May 3, 1932 – Robert Osborne:
“I get stopped on the street all the time. People say: ‘You got me through cancer last year. You got me past unemployment. You take me away from my troubles’. Exactly what movies did in the 1930s and 1940s.”
In March 2017, Golden Age Film fans mourned the passing of the man whose brief introductions to many of the greatest films of all time will forever be linked to their memories of them.
Robert Osborne was the number one host for the cable channel Turner Classic Movies since its very first broadcast in April 1994. He was a sort of showbiz savant, offering delectable tidbits in his brief introductions and wrap-ups, discussing films with guests and conducting intimate interviews with stars of a certain age.
TCM is broadcast to 85 million homes, and the annual TCM Film Festival in Hollywood used to sell out quickly. This year’s Festival will be presented virtually and feature four days of classics curated by a TCM Hub on HBO Max. Before a certain pandemic put an end to cruise liners, there was a yearly TCM cruise where 2,000 fans watched and discussed films and tried to get up the nerve to talk to Golden Age stars such as Shirley Jones. Surprisingly, 60 percent of viewers are in the much desired 25-year-old to 55 demographic.
TCM smartly mixes entertainment, audience engagement and much needed escape. I couldn’t possibly get through our current era without it, and I really miss Osborne. TCM has had some troubles, enduring buyouts and layoffs imposed by its parent company, Turner Broadcasting, part of Time Warner. The channel shows films uncut and commercial free. The spirit of TCM was personified by the dapper Osborne, sharing his formidable film expertise with affable charm, free of condescension.
In a typically nice Osborne touch, in a short segment about the great, yet mostly forgotten character actor Beulah Bondi, he said to the camera:
“Her one great regret was not getting to play the role of Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath. The part which went on to win Jane Darwell an Oscar…. Up next! We have Beulah Bondi in a charming movie titled One Foot In Heaven.”
He actually knew Darwell, along with many others from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was great friends with the late, great Olivia de Havilland, who made her screen debut in 1935. She left us last summer at 104 years old.
Osborne said that it all started in 1941 when he was 9 years-old and his mother had just bought him a Modern Screen magazine featuring Lana Turner on the cover. He lived in the tiny town of Colfax, Washington, where he would scour copies of The New York Times for all the particulars of every first-run film, writing in his journal noting the stars and director and the theatre it opened in and the length of its run.
Osborne studied journalism at the University of Washington and served in the Air Force. In the late 1950s, he appeared in a regional theatre production with Jane Darwell, who invited the handsome young actor to live in her guesthouse, outside Hollywood.
He eventually became part of the acting stable at Desilu Productions, where Lucille Ball took a shine to him, amazed he knew the work of character actors such as Eric Blore and Donald Meek. Ball took him to parties and premiers and introduced him to people he knew only from the movie magazines.
His own acting career was stalled with only small roles on television series. Ball urged him to give up acting to write. Osborne published his first book, a history of the Academy Awards, in 1965. At the time, there was little nostalgia for the earlier days of films Hollywood and the stars, many who were still alive and seeking work. Osborne:
”They were cut off like people on a desert island. Paulette Goddard, I got to know. Hedy Lamarr, I got to know really well. Nobody gave a damn about Hedy Lamarr back then.”
But, Osborne gave a damn, and his appreciation for their careers endeared him to them. He became friends with Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman. He wrote about how Lamarr was devastated when Frank Sinatra failed to recognize her, and how Turner had stopped going out, after a restaurant host snubbed her to accommodate Loni Anderson.
Osborne worked for many years as a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. He wrote breezy, personality-oriented items and also reviewed films and Broadway plays. That job, along with appearances on his friend Dinah Shore‘s show and other television gigs, led to the offer to be the prime-time host of a new cable channel that would show Turner Broadcasting’s extensive film library. So began the much loved intro: ”Hi, I’m Robert Osborne.”
TCM went from A for Astaire to Z for Zanuck, with Osborne opining on child stars, gangster films, westerns, film noir, African-Americans in Hollywood, the French new wave, Federico Fellini, and the seminal work of Our Gang‘s gang.
Osborne was joined by sexy Ben Mankiewicz, a direct descendant of Hollywood royalty, and a line of guest hosts. Osborne asked Drew Barrymore to guest Osborne’s recurring Essentials feature, who chose I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968) as her essential film, with Osborne gently disagreeing. Alec Baldwin chose Mutiny On The Bounty, the 1962 version with Marlon Brando, and Osborne argued in favor of the 1935 version, with Clark Gable.
For TCM’s Private Screening series, Osborne interviewed stars including Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Mitchum, Jane Powell, and Jane Russell; and directors Sidney Lumet, Stanley Donen and Norman Jewison.
He interviewed Betty Hutton, Kim Novak, Mickey Rooney in segments with stars so open they felt like therapy sessions. Eva Marie Saint, who had been interviewed hundreds of times in her career, said that Osborne surpasses other interviewers because he creates a safe place where personal anecdotes became valuable context rather than gossip.
Osborne was paid well and widely loved for doing what he would be doing no matter: watching, researching and talking about films. His said that his only regret was that more of the great stars didn’t get more recognition by the new generations.
As familiar as he became, what many of Osborne’s fans didn’t know was that had been in a relationship for more than two decades with David Staller, a NYC theater producer and director. When Osborne passed away, Staller told the NY Times:
It’s difficult to imagine a planet without him. He made the choice to call it a day, and he wants everyone to know that he’ll see them at the after-party.
Osborne had apparently been in poor health for a few years. He took a three-month medical leave of absence from the channel in 2011, then returned to somewhat lighter duties.
He had lived in New York City since the late 1980s and traveled to Atlanta once a month to shoot his segments at TCM’s studio there.
From his attitude toward closeted gay men in Hollywood, it seems unlikely that Osborne felt that his coming out was important. When it was revealed that his friend Rock Hudson‘s cause of death was AIDS, Osborne refused to report on his death.
Osborne was committed to preserving the historical importance of films, even when they had become controversial. He worked to bring on African-Americans to discuss films like Birth Of A Nation, the unabashedly racist 1918 silent epic, instead of censoring them. He thought it was effective in getting people to understand why it was important to leave such films fully intact. I don’t know, but I imagine that he would be reluctantly okay with TCM’s current position of running a short little warning for woke fans who might pearl-clutch their way through Gone With The Wind. Osborne:
“We used to get some squawk whenever we’d show a movie that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did which has a musical number in blackface. Some people used to write and say: ‘How did you dare show that? That’s so awful’. I think now people realize that we don’t cut our movies, and that’s the way those movies were made and what was acceptable to people at one time. But we’re not saying that’s what is acceptable now.”
Osborne’s final credits rolled in spring 2017, taken by kidney failure, at 84 years old. His life partner, David Staller fwas with him from 1996 until his death.
Staller is rather amazing. He has produced and directed dozens of shows and he has acted in over 100 Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. He was working as a scriptwriter for Turner Entertainment, part of the same corporate group as TCM when he and Osborne met. He is the worldwide renowned expert on all things George Bernard Shaw, becoming the first person to direct all of Shaw’s 65 plays. His godmother was fascinating British actor Hermione Gingold. As a tribute to her, Staller named his own theatre company, the Gingold Theatrical Group, after her.
Staller and Osborne apparently never discussed their relationship with the press, but they often attended industry events together.
“I was shaped by the heroes in the films I saw, which you always want to emulate and be like. I wanted to be like Alan Ladd, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart.”