Joyful Critic Joel Siegel, Gone at 63

The ABC News personality's long battle with cancer ends. He was 63.


June 29, 2007 — -- Surrounded by family and friends, ABC's beaming and insightful movie critic Joel Siegel has died in New York, after a long and remarkably courageous struggle with cancer, at the age of 63.

Both colleagues and fans delighted in his unique way of blending cheerful good humor and piercing critical acumen in reviews that made them instantly clear to anyone. You knew exactly what he thought — often with the bonus of a good laugh.

In a statement today, ABC News President David Westin said, "Joel was an important part of ABC News and we will miss him. He was a brilliant reviewer and a great reporter. But much more, he was our dear friend and colleague. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Siegel is survived by his young son, Dylan, and wife, Ena Swansea, an artist.

Joel Siegel's battle with colon cancer was borne with such astonishing courage and humor that he almost tricked his colleagues around the office into forgetting his struggle.

 Still at work only two weeks before his death, he had this reporter and several others chortling in an elevator over a line he was about to broadcast about there being so many new penguin movies lately that soon they would outnumber the penguins themselves.

 With his trademark style — a bright but very business-like cheerfulness — Joel Siegel delivered his swift judgments with a self-confidence and wit so finely phrased it made his reviews a pleasure to listen to just for the quick precision of his language.

 He was the master of the unambiguous thumbnail review, whether delivering flowers …

 — "The Pursuit of Happyness" gets a C for spelling and an A for acting. It could also get an Oscar for Will Smith."

  — "Letters from Iwo Jima" is the only contemporary film I've ever reviewed that I felt safe calling a masterpiece. It's not about the enemy, it's about humanity, and Clint Eastwood proves you don't have to understand the language to understand the heart."

 … or bombs:

 — "The appeal of Matthew McConaughey has long evaded me both as a pinup and as an actor. His constant ticks, bad hair and strained syntax as a coach fumble what should have been the tragic and inspirational story of the rebuilding of Marshall University's football team after a devastating plane crash."

"No one had more fun writing about a bad movie than Joel," said Dave Davis, president and general manager of WABC-TV, where Siegel signed on as movie and theater critic in 1976.

 Millions learned over the decades that they could trust his judgment and his concise common sense descriptions of movies, as he held forth from the the critic's chair — which, for the past quarter-century, he did on ABC's "Good Morning America," where he was a central member of its on-air family.

 With his unparalleled skill in capturing the sense of a movie in just one or two sentences, he also accomplished something thought impossible:


He conquered the infamous "critics' spoiler problem," managing to give potential moviegoers just as much as they needed to know to decide whether to see it, without spoiling the movie by giving too much away.

 And then, in a remarkable departure in the last few years of his life that added great depth to his life's work, he inspired his public with his clear-eyed realism and moral strength by publishing "Lessons for Dylan: From Father to Son."

 Written after learning at the age of 57 — and only two weeks after learning he would soon become a first-time father — that he had only a 70 percent chance of seeing the child born, the book recorded for his son all he'd want him to know, just in case he wasn't around to tell him in person.


 It proved to be a book with universal appeal, reflecting the concerns of any loving parent who's ever pondered what they should write down, just in case …

 Radiating what actress and producer Marlo Thomas called "the sheer magic of his indomitable spirit," Siegel's "Lessons for Dylan" tells of a vital life — and literally makes "his life an open book," telling even of his first wife, Jane, who died of brain cancer after six years of marriage, and of his sometimes complicated marriage to Dylan's mother, Ena Swansea.

 He tells of traveling, when he was a college student at UCLA, to Georgia to help out with voter registration and joining the marches of Martin Luther King — whom he met: "I was a civil rights worker … I'm really proud of that. I knew martin Luther King."

 He worked for the campaign of RFK, even wrote jokes for him, and was there at the assassination: "I was there that night, 20 feet from the entrance to the kitchen at L.A.'s old Ambassador Hotel. I heard the gunshots. I can still hear them."

 He also talks of his careers in advertising and radio, even as a Broadway playwright — during which he became the only drama critic ever to be nominated for a Tony — before settling into the critic's role he so obviously reveled in.

 Siegel delighted in sharing his own delight — notably in getting to know all the characters of Hollywood and virtually every Oscar winner for more than a quarter century.

 Born on July 7, 1943, in Los Angeles and raised there, he was literally at home as he shared moments with stars from Orson Welles to Halle Berry, all four Beatles to Morgan Freeman.

In 1991, along with actor Gene Wilder whose wife, comedienne Gilda Radner, had also died of cancer, Siegel founded Gilda's Club, a not-for-profit group that runs centers offering emotional and social support for cancer patients and their families and friends in a number of cities.

Siegel's honors include five New York Emmy Awards and the Public Service Award from B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League for "distinguished news reporting and commitment to freedom of the press."

Knowing his time could be short, he also wrote in "Lessons for Dylan" of his deep pride in his Jewish heritage. With the warm humor his friends and colleagues counted on, and his audience always intuited, he then laid out "A History of the Jews in Four Jokes." (Chapter 15).

 In explicating for his son the meaning of Joke Number One, Siegel ponders the possible differences between Jews, Christians and Muslims: "They communicate with God through an intermediary who might get it wrong. We get it wrong right from the source."

 Eyes sparkling, smile bursting to get out and pull you in whether encountered in the hallway or on the TV news set, Joel Siegel's wisdom and humor reached across all the boundaries with a proven and heartfelt humanity that kept reminding us we can all enjoy the passing parade together.

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