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News that Gene Shalit is ending his 40-year stint reviewing movies for NBC's "Today" show has inspired us to channel him in offering this assessment: He proved a Gene-uine joy to watch, and is, in his way, a Gene-ius of the craft.
Watching Shalit’s reviews are like getting a recommendation from a loveably eccentric pal – one whose bushy hair and prominent handlebar mustache are as outrageous as his puns.
The worst thing anybody can say about Shalit is that he, on many occasions, is too generous with his praise, too quick to offer up blurb-friendly one-liners.
That's earned him good-natured mockery, everywhere from “Saturday Night Live” to a “Family Guy” episode in which Shalit mugged Peter (“Don’t ‘Panic Room,’” he said. “I’m not going to ‘William Hurt’ you. I only want your ‘Tango and Cash.’ So just ‘Pay it Forward’ and we’ll all be ‘Happy Gilmore’”).
But what's most distinguished Shalit, besides his unique appearance and goofily effusive style, is that he never lost enthusiasm for the movies.
While some critics pick endlessly over meaning and nuance, Shalit recognizes the power of a good popcorn flick. He could be relied upon to quickly – and entertainingly – tell you whether your $1.50 (the average price of a movie ticket when he started on “Today” in 1970) or the $10 or so today would buy you a couple hours of escape from life.
The substance behind Shalit’s shtick is that he’s always approached the job as a movie fan. He stuck to his ways as he became a pop-culture figure – presaging the stardom of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert – and even as the Internet made everybody a critic.
In announcing the official end of his “Today” gig, the 84-year-old Shalit reported that, among other plans, he’ll be taking his act online. Meanwhile, “Today” is slated to air a salute to Shalit Thursday, his final day on the program.
After four decades of previews, it’s a safe bet the tribute will be, to use a Shalit-friendly word, “Terrific!”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.