Film critic Joel Siegel '65 memorialized in scholarship


By David Chute

Published Jul 1, 2007 10:58 AM

To friends and family members of the late film critic Joel Siegel '65, the scholarship fund recently established in his name at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television is an ideal memorial to this witty, idealistic man. The UCLA history major and long-time movie critic for ABC's "Good Morning America" lost his long battle with colorectal cancer in June.

According to Earl Goldstein, one of the organizers of the scholarship and a classmate of Siegel's at Louis Pasteur Jr. High in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, "a fund with Joel's name on it to help talented people fulfill their dreams is exactly the sort of thing he would have liked."

The Joel Siegel Scholarship will be awarded by the School, in consultation with the late critic's widow Ena Swansea and his son Dylan Swansea Siegel, "to applicants demonstrating excellence and passion in writing and production."

Siegel was a world-famous film critic who pioneered a punchy, shorthand style, laced with humor that worked perfectly on television. He had worked as an advertising copywriter, made the transition to criticism as a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times and finally found his niche in TV. He worked for the local New York stations WCBS and WABC before joining the GMA staff in 1981. For over a decade he hosted the nationally syndicated annual "Joel Siegel's Road to the Academy Awards."

Siegel's long professional association with movies surprised some of his childhood friends. Knowing his lifelong interest in history and current events, and his idealism, they had expected him to channel his wit into political satire. Siegel had in fact edited satirical campus humor magazines at both Hamilton High ("The Iconoclast") and UCLA ("Satyr").

"I assumed that he would become a professional humorist along the lines of Art Buchwald," says freelance writer and fellow UCLA alumnus Lawrence Grobel '68.

For his friends, Siegel's professional accomplishments take a back seat to his ebullient, generous personality. "He was friends with everyone," Goldstein recalls, "not just with the bright kids but with the jocks, the hoods, the musicians, the nerds and everyone in between. He liked people and people liked him." In fact it was because they loved him that they enjoyed rooting for him as he rose to fame:

"We were all vicariously living his success," says Jerry Medway, a classmate at Hamilton. "As the years went on we felt closer and closer to him, as if we were a part of it." Grobel adds: "Joel was one of the few people I ever met who genuinely enjoyed seeing other people to succeed," a trait that he believes contributed to Siegel's lifelong devotion to the Civil Rights movement, which began when he was an undergraduate.

Medway tells the story of Siegel's first meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King: "In the early 1960s, King came to speak at UCLA, and Joel organized a drive to raise money to support his efforts. He delivered the money to Dr. King in person, in cash, in a brown paper bag. Years later, when Joel was in Georgia one summer working on voter registration, he met the great man again. King looked at him for a second, and then recognition dawned: 'Do you have another paper bag for me?'"

Few things exemplified Siegel's upbeat spirit more dramatically than the way he responded to his cancer diagnosis, which was pronounced just a year before the birth of his son Dylan in 1998. Siegel attempted to turn his own misfortune to good use, joining forces with comedian Gene Wilder to form the non-profit Gilda's Club, named for Wilder's late wife Gilda Radner, who had died of ovarian cancer, and writing the book Lessons for Dylan: "From Father to Son," which became a New York Times bestseller in 2003.

"Joel so wanted his son to remember him," Goldstein says, "and so wanted to teach his son as much as he could before he died. There could not be a more fitting memorial to this wonderful man than a fund that would extend that desire to teach to so many other deserving students."

For information on the UCLA Foundation/Joel Siegel Scholarship call (310) 206-6154.



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