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Ebert and Siskel: Partners shared unique relationship

By Sid Smith, Special to the Tribune

6:21 PM EDT, April 4, 2013

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This is a feature story from 1999. At the time, Sid Smith was a Tribune Arts Critic.

 

On the day of Gene Siskel's funeral, Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel suggested that the on-air chemistry between Siskel and Roger Ebert defied analysis.

“He'd sometimes refer to me as his first wife,” Ebert said in an interview the same day. They were, in a professional sense, married; theirs was a public partnership that, although ending in tragedy, enjoyed an astonishing 24-year run.

Other celebrated media and entertainment duos have ended over the years, for whatever reasons, forcing one or both partners to go it on their own. (For now, Ebert plans to continue “Siskel & Ebert” with a series of guest co-hosts.) Think Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, Sonny and Cher, Lucy and Desi or Lewis and Martin. Separation is but one of the ups and downs, challenges and pitfalls unique to the public partnership.

“It's like a marriage through your job,” says Eliot Ephraim, an attorney with Ephraim & Associates, lawyers and agents for Siskel and Ebert, along with a handful of radio duos. “When two people team up like that, you face a lot of the issues people face in a marriage: financial, emotional, social, all over the map. They naturally come up when you have two people whose livelihoods depend on each other.

“It's sometimes a question of having two people come to one mind, and that's not always the easiest thing.”

The path is strewn with breakups. Lewis and Martin spent a decade together before an unpleasant split in 1956. They had no public appearances together for another 20 years until Martin, at Frank Sinatra's instigation, showed up on Lewis' 1976 telethon. The pair never really restored their friendship.

In a completely different scenario, George Burns and Gracie Allen enjoyed radio and TV stardom as a couple, Burns the straight man to Allen's daffy persona. But when Allen retired and later died, Burns struggled for years, trying out short-lived partnerships with other women before finally regaining credibility thanks to the 1977 movie “Oh, God.” Burns proved you can outlive a partnership, as did Lewis and Martin. But it ain't easy.

“I'm probably the poster boy for partnerships,” jokes radio's Garry Meier, teamed for 15 years with Steve Dahl at multiple stations and for the last three years with Roe Conn at WLS-AM 890. “It's funny you're asking me about this in the context of Gene's death, because right after Steve and I broke up, I went with Gene and Roger to a Bulls game and asked them how they had managed to succeed together for so long.

“They said, first, you've got to be equal in money, preferably from the outset, or that will some day rear its ugly head, as it did with Steve and me. Second, they said you might be professionally competitive, but you must respect each other. I asked Penn Jillette the same thing, about his partnership with Teller, and he said you might have shouting matches, you might disagree, but if you treat each other with respect and as equals, you can work things out.”

Though there had been some talk of a Dahl-Meier reunion, Meier in fact signed a deal last week to return to WLS. Indeed, both radio personalities still sound apart on the issues that divided them. Both admit they've barely spoken in the six years since their 1993 separation.

But in one of those moments death sometimes inspires, Dahl (who's currently solo on WCKG-FM 105.9) approached Meier at Siskel's funeral. “We'd run into each other at the airport some years ago and sat there without saying a word,” Meier says. “At the funeral, he came up and shook my hand.”

“When Gene died, I started thinking about this subject a great deal,” Dahl explains, “trying to figure out what happened to Garry and me. Gene and Roger started out competitors, maybe not liking each other, and grew to be quite close. Garry and I started out liking each other and grew apart.”

Both ex-partners at times sound conflicted, regretful and conciliatory, aware of how linked they were in the mind of the public.

“I wish it could have ended better,” Dahl says. “I think I approached him at Gene's funeral in part because it seemed a good time to get some of that all behind me. I've had trouble letting go.”

“Sometimes when people ask me why didn't it last, I say, `Fifteen years was a pretty good run,' “ Meier says. “Many partners don't reach anywhere near that.”

And like any marriage, breaking up is hard to do: “I did a year on radio by myself,” Meier says, “and I found I could almost imagine listeners waiting for Steve to talk when I'd take a pause. You get so used to that rhythm. People get comfortable with that team dynamic.”

“When you break up, no matter what the ratio is, it's 50-50 in the public's mind,” Dahl says. “It took me five years to fight through that. People think you're missing half of what you are. Look at John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They did have a synergy together that made them better.”

“If there's a split,” notes attorney Ephraim, “nobody looks good.”

When Lewis and Martin split, a lot of observers believed Jerry would bomb and Dino would survive -- that the former's juvenile shtick would fall flat without the latter's suavity. In fact, both survived. Lewis directed and starred in hits for decades (in recent years in “Damn Yankees”), and Martin managed years as a singer, movie actor and host of his own TV variety show.

A sadder fate awaited Abbott and Costello, the most successful movie comedy team of the '40s who split in 1956. By himself, Lou Costello made only one picture, the forgettable “The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock” just before his 1959 death. Bud Abbott briefly lent his voice to a 1966 cartoon series inspired by the duo.

Occasionally, teams hit, split and come back together. In the 1950s in Chicago, University of Chicago students Mike Nichols and Elaine May met and launched one of the funniest comic duos in modern show business. But in the '60s they split, both turning to directing and writing. Nichols in particular enjoyed huge success directing “The Odd Couple” on the stage and acclaimed films including “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” May's directing efforts include “The Heartbreak Kid” and “A New Leaf” (in which she also co-starred).

Almost against the odds, the team reunited in the 1990s, with Nichols directing and May writing the screenplays for “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors.”

Kathy O'Malley and Judy Markey, a midday duo for the last eight years on WGN-AM 720, give another view of partnership.

“We took out life insurance on each other a couple of months ago,” O'Malley says. “We both felt we were boring on the radio without each other, that the chemistry is a third of the equation . . .”

“. . . And we're too old to make a new friend,” Markey injects.

For now, both women are sold on partnership.

“In my professional life, I've always been part of a team,” O'Malley says. “For me, the positives outweigh the negatives. It's sharing the load, having someone understand what you do. I'm bad at being married, but good at being a partner.”

“I'm not a collaborative person by nature,” Markey says. “It's why I'd never write a screenplay. Too many people mess with your work. But since I was terrified of the radio domain, it was nice to have someone walk into it with you who was supportive.”

“Occasionally, we have shows with guest co-hosts, and it's different,” O'Malley says. “It's just not as much fun.”

“Around here we're referred to as `the girls,' “ Markey says without a hint of objection. “We're seen as one.”