TCM interrupted their usual schedule of classic films this weekend for two solid days of interviews that the late, beloved TV host Robert Osborne conducted over the course of his 20-plus years as the face and heart of the network. Osborne, who had been a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter for decades, was with the channel when it first started airing in 1994 and he remained with the cable net until his health began to fail last year. Osborne passed away on March 6, 2017.
Osborne had remained hopeful that he would eventually be able to return to the network, but sadly that was not to be. Even just a few months ago during the TCM Classic Film Cruise, Osborne’s longtime friend and colleague actress Diane Baker read a personal email from Osborne to the cruise passengers stating he hoped to be back at work soon if his health permitted.
Ben Mankiewicz, Osborne’s co-host on TCM, spoke often on the cruise about how Osborne had helped TCM build a unique bond with its audience. Mankiewicz stated that it is quite rare for a channel to have fans not just for its shows but of the network itself. This could be seen to the extent that people traveled from all parts of the world to be with the TCM staff and celebrities on its annual cruise and film festival in Hollywood. A common question at the seminars was whether people could volunteer to help the channel. A TCM executive eventually answered that since the network is not a non-profit organization they are unable to take volunteers. Such was the bond that the network has created with its audience that people were actually wanting to offer their time to help out for free.
Osborne’s gentle charm was credited with building this love between classic movie fans and the channel. His enthusiasm for classic films and old Hollywood stories was so strong that viewers in online forums often remarked that you actually felt Osborne was there with you watching the film and not just providing pre-taped segments to bookend the airings.
Over the weekend the channel aired non-stop interviews Osborne had done with actors such as Eva Marie Saint, Peter O’Toole, Debbie Reynolds, Ernest Borgnine and Liza Minnelli. Also among the interviews was one with Betty Hutton which Osborne regarded as his favorite interview ever. In watching the Hutton piece, it is easy to see why interview subjects trusted the jovial host. Hutton was a musical star in the 1940s who had a rocky time with personal issues during her reign as a top Hollywood performer. The actress had battled many demons but almost gleefully confessed how happy she was that the host had chosen to speak with her about her life.
While TCM will continue on with Ben Mankiewicz and others filling in for Osborne — the station reportedly had their most successful year ever last year — it will be a long time before viewers will be able to see the TCM intros and promos without feeling a slight lump in their throats at the absence of one of the true class acts in showbiz. Much as Osborne kept the memories of classic film stars alive for its fans, his memory will linger on with the TCM audience.