The classic film world has lost a monumental force, one of our preeminent modern film historians and certainly among the most visible. Robert Osborne, the beloved host of Turner Classic Movies since 1994, died on Monday at the age of 84.
Osborne had been on a long hiatus from TCM due to illness, and was absent from the past few TCM festivals in Hollywood. His death hit the classic film world hard, with posts and tributes written almost immediately and emotions running high.
TCM has a unique fan base, and Osborne was the face of the network. Many of us grew up with him, his soothing voice becoming synonymous with evenings in front of the television watching a classic movie. More than just a representative of TCM, however, Osborne transcended the network. His knowledge of movie history, and of the stars and directors who made it, was staggeringly detailed, nuanced, and deep. Always polished and dapper on air, Osborne’s presence on the network was representative of a different era of television–one that seems to have otherwise disappeared. His sophistication and elegance harkened back to the news programs of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, as he informed us respectfully, intelligently, and passionately, about the movies he loved as we did.
Osborne began his career as an actor with Desilu, and it was Lucille Ball, in her infinite wisdom, who first noticed Osborne’s talent for journalism when he was still a young actor. He published his first book in 1965, then became a longstanding columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Osborne enjoyed relating the story of his first major interview, for which his subject was Natalie Wood. Osborne told of the incident in an article for a Natalie Wood tribute on TCM:
By the time I met her in 1965, she was already a Hollywood veteran at the age of 27. And along with her determination and brilliance, she also turned out to be incredibly kind, especially to an admittedly novice journalist like me. She was, in fact, my first major celebrity interview and when I arrived at her home, with those beautiful brown eyes looking at me, waiting for me to begin, I realized just how much of a beginner I was. My questions had no rhythm to them, and my notes were, I realized too late, completely disorganized. Looking back, she could have stopped that interview then and there, or quickly answered my questions and ended it almost as soon as it had begun. But she didn’t. Instead, Natalie ended up sitting down on the floor with me and giving me suggestions on how to best organize the interview to get the most interesting story.
That day she became my mentor and, more importantly, my friend.
He went on to be one of the great classic Hollywood interviewers and the author of several books, including a series on the Academy Awards. The series began in 1965 with The Academy Awards Illustrated, and culminated in 85 Years of the Oscar, published in 2013. He was a respected and sought-after co-author, with credits on a seemingly endless list of classic film books.
Osborne was a dear friend of many classic Hollywood stars, including Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, and particularly Olivia de Havilland, with whom Osborne spoke every Sunday. It was de Havilland who introduced him to Bette Davis, and the two became fast friends. When he was looking for an apartment in Manhattan in the late 1980s and had finally found one he liked, he called Bette Davis to come see it with him, to get her opinion. Davis liked it, and Osborne took it. The building, serendipitously enough, was called the Osborne, and he lived there for the rest of his life.
I had the great fortune to meet Robert Osborne at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012. It wasn’t a very formal meeting, but it was incredibly memorable for me. I related to him my love of Rita Hayworth, and we chatted for a few minutes about her. I feel so fortunate to have met a scholar and man of his stature, and to be able to talk about a mutual love.
Here he is introducing Cover Girl, one of his favorite Rita Hayworth movies. Robert Osborne’s loss is immeasurable, and will be felt forever in the classic film community. He is and will continue to be greatly missed.