Robert Osborne—longtime Turner Classic Movies host, having been with the channel from its 1994 beginning, and a beloved mainstay who singlehandedly made cable worthwhile—has died at 84.
“His calming presence, gentlemanly style, encyclopedic knowledge of film history, fervent support of film preservation and highly personal interviewing style all combined to make him a truly world-class host,” said TCM general manager Jennifer Dorian in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “Robert’s contributions were fundamental in shaping TCM into what it is today, and we owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.”
I feel about Robert Osborne like some people feel about Sassy or Judy Blume, his steady presence a familiar landmark of my adolescence. Long, lightly supervised summers were spent watching Turner Classic Movies as a tween, picking up bits of movie history from Osborne’s immensely amiable intros and outros. For those of us who grew up far from places like New York or Los Angeles, he and the channel were as close as it got to a repertory theater. Hearing “Hello, I’m Robert Osborne” never fails to delight.
In his two decades on TCM, Obsorne drew on a seemingly bottomless well of knowledge about the history of Hollywood to dispense fascinating details about anything and anybody involved with the film industry. But he started out as an actor, popping up in places like the pilot for The Beverly Hillbillies. (Not that he had much hope for the project: “I was sure the pilot would never sell,” he confessed to The Washington Post in 2005. “So much for my psychic powers.”)
For a time in the late 1950s he was under contract at Desilu Productions, and, according to a 2013 L.A. Times profile, it was Lucille Ball who set him on his ultimate career path. It just wasn’t acting.
“She said to me, ‘What you should do is write,’” he said. “’You were a journalism major at the University of Washington. You love to do research. You love old films. Nobody is writing about films. We have enough actors, but we don’t have enough writers.’ She is the one who kind of got me away from acting.”
Osborne spent years as a reporter, columnist and interviewer; when he breezily dispensed those facts as a host, he was drawing on personal experiences. From that 2005 Washington Post profile:
Osborne’s knowledge of the old supporting actors impressed Ball. He became part of Ball’s small entourage, traveling to New York and Las Vegas. Sometimes the group spent evenings at her house, and Osborne, foreshadowing his work at TCM, selected movies for the group to see. Meanwhile, he said, “Desi was out chasing his girlfriends.”
Knowing Ball gave Osborne insight into the loneliness of the great stars and provided a way to meet some of his favorite actresses, he said.
He once was actress Bette Davis’s date to the Academy Awards. He also accompanied her to Pickfair, the estate of silent film actress Mary Pickford, where, he said, “I remember Olivia de Havilland in the kitchen talking to Rita Hayworth, and Rita was so vague. At the time, everyone thought she drank. Olivia afterward was so depressed.” Hayworth, it later became known, had Alzheimer’s disease. In 1977, he moved to New York and joined the Hollywood Reporter, for which he still writes his “Rambling Reporter” column.
There was a truly decadent pleasure had in watching Osborne introduce some William Powell movie at around 1 a.m. on a Tuesday, knowing you really should go to bed but sticking around for the first fifteen minutes anyway because he just made this one sound so fun and you can’t bear to skip it entirely. Also, this appearance on Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law suggests the man was a pretty good sport.
Anyway, if I got the chance to cram myself into a rocket and hurtle toward the nearest habitable planet, first I’d program every movie ever broadcast on TCM into the ship’s computer.