Siskel and Ebert Told Chevy Chase to His Face That ‘Three Amigos’ Sucked
You want to bash Chevy Chase? Get in line. Everyone from former castmates on Community and Saturday Night Live to battle-scarred movie directors have weighed in on Chase’s history of being terrible, but few of those complaints (save for Bill Murray’s) were made directly to Chase’s face. Who had the guts to say “Your comedy stinks” directly to Chevy? Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel did it on the most popular late-night show on television.
Siskel and Ebert were guests on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1986, according to an Entertainment Weekly excerpt of Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel and Ebert Changed Movies Forever. They immediately followed Chase, who was there to promote his new comedy Three Amigos. America’s most honest film critics following him was probably not Chase's idea.
The segment started out okay, with Carson and the two critics sharing some of their favorite Chase films. Chase had some fun with Ebert, doing old SNL schtick by mock-lip-syncing the reviewer’s pontificating behind his back. (Ebert was in on the joke.)
But things took a turn when the subject turned to all of the movies coming to theaters for the holidays. "I hate to ask you to pick a dog," Carson said, "because it's not fair sometimes to the people who make the movies. But is there something out there that is really so bad?"
“I can’t really recommend Three Amigos," said Ebert, sending publicists screaming since promoting that movie was the only reason Chase was sitting next to him in the first place. The studio audience was on Chase’s side and booed the critic — hey, it was only 1986 and Chase still had decades to build ill will — but that didn’t deter Ebert. “It’s the Christmas picture I like the least. This is kind of hard to say because Chevy Chase has made a lot of good movies and God willing he will make a lot more good movies in the future.”
That kind of candor put Ebert in direct contrast to some other critics of the time who would speak kindly of mediocre movies to win the approval of celebrities. “It didn’t matter that one of the film’s stars, Chevy Chase, was sitting right next to (Ebert),” says StopBenLyons.com creator Scott Johnson in Siskel and Ebert oral history Enemies, A Love Story. “Some people might consider that rude, but it would be hard to call Roger dishonest.”
Also getting points for honesty? According to Opposable Thumbs, Chase found Siskel and Ebert in their dressing rooms after the show. Unlike the Bill Murray dressing-room incident that ended in fisticuffs, Chase had a confession: He didn’t think Three Amigos was very good either.
"I got a lot of letters from that (Tonight Show appearance) — and generally when we’re on the Carson show, I don't get any letters," Ebert said in a later interview. "'How could you be so mean, how could you be so cruel, how could you be so rude?’ — that type of thing. But other people sent in letters saying, ‘It was refreshing to hear someone telling the truth on television for once.’ Siskel and I talked about this afterward and we thought that maybe the reaction to that helps explain why people are interested in the format of our show. They sense that we are actually telling the truth about what we think about the movies.”