By Maureen Lee Lenker
As you might have guessed, we here at Night Owl TV are huge Turner Classic Movies’ fans. When the network debuted in April 1994, it created a haven for cinephiles, film buffs, and lovers of classic Hollywood. But it wasn’t the first network to run classic film on television, so what made it so special?
The answer was one man: Robert Osborne. Osborne, who passed away March 6th at 84, was the face of the network from day one and provided a friendly face as TCM transitioned from a channel that re-aired old movies to a brand that welcomes and embraces movie fans on a multitude of platforms. Osborne has been a great inspiration to us here at Night Owl TV -- without his knowledge and his signature approach, our Classic Film Zone might never have been born.
When it came to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Robert Osborne was sheer platinum. For many movie lovers he was the film professor they never had. He charmed and befriended the denizens of the studio system and made us feel like he was welcoming us into his living room. For over twenty years, Robert Osborne brought us insight, delight, and his winning, warm smile. Night Owl TV remembers the things that made him a special part of our lives and an inspiration to our hosts.
His Hollywood Background
Born in Colfax, Washington, Osborne shared his earliest aspirations with the onscreen gods and goddesses he so loved. Beginning his career as an actor, he landed a role in a regional Seattle production of Night Must Fall opposite Oscar winner Jane Darwell (remembered for her turn as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath). Darwell convinced him to pursue acting in Los Angeles instead of on Broadway, and he even lived with her when he first relocated to LA. He experienced minor success as an actor earning a six-month contract with Fox. He also appeared in various commercials and guest star roles on television. His biggest break came via Lucille Ball and Desilu Productions -- the renowned comedienne befriended and mentored him during the year he was under contract to Desilu.
Ball was putting together a company of actors for Desilu Productions and Osborne approached her leading to a dinner invitation. The dinner was a story he would recount throughout the years, marveling at finding himself in the company of stars like Janet Gaynor and Kay Thompson. Ball screened a 35mm print of Audrey Hepburn’s Funny Face (1957) which featured Kay Thompson. During the screening, Thompson gave a live re-enactment for the dinner guests. For the man who came to be the authority on behind-the-scenes stories of classic Hollywood, that moment felt like kismet.
While working as an actor and under the tutelage of Lucille Ball, Osborne befriended and worked with numerous Hollywood stars, including Joan Crawford, Greer Garson, and Bette Davis. His big break came in 1977 when Olivia de Havilland, whom he’d met through Ball, invited him to accompany her to the AFI Life Achievement Tribute to Bette Davis. He found himself at the head table alongside the likes of Davis and Paul Henreid, giving him a personal entree to the stars he would dedicate his life to celebrating.
Osborne formed a lifelong friendship with De Havilland, and for many years they shared a weekly phone call every Sunday. Because of his early acting career, his knowledge of many stars’ lives and careers came from firsthand knowledge. This gave him an unparalleled authority and insight in his years as a journalist and host. He would share his personal stories (for instance, how Natalie Wood helped him with patience and kindness in one of his first interview assignments) without ever seeming like a braggart or a gossip. It was this insider quality mixed with his abundance of humility that made him the perfect man to share the tales of classic cinema and movie-making with audiences around the world.
It was also Lucille Ball who convinced Osborne to make his career as a film historian and journalist. He enjoyed success with Desilu productions, but she told him: “"We have enough actors. We don't have enough people writing about the industry." The advice put him on the path that would define his life’s work.
His Encyclopedic Knowledge of Cinema & Film History
Robert Osborne didn’t decide to become a journalist merely upon Lucille Ball’s advice. She saw the potential in him as a true movie-lover with a thirst for the stories and stars of the studio system. While in college at the University of Washington, he spent his free time at the library poring over old issues of the New York Times… tracking what films were playing at first-run theaters in New York, how long they ran, and who was in them. He painstakingly amassed an in-depth knowledge of film history through hard work and his own deep love of the movies. At the time, film wasn’t respected as an art form, and those who ran the studios treated their own history as disposable.
Osborne was collecting information and giving himself an education in a field that was yet to be widely respected. As such, he had no real outlet for this information other than his own notebooks. He kept copious notes in a loose-leaf binder he nicknamed “Blackie,” recording facts and information from his library research and stories he acquired throughout his time in Hollywood.
Working as a local journalist, he had difficulty locating information about past Oscar winners and decided to write the first in a series of reference books about the Academy Awards. He was regarded as the official biographer of Oscar and even acted as a greeter for stars on the Oscars red carpet for many years. His love of the movies was such that if he perceived a gap in his own knowledge, he would write a book or an article that would enlighten us all. TCM co-host Ben Mankiewicz described him as “a man who could recall the fifth lead in a 1937 Warner Brothers B picture as easily and as stylishly as Vin Scully calling the fifth inning from Dodger Stadium.” Stars regularly were astonished by the depth of his knowledge and the insightful nature of his questions.
His love of cinema history propelled him into a successful career as a journalist -- when he started in the 1970s, classic stars like Jimmy Stewart welcomed the chance to talk about their careers in their later years to people who knew and loved their work. Osborne’s knowledge and enthusiasm earned him a place at the table. It led to a job at The Hollywood Reporter, for whom he would write “The Rambling Reporter” column from 1983 through 2009.
His Warm Personality that Won Over Viewers & Hollywood Elites Alike
Robert Osborne was one-of-a-kind! He’s been referred to as a gentleman and a scholar in the hours following his death. Many stories shared by his co-workers, his fans, and the stars of old Hollywood recount his kindness, his professionalism, and his warmth. He made all of us watching at home feel welcomed into his home with the warm embrace of a classic film, whether it was a favorite we’d seen a hundred times or something we were just discovering for the first time.
Osborne managed to share scandalous tales of old Hollywood and behind-the-scenes drama without ever seeming tawdry or gossipy. This endeared him to fans and stars alike. They saw in him a confidante and like-minded enthusiast. In interviews, his respect and deference to guests never rang false, always probing them with intense intelligence and profound love for their work. Stars ranging from Eva Marie Saint to Mitzi Gaynor to Liza Minnelli have shared their love for and friendship with this man who helped to shine a light on their careers for younger generations.
In 2013, when Angela Lansbury had to select someone to present her with an Honorary Oscar, she chose Robert Osborne. His knowledge and warmth made him the only choice for her. Following his death, Lansbury explained, “After all, nobody alive at the time better understood those wonderful early years — and that night our friendship was sealed. Robert knew our triumphs and our failures and spoke knowledgeably of our movie lives. Why? Because he knew us intimately. We were his friends. And he never betrayed that friendship. He was also the ultimate fan — and the ultimate friend.”
For those fortunate fans who were able to see Osborne hold court at the Turner Classic Movies festival, it was always a delight to see him enjoying a screening of a B-picture or a never-before-seen restoration. He didn’t just love “the classics,” or “The Essentials,” per the name of his TCM show, but every reel of classic Hollywood and movie-making. And if you were lucky enough to encounter him (including this writer), it was like seeing an old friend -- always asking about your experience at the TCM film festival; asking what movies you were enjoying most, offering a warm hug and a smile. He made you feel like you were just as important as the likes of the Hollywood demigods he interviewed.
His live interviews were a unique experience, possessing all the intimacy of his taped segments while playing to an audience of a thousand film fans. Look at any picture of him with guests at the TCM film festival and you’ll see the love and reverence he felt for all who crossed his path. His joy in spreading and sharing his passion with the world was infectious.
Though he was a host and a lover of a movies, rather than a maker, Osborne left such an impression that he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006. With his charming and funny persona, he shared classic movies with the world. Director Stephen Spielberg told The Hollywood Reporter in a statement: "He got us excited and reawakened to the greatest stories ever told with the most charismatic stars in the world. I will miss all the backstage stories he told us before and after the films. He sure opened my eyes to all that has come before and put TCM solidly on the map while ensuring his own legacy as the man who brought us back to the movies."
Robert Osborne was an educator and a force for elevating and preserving the history of cinema. For all who love classic cinema, his passing is an immense lost. We’ve lost a scholar, a champion of the art, and a man who through his onscreen style and passion felt like a friend.