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Playing Soccer, Smoking Pot With Gene Siskel

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 5, 2010 4:40PM

photo by Alan Light
We recently talked with Chicago-born author Barry Gifford about the omnibus release of The Sailor & Lula Novels, a cycle of seven books which begins with Wild at Heart. We'll be posting the main portion of that interview soon, but an out-of-left-field reminiscence about Gene Siskel deserves its own entry.

It all started innocuously enough when we asked Gifford to confirm a story we'd read that the future author and the future film critic had played cricket together during college.

Barry Gifford: It wasn't cricket. It was soccer. I did a term at King's College, at Cambridge University in 1966. And one of the Americans there was Gene Siskel. Now Gene and I had actually gone to kindergarten together, at Clinton School. It was one of the times when my mother had left me with my grandmother, so I went to kindergarten there in the neighborhood. And Siskel was also in kindergarten.

Well, we hadn't seen each other since kindergarten. And he had gone to Yale. We played on the American soccer team at Cambridge. I remember that year. He was the goalie. He was a very funny guy because he used to refer to himself as The Unit. That was the name he had for himself. And he kept a diary. And he would write in the diary, you know, "The Unit arose at 6am. The Unit brushed his teeth. The Unit put his socks on one at a time." You know, whatever the hell he was doing. He was really funny. I remember when we were all smoking pot, and stuff like that, he would sit in the room but he would sit in a chair, a little bit away from us, taking notes. But not smoking any reefer himself. Just sort of writing about it. There already he was the critic, reviewing whatever it was. That's all there was to that. And then I didn't see him again until 1990 at Cannes.

Chicagoist: Was that when Wild at Heart was there?

BG: Yes. What happened was--I was in Cannes with David Lynch and Monty Montgomery, the producer, and others. They were preparing the movie over at the Palais. We were going to show it at 1 o'clock in the morning. Just to have a run through and make sure that everything was okay for the showing the next night. Monty said to me, "Look, would you go to the terrace of the Majestic Hotel at midnight and meet the Chicago Tribune critic, Gene Siskel, and his wife? And bring then over here to the theater." Not knowing that I had had any association with Gene Siskel in my life.

Well, Siskel was a big champion of Lynch's films at that time and Ebert was not. In any case I didn't say anything, that I knew Gene. So I went over there, and I was on the terrace of the Majestic Hotel at Cannes, and in walked Siskel, who I recognized of course but who I had not seen since 1966. And prior to that, not since kindergarten. He was with his wife. I got up and I said, "Unit! Hey, Unit! Over here!" And at first I didn't think he recognized me. But he looked over. And he saw me and he just lifted his arm and he pointed at me and said, "You!" Because before then he hadn't really put together Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart, you know what I mean?

So we just had a big laugh. And he introduced me to his wife and we reminisced and had a drink on the terrace, and then I took him over to the theater and he watched the movie with us. There were only about six or seven of us. And that was really pretty funny. He was sitting two or three seats down from me, separated from me, he just kept looking over and shaking his head and laughing. Because here we'd come together again in this unlikely circumstance. We didn't really speak after the movie because his wife was really shaken up by the movie. People don't realize it now, but it was a pretty groundbreaking film--it was pretty shocking for people at the time. She was really overwhelmed by the film, and he sort of had to help her out. I remember that very well. But we didn't talk a lot. We probably said a couple of words and that was it. And the reason he was allowed to see it that night was because he had to leave France the next day, and he couldn't stay to see it the following night. And then I never saw Gene again. I just never ran into him again. He did give Wild at Heart a good review.

Keep your eyes peeled for the rest of our interview later this month.