Oscar historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne died Monday at the age of 84. He had been part of the film channel since its launch in 1994. His gracious introductions were as enjoyable as the films that followed and he was much missed during TCM’s recent annual month-long tribute to the Academy Awards.
This one-time actor, who got his start at Desilu under the tutelage of Lucille Ball in the late 1950s, turned to entertainment journalism in the 1970s. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Oscars in 1978, the academy asked him to pen its official history. He updated it a decade later, and then every five years with the most recent version being released in 2013.
Osborne also wrote the “Rambling Reporter” column for The Hollywood Reporter for a quarter century (1984 – 2009). A one-time film critic for Fox 11 in Los Angeles, he served as president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. during the mid 1980s. He had hosted screenings on The Movie Channel for seven years beginning in 1986 until Ted Turner asked him to be part of his new channel devoted to old movies.
He also oversaw the annual TCM Classic Film Festival beginning in 2010. When we interviewed him in connection with the 2013 edition, he spoke vividly of his life-long love affair with the movies, starting with the first one he saw. “I remember it had to do with a horse race and gangsters. I remember covering my face with my hand most of the time, because I was watching the race and felt so badly for the horses who were trying to win and were losing.” He readily admitted, “I was fascinated by films: I thought somehow they were papers dolls, like the ones my sister had, being maneuvered, and I couldn’t imagine how they could make them look round like people, instead of flat.”
Osborne said then that being a host on TCM was his dream job. “I wanted to be apart of it; I just didn’t know where I fit in. I knew I couldn’t sing, I knew I couldn’t dance. I just lived in a small farm town in the Northwest. I didn’t know where I fit in. I was happy that Ted Turner started a channel and I got to be the guy. That was my great luck.”
And while he was pleased to be welcomed into people’s homes nightly, he was even more delighted to be able to present movies as they were meant to be seen. “We recognize the fact that we’re really pleased to bring all these films that for years were in a vault, hidden away, to people through television. But the only way to really see a movie is on a big screen, with an audience. There’s no lack of that in Los Angeles, or in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco with revival houses. But there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to these movies on a big screen.”
“To see ‘Casablanca’ (1942) on a big screen with an audience of 2,500 other people, with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart three stories tall, is a totally different experience than watching it on a television screen in a room on a couch by yourself,” he continues. “It’s very important because that’s the way they were made to be seen.”