Siskel isn’t an extraordinarily common name. So when movie critic Gene Siskel went to see “The Ref” at a sneak preview in Chicago last weekend and heard one of the minor, seedier characters repeatedly referred to by that name, it struck him a little funny, like it must be some kind of in-joke allusion to himself.
Little did he know how right he was.
Richard LaGravenese, the co-writer and co-producer of “The Ref,” named the character--a military school instructor who gets blackmailed over some incriminating dirty pictures--after Siskel specifically as revenge for comments the critic made about an earlier script of his. Any physical similarities between Siskel and actor J.K. Simmons, who plays the balding blackmailee, are also anything but coincidental.
What was Siskel’s sin, the one that won him this screen immortality? Two years ago, on the annual “Siskel & Ebert” Oscar preview telecast, he picked LaGravenese’s screenplay nomination for “The Fisher King” as the least deserving of all the nods in the major categories. “I thought it was overwrought,” Siskel recalls now.
Watching the movie last weekend, he wasn’t prepared for the reverse homage. “It was a very strange feeling, sitting in a theater and hearing your name called out on the big screen. It’s not like it could have been (referring to) anyone else. I had no idea why my name was chosen.”
LaGravenese relayed through a Disney publicist that he had decided not to publicly comment about his use of Siskel’s name, other than to confirm the story behind why he picked it.
When The Times informed Siskel of the reason for the “Ref” reference, he seemed bewildered that LaGravenese would go to the trouble.
“I think it’s a strange form of revenge . . . 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.”
Not having yet written his review of “The Ref,” Siskel wouldn’t say what he thought of it, but did allow himself a casting complaint.
“My only disappointment was that Jack Nicholson didn’t play my character,” Siskel says. “I wonder if he passed.”