There was a time when “old movies” were relegated to the wee hours of the morning or the wastelands of the UHF dial on television. Hollywood classics were lost during these years for Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, until the advent of easily available home video and cable networks like American Movie Classics — which, like so many other networks, has initialized its name and moved away from its original programming — and Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
Turner Classic Movies launched in 1994 showing Gone With the Wind, an appropriate choice for a cable network based in Atlanta. (Say what you want about Ted Turner — he’s a curmudgeonly liberal and a terrible human being, but he’s brought a lot of business to Atlanta over the years.) TCM had one advantage over any other vintage-film outlet: the gentlemanly authority of host Robert Osborne.
Robert Osborne passed away of an undisclosed illness on Monday at the age of 84. He was a living link between a slowly fading Golden Age of Hollywood and the younger generations coming up who learned so much about the history of classic cinema from the man whom TCM called “host, columnist, author, film historian, movie lover, and friend.”
Osborne was born in Colfax, Wash., spent two years in the Air Force, and studied journalism at the University of Washington. He started out as an actor, appearing in a few films and the pilot for The Beverly Hillbillies. Lucille Ball encouraged Osborne to combine his journalism degree and his love for Hollywood into a writing career, and it seemed the young journalist interviewed and got to know everyone in Tinseltown.
A longtime column in The Hollywood Reporter and local television stints led to work on CBS This Morning and The Movie Channel, which led to Turner tapping Osborne to be the face of Turner Classic Movies. Osborne would fly into Atlanta to film his segments and return home to New York City, where he moved in 1987.
Osborne brought an easygoing authority to his introductions and interviews. His knowledge of film history and Hollywood lore seemed endless and added to his air of erudition and class. He also wrote several books, and for six years hosted Robert Osborne’s Classic Film Festival in association with the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at my alma mater, the University of Georgia. The festival brought an impressive list of entertainment luminaries to Athens, Georgia, including Patricia Neal, Mickey Rooney, Marni Nixon, and Talia Shire.
In 2015, TCM took over sponsorship of The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World. Osborne became the “host” of the attraction, filming intros to the films featured in the queue and narrating the ride with his typical wisdom and wit — at one point, when the “movie villain” walks onto the ride vehicle to take over, Osborne announces that he is taking a trip to the concession stand, only to return after the villain is vanquished.
The outpouring of love and appreciation for Osborne has been bittersweet and wonderful:
— TCM (@tcm) March 6, 2017
— Illeana Douglas (@Illeanarama) March 6, 2017
— Leonard Maltin (@leonardmaltin) March 6, 2017
— Anika Noni Rose (@AnikaNoniRose) March 6, 2017
Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint wrote, “I adored Robert Osborne and will miss him dearly.” Another Academy Award winner, Liza Minnelli, said, “I was devastated to hear that he passed away and my heart goes out to my friends at Turner Classic Movies, Robert’s friends around the world and his family. He will always be in my heart.” And Robert Wagner, who came up in Hollywood the same time as Osborne, told The Hollywood Reporter, “There are plenty of film historians out there, but Robert was a true original.”
Osborne’s fellow TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, himself part of an esteemed Hollywood family, remembered his colleague fondly:
Robert was a big TV star, the signature face of a network unlike any other on television, a channel that actually forged an emotional bond with its audience. For a host in Robert’s position, developing an outsized sense of self worth, a big head, a TV ego, is not only a possibility, it’s practically par for the course. But ask any of those people for a story of Robert losing his composure, or dressing down a member of the crew, or behaving like a prima donna, and you’ll be met with silence. Robert was as you saw him — distinguished, funny, unfairly charming and smart as hell. In 14 years, the worst story I ever heard about Robert was that he thought take-out Chinese food was good for him “because of all the vegetables.”
For fans of classic Hollywood like me, there has never been anybody like Robert Osborne before, and there won’t be anyone like him in the future — with the rare exception of maybe Leonard Maltin. Osborne leaves behind a huge void as the link between Golden Age Tinseltown and the generations after, and his fans will certainly miss him.