It seems like everybody in America could recognize film critic Joel Siegel. He was the guy with the mustache on the network morning news show who reviewed films and provided comic relief, the guy who wasn’t the other guy like that, Gene Shalit.
That’s kind of how I thought about Joel Siegel when I first met him in 1984. When my employers at KABC in Los Angeles wanted someone to produce a half-hour with Joel in Las Vegas, they asked me if I’d do it and, of course, I said yes. This was Vegas, man!
The program, hazy as it is in my memory now, was an Oscar prequel hype where we would shoot his wrap-around stand-ups at a Las Vegas hotel (I’m thinking the old Tropicana) to demonstrate the horse-race aspect of the whole thing. As it turns out, Joel had a kind of love-hate relationship with Oscar predictions which my friend and Gold Derby analyst Tom O’Neil writes about
in his Los Angeles Times blog. Here’s a tease from Tom’s first-person account:
"Joel, being a celebrity, could be, well, a bit fickle. Sometimes he’d turn on the whole idea of Oscar punditry — vehemently, like a damning evangelist — and resign from GoldDerby in a huff. When I’d ask him why, he’d get all flustered, give me lots of babbling gibberish about how Oscar punditry cheapens the whole discourse of great films. Then he’d march away from me, cutting off further discussion with an abrupt waving of hands."
Of course, my brush with Joel was not the long-term relationship that Tom had, but a one-of-a-kind thing. I remember meeting Joel at the airport and sharing a seat next to him on the short hop to Vegas and hearing what he had planned. It was pretty clear that it was his show and I was there to tell the photog where to point the camera, to make sure the accomodations were okay and to run interference, if needed, with the hotel and fans. Not that I expected any more because, to Joel, I was the hired gun for the show. He was full of opinions, ideas, stories and it was clear he had a passion for films and the enthusiasm he brought to the screen was the real deal.
The shoot went just fine. Joel knew his lines, knew when he liked a take and we all just jammed the work out in short order. He was more than a film critic was the impression I came away with because he had a few withering remarks for everybody from the crew to the hotel but he was funny while doing it. Anyway, when you’re shining bright lights on a guy in a Vegas hotel, people notice. By the time we knocked off, everybody knew that Joel Siegel was there.
What I most remember about the night is that after we finished Joel ended up at a craps table for more than several hours, surrounded by at least a hundred people who would shout and scream and congratulate with every roll of the dice. Joel took the time to try to explain to me how craps works but, sadly, it seems not to have stuck. He sure knew, though, and, as I recall, he won a few hundred bucks that night.
Joel was, like all talent (including myself when I’ve been in front of the camera), a lot to handle when the pressure of being "on" during a deadline hits, but that’s no knock at all, but almost universal. I really liked him, even though I seem to have left him a little unsure about how he felt about me. After working with him, naturally, I never ever again thought of him as the "other" guy on the morning shows.
ABC News, of course, has some nice rememberances of him on their web-site today. I really enjoyed this page because it’s all first-person information, like what Tom O’Neil did and what I’ve tried to do. Here’s a parting selection from film colleague Roger Ebert.
"There were four kinds of e-mails from Joel: (1) Good news; (2) Bad news; (3) Encouragement involving your own problems, and (4) Jokes. Mostly we got jokes. If all else had failed, Joel could have been a stand-up comic; in early days, he was a joke writer for Robert Kennedy. On the other hand, he ran a voter registration program for Martin Luther King, Jr., in Macon, Georgia.’
From the first day I met him, when he was a network star and I was only, well, an out-of-towner, Joel was a friend. We worked the red carpet every year at the Oscars, interviewing each other when things got slow. Chaz and I had dinner with Joel and his wife, the well-known artist Ena Swansea, soon after he got the bad health news, but he wasn’t downbeat; he had hope and determination."
Bottom line, I really enjoyed Joel’s spirit both on and off camera. And I agreed with his reviews far more often than not. He was opinionated without being mean. Getting a good review from Joel was no crap shoot.