EBERT FORCED THEM TO PULL THOSE THUMBS DURING ONE HEATED CONTRACT NEGOTIATION.

In 2007, Disney-ABC Domestic Television issued a statement claiming that Ebert had forced them to pull the thumbs from the show (which, by that time, was At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper) in the midst of a contract negotiation. In response, Ebert claimed that he "had made it clear the Thumbs could remain during good-faith negotiations," despite what the press release said. He went on to explain that, "They made a first offer on Friday which I considered offensively low. I responded with a counteroffer. They did not reply to this, and on Monday ordered the Thumbs removed from the show. This is not something I expected after an association of over 22 years.” When Ebert eventually ended his association with the show, the thumbs went with him.

6. THEIR FREQUENT DISAGREEMENTS WERE THE SHOW’S MAIN DRAW.

Any fan of Siskel and Ebert and the Movies can tell you that some of its best moments came when the critics were in serious disagreement about a movie. And while the critics themselves knew that their frequent differences of opinion were one of the show’s main draws, their relationship was based on fierce mutual respect.

“Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks,” Ebert wrote on the 10th anniversary of his longtime partner’s passing. “Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility. But we were aware. If something happened that we both thought was funny but weren't supposed to, God help us if one caught the other's eye. We almost always thought the same things were funny. That may be the best sign of intellectual communion.”

7. THEY FOUGHT HARDER FOR EACH OTHER THAN THEY DID AGAINST EACH OTHER.

Though Ebert acknowledged that he and Siskel often disagreed on movies, when it came to real life, they always had each other’s backs. “In my darkest and moodiest hours, when all my competitiveness and resentment and indignation were at a roiling boil, I never considered [going our separate ways],” Ebert wrote. “I know Gene never did either. We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing. 'You may be an a**hole,' Gene would say, 'but you're my a**hole.' If we were fighting—get out of the room. But if we were teamed up against a common target, we were fatal. When we were on his show, Howard Stern never knew what hit him. He picked on one of us, and we were both at his throat."

8. IN ADDITION TO REVIEWING MOVIES, THEY TALKED ABOUT THE STATE OF MOVIEMAKING.

Though reviews were their main business, Siskel and Ebert worked hard to develop an appreciation for the art of cinema itself in their viewers. In an editorial for Film Comment in 1990, Ebert reminded readers of the many themed issues he and Siskel had produced where they delved into issues facing moviemakers of the day, including the colorization of films, the virtues of letterboxing, the art of black-and-white cinematography, and why the MPAA was the same as censorship.

"Siskel & Ebert was the first, and often the only, television show of any kind to deal with many of these subjects,” Ebert wrote. “It would be fair to say that most mainstream Americans who have formed an opinion on colorization and letterboxing were inspired to do so because of our program. (Video retailers say the Siskel & Ebert program on letterboxing caused a noticeable swing in the opinions of their customers on the subject.)"

9. THEY FILMED AN EPISODE IN BLACK AND WHITE.

To illustrate that aforementioned point about black and white cinematography, Siskel and Ebert filmed an entire episode in black and white.

10. THEY TURNED AUDIENCES ON TO A NUMBER OF INDEPENDENT FILMS AND DOCUMENTARIES.

While much of the show was dedicated to major Hollywood movies, Siskel and Ebert made a point to review smaller films, including foreign films, arthouse movies, and documentaries. Many people credit the critics with pointing audiences toward the documentary Hoop Dreams, and they were very early champions of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. (Ebert was also a huge fan of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me.)

"They'll talk about art-house films I wouldn't have fathomed seeing, like Heavenly Creatures, and I will give them the benefit of the doubt and go see or rent them," one twenty-something film fan told the Los Angeles Times. "But they could say what they want about Interview With the Vampire or Desperado, and a pack of wolves couldn't keep me away from either. There are some actors I will see anything that they do." (We're thinking she was an Antonio Banderas fan.)

11. A BAD REVIEW OF THE FISHER KING LED TO A VILLAIN NAMED SISKEL IN THE REF.

Ahead of the 1992 Academy Awards, Siskel and Ebert ran a pre-Oscars special in which they discussed that year’s nominees and Siskel declared Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, written by Richard LaGravenese, among the least deserving nominees. "I thought it was overwrought," Siskel told the Los Angeles Times.

Two years later, while at a press screening of Ted Demme’s The Ref, also penned by LaGravenese, Siskel noticed something odd: The bad guy’s name was Siskel. The critic had no idea why the screenwriter would have any ill will toward him, until LaGravenese confirmed through a publicist his reasons for using Siskel’s name.

"I think it's a strange form of revenge,” Siskel said. “I don't know that it's the most effective form of protest. He may have sabotaged those scenes in which it's used, dramatically, by causing you to suspend disbelief by bringing the 'reality' of my name into the mix. I think people may be waiting for a Roger Ebert joke after that." (Always a critic.)

12. SISKEL LIKED JOHN WOO’S BROKEN ARROW, UNTIL EBERT DIDN’T.

One of the duo’s most memorable reviews was, ironically, of a pretty unmemorable movie: John Woo’s Broken Arrow. It marked the only time on the series where Siskel changed his opinion (and the direction of his thumb) after hearing Ebert’s take on a film. He changed his thumbs up to a thumbs down on the air to make it a unanimous stinker.

But it wasn’t the only time that one of the critics swayed the other to a new way of thinking about a movie. “I was far more enthusiastic about Babe than Roger was, and he’s come around,” Siskel told Entertainment Weekly in 1996, before explaining that he “was sort of on the fence about Broken Arrow, and when he made his comments, right then and there I turned my thumb down.” Ebert had his mind changed, too. “I changed my mind on Unforgiven,” he said in the same interview. “I gave it only two-and-a-half stars [in the Chicago Sun-Times]. I wasn’t thinking very well when I reviewed that.”

13. THE BALCONY SEATS WERE EVENTUALLY DESTROYED.

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Like many movie props before them, the balcony seats the film critics occupied for so many years were eventually destroyed. Ebert was not happy. He wrote about how “one of the most iconic set ideas in ... television history, which had survived for more than half of the life of the medium”—and which he believed belonged in the Smithsonian—were instead thrown “in a dumpster in the alley.”

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

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Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

Buy it: Amazon

8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

Buy it: Amazon

9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

Buy it: Amazon

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.