Like so many to come along before and after him, Robert Osborne discovered the magic and allure of the movies at a young age and never lost his interest and enthusiasm for them over the years. Unlike so many before and after him, Osborne was able to channel that interest—not to mention a frame of reference towards the subject for which the word “encyclopedic” hardly seems adequate—into a long and celebrated career in the entertainment industry as an actor and the author of a number of acclaimed books on the history of Hollywood. Most famously, he was the primary on-air host of Turner Classic Movies, where his introductions managed to come across as erudite enough to hold the interest of stone-cold movie buffs and down to earth enough to capture the interest of people who might have been encountering the films he was discussing for the very first time. Osborne, who had been suffering from undisclosed health issues for the last few years, passed away yesterday morning in his sleep at his home in New York City at the age of 84, a blow to movie buffs of all ages all over the world.
Born in Colfax, Washington on May 3, 1932, Osborne went to school at the University of Washington and then spent two years in Seattle stationed with the Air Force, where he began to act in local theatrical productions in his free time. One of the people he acted opposite was Jane Darwell—who, he would be the first to tell you, had won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for portraying Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940)—and on her recommendation, he moved to Hollywood after completing his service in the hopes of breaking in as an actor. Although he was signed as a contract player, first at 20th Century Fox and then at Desilu Studios, he only wound up with small roles on shows like “The Whirlybirds,” “The Californians” and “One Step Beyond.” His most notable TV gig at this time was co-starring in the pilot episode for a new television show debuting in 1962, but he wound up not continuing on with the shaky, speculative venture that was “The Beverly Hillbillies” (pictured above). According to IMDb, he also had brief, uncredited bit parts in two movies around this time—not too bad when you consider that they were “Spartacus” and “Psycho.”
During his time at Deslilu, he found himself under the personal supervision of Lucille Ball herself, who advised him not to stick with acting but who was impressed with his knowledge of the minutiae of Hollywood history. Taking her advice, Osborne branched out into writing and in 1965, he published Academy Awards Illustrated, which was both his first book and the beginning of a series of books chronicling the history of the Oscars, of which 50 Golden Years of Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards (1978) would be updated numerous times in the years since its publication—most recently in 2013—and go down as arguably the definitive work on the subject. (Having checked out of the library approximately seven billion times as a wee lad, I can attest to its worthiness.) He also wrote Hollywood Legends: The Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo (1967). In 1977, he went to work for The Hollywood Reporter, eventually taking over the celebrated Rambling Reporter column from Hank Grant in 1983. He also served as the president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association from 1981-1983.
In 1982, he returned to the medium where he began his career when he went to work as an entertainment reporter for local station KTTV in Los Angeles. In 1984, he went national for the first time when he was hired by The Movie Channel to serve as a host and three years later, he became a regular contributor to CBS’ “The Morning Program.” It was from here that he would eventually land the job that would make him a household name when Ted Turner decided to create a 24-hour commercial-free cable channel devoted to broadcasting old movies. The channel would compete directly against the then-popular American Movie Classics and make use of the vast library of films that Turner had acquired over the years. Osborne was hired to serve as the network’s prime-time host, offering introductions and wrap-up commentary to approximately four movies a night, seven days a week.
Although the notion of having someone host a television screening of a movie may seem somewhat archaic today, it used to be a fairly common practice back in the day when local television channels were able to show more independence when it came to what they would broadcast. Most decent-sized cities with a station that screened classic old movies would usually have a local personality on to give a brief boilerplate intro of what was about to screen and if you were really lucky, you had someone like Chicago’s beloved Son of Svengoolie who would do the same for the then-less-respectable horror and sci-fi titles. Osborne may have been part of this tradition—indeed, he would be one of its last significant purveyors—but he was someone who managed to transcend the limitations of the form. Though he would only have a couple of minutes in which to speak before the film began, he managed to pack an enormous amount of information into them. And instead of relying the same old factoids, he usually brought some new, interesting nugget or connection to the table that would have even film fanatics learning a thing or two. This was a guy who clearly knew his stuff—you got the sense that if he hadn’t landed the host gig, he himself would have been one of those watching TCM at home. At the same time, he conveyed this information in a droll and low-key manner that gave newcomers to classic cinema a way in so that they could understand and appreciate the offerings as much as anyone else.
Over the years, he would also do a number of “Private Screening” interviews in which he would grill celebrated screen legends about their careers and “Guest Programmer” mini-retrospectives in which numerous actors, writers and filmmakers talk about the favorite films that they would be co-hosting that night. As it turned out, he was just as impressive of an interviewer as he was as a straightforward host in the way that he would get his guests talking about the films that they were truly passionate about. The resulting conversations were as lively, informative and just plain entertaining as one could possibly hope them to be. In 2006, the concept was expanded to a show for TCM called “The Essentials,” in which he and a co-host would screen a classic piece of cinema and then talk about its history, its importance and what it was that they liked about it so much. Beginning with critic Molly Haskell, the series would see Osborne sharing the stage with such personalities as Carrie Fisher, Rose McGowan, Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore and Sally Field. The results were always fascinating to watch—even if you didn’t like the movie he screened (and there were times when one of them wouldn’t like the title in question), you wanted to watch just to listen to what they had to say about it.
As a result of this exposure, Osborne became a cult figure of enough renown to earn both impressions by two different performers on “Saturday Night Live” over the years and his very own bobblehead figure. Among more traditional celebrations, he received the 1984 Press Award from the Publicists Guild of America and the National Board of Review’s William K. Everson Award in 2007. He also received his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2006. For a film fanatic of Osborne’s stature, this must have come across as the ultimate accolade and a truly fitting one—it put him once and for all among the greats of the industry that he loved and respected, and who loved and respected him in return.