Critic, journalist, author, playwright. Born on July 7, 1943, in Los Angeles, California. Known for his wit and warm personality, Joel Siegel shared his latest film reviews and conducted interviews with numerous film stars on Good Morning America for more than 25 years. Staying in his hometown, he went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he studied history. In 1965, he spent some time as a civil rights worker in Macon, Georgia. There he worked on a voter registration drive and marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That same year Siegel graduated cum laude from UCLA.
After college, Siegel worked as a freelance writer, contributing stories to such publications as Rolling Stone and articles to the Los Angeles Times. He even worked as a joke writer for Senator Robert F. Kennedy and was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night that Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. Also around this time, Siegel worked for an advertising agency as a copywriter and producer. One of his projects involved developing names for Baskin-Robbins ice cream. In addition to his professional career, Siegel served in the United States Army Reserves from 1967 to 1973.
Beginning his career as a broadcast journalist, Siegel worked as a radio newscaster for KMET-FM in Los Angeles in 1972. Later that year, he made the move to New York City and to television. Siegel joined the staff of a local CBS affiliate as a correspondent. After four years with the station, he became a film and theater reviewer for a competitor, WABC-TV. The first film he reviewed was reportedly Magic starring Anthony Hopkins, according to the Los Angeles Times. A well-respected critic, Siegel received five New York Emmy Awards for his work. He also hosted a show on the Academy Awards, an event he would cover extensively for the rest of his career.
In 1981, Siegel brought his reviews and his trademark moustache to a national audience as a correspondent and entertainment editor for Good Morning America. Outside of the show, he proved to be a creative talent in his own right. Siegel wrote the book for the musical The First about African-American baseball great, Jackie Robinson, which premiered in the fall of 1981. The next year, he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Book of a Musical.
While his career was soaring, Siegel was struggling with a personal tragedy. His first wife, Jane Kessler, a film editor at CBS, had a brain tumor and died in 1982. The couple had been married since 1976. He remarried three years later, but his union with Melissa Nina De Mayo later ended in divorce.
Siegel became an active supporter of cancer-related causes. In 1991, Siegel helped found Gilda’s Club, an organization that provides support to cancer patients and their families. The group’s name comes from comedienne Gilda Radner, a friend of Siegel and the wife of actor Gene Wilder. She died from ovarian cancer in 1989.
No matter what was happening off camera, Siegel was a rare reviewer and correspondent. He never spoiled a film’s ending for viewers and seemed to always try to find at least one positive thing to say about a film. A skilled interviewer, Siegel talked with many of the leading figures in entertainment, including Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, and Halle Berry.
Siegel married artist Ena Swansea in 1996. The newlyweds experienced both joy and heartbreak the next year. Siegel was diagnosed with colon cancer around the same time as his wife learned she was pregnant with their first child. At the age of 54, he was tackling cancer treatments along with preparing for fatherhood. Siegel underwent surgery and chemotherapy and later welcomed son Dylan into the world.
Having cancer changed his outlook on life. “You learn what’s important, you learn to prioritize, and you learn not to waste your time,” Siegel told People magazine in 2001. He became a tireless crusader against colon cancer, sharing much of his struggle with television viewers, encouraging people to get the proper screening, and even appearing before Congress on the issue.
Aware of his mortality, Siegel started writing down all of the advice and stories he wanted to pass down to Dylan. As an older father and a cancer patient, he had no idea how long he would have with his child. The result was the funny and heartfelt Lessons for Dylan: From Father to Son (2003). In the book, he told his son among other things about his previous marriages, his Jewish heritage, the people he interviewed, and even included a glossary of Yiddish words. Siegel also offered his son sage counsel for the years ahead, such as this line about being bullied, “if you fight back and get hit, it hurts a little while; if you don’t fight back it hurts forever.”
While his book received positive reviews, Siegel could not think of a good thing to say about Kevin Smith’s 2006 film Clerks II. He and the filmmaker got into a well-publicized argument after Siegel walked out of a showing of the film. According to reports, Siegel made a noisy exit about 40 minutes after the show started during a discussion of bestiality. He reportedly loudly exclaimed to the rest of the audience that it was the first time in 30 years that he had walked out of a movie. Other critics rebuked Siegel for not doing his job, which was to sit through the film.
In 2007, Siegel began losing his battle with cancer. Always the professional, he worked up until about two weeks before his death. Many co-workers had little idea of what was happening as Siegel remained incredibly positive and upbeat until the end. He died on June 29, 2007, in New York with family and friends present.
Many in the entertainment industry mourned his passing. Steven Spielberg said, “I was always such a fan of Joel’s because he was such a fan of film.” ABC news anchor Charles Gibson described Siegel as “a man of impeccable taste,” and former Good Morning America weatherman said that “nothing made him light up like Dylan, like talking about his son.”