Robert Osborne, the former columnist for The Hollywood Reporter who as the genial and scholarly host of Turner Classic Movies became a beloved icon to a legion of groupies with gray hair, died Monday in New York, the cable network announced. He was 84.
David Staller, his longtime partner, told The Hollywood Reporter that Osborne died in his sleep in his apartment from natural causes.
“Robert was embraced by devoted fans who saw him as a trusted expert and friend,” TCM general manager Jennifer Dorian said in a statement. “His calming presence, gentlemanly style, encyclopedic knowledge of film history, fervent support of film preservation and highly personal interviewing style all combined to make him a truly world-class host.
“Robert’s contributions were fundamental in shaping TCM into what it is today, and we owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.”
Osborne began his career as an actor, was mentored by the legendary comedienne Lucille Ball and became the official biographer of Oscar thanks to a series of books he wrote about the Academy Awards. Osborne missed the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, announcing at the last minute that doctors advised him to have an undisclosed medical procedure that he had planned to put off.
Attendees were extremely disappointed not to have him there. And then, less than three weeks before the start of the 2016 event, Osborne pulled out again, saying “a health issue has come up which requires attention.”
A few months after he accepted a surprising invitation from Olivia de Havilland to escort her to a televised celebration of Bette Davis’ career, the journalist joined THR in September 1977 to write reviews.
He penned the paper’s must-read Rambling Reporter column from April 1983 until he left the publication in June 2009. When Ted Turner’s TCM debuted as a competitor to the American Movie Classics cable channel on April 14, 1994, Osborne was on the air to introduce the very first film, Gone With the Wind.
He stayed with the channel as primetime host from there, introducing and providing insightful tidbits for many of the 400 or so movies that TCM shows every year.
He also presided over the network’s Private Screenings series, interviewing such legends as Betty Hutton, Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell and Mickey Rooney, and hosted the TCM Classic Film Festival back in his old Hollywood stomping grounds when health permitted.
“He’s a scholar in classic film, he truly is,” actress Eva Marie Saint said of Osborne during a Private Screenings special that premiered in January 2014 and had Alec Baldwin, in a role reversal, interviewing the TCM host. “He’d make a wonderful professor. Wouldn’t you like to be in his class?”
When Angela Lansbury received her honorary Oscar at the 2013 Governors Award, the actress picked Osborne to introduce her. “I came to the conclusion that the one person who really knew my early work was Robert,” she said in her acceptance speech.
“My condolences to the family and friends of Robert Osborne who championed the Golden Age of movies to an entire generation who never grew up in the wonderful world of black and white,” director Steven Spielberg said in a statement. “He got us excited and reawakened to the greatest stories ever told with the most charismatic stars in the world. I will miss all the backstage stories he told us before and after the films. He sure opened my eyes to all that has come before and put TCM solidly on the map while ensuring his own legacy as the man who brought us back to the movies.”
Born on May 3, 1932, Osborne was raised in the farming community of Colfax, Wash. His father was a geography and history teacher. He enjoyed going to the movies and eventually worked at the Rose and the Roxy, the two movie houses in town. Once he fell while changing a film title on a marquee and broke both arms. (Years later, he bought a share of the Rose.)
While attending the University of Washington, Osborne said he spent every Saturday “not drinking or partying or having a good time. I was at the library,” he recalled in the Private Screenings special.
“I went through every issue of The New York Times for 20 years, taking notes on all the first-run theaters in New York, what was playing, when they changed the bill, how long a film played at Radio City Music Hall — or who was playing in it.”
At a time before the internet — heck, no one had even published a book that kept track of all the Oscar winners — and when nostalgia for Hollywood didn’t exist, Osborne scribbled all his information onto pages of a loose-leaf binder he nicknamed Blackie.
“I was always into films, passionate about them, at a time when nobody was into that kind of stuff,” he said. “I was getting this education about film — and there was no place to use it.”
Osborne pursued a career as an actor, and for a regional production in Seattle of the psychological thriller Night Must Fall, he landed the role of the duplicitous Danny opposite Oscar winner Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath).
The actress took an interest in Osborne and convinced him to further his acting career in Los Angeles, not New York. He stayed with her at her home in the San Fernando Valley and soon earned a six-month contract at Fox, appearing in The Californians, a TV Western starring Paul Henreid.
He met Ball after overhearing that she was looking for actors for her company, Desilu Productions, and she invited him to her house for dinner on a Friday night. Actresses Janet Gaynor and Kay Thompson were there; at one point, the guests moved to the living room, where they watched Funny Face (1957) from a 35mm projector. When Thompson and Audrey Hepburn came on the screen doing a musical number, Thompson jumped up and mimicked the motions.
At this surreal moment, Osborne recalled, “I started to say to myself, ‘Did you ever believe you would be in this [situation]?'”Then I said, ‘Wait a minute, I always knew I was going to.'”
He signed with Desilu and from Ball “received a year’s master class from this great artist.” He did commercials for Falstaff and Carling Black Label beers, Folgers coffee and John Hancock insurance and appeared on the ABC soap opera The Young Marrieds and as a banker in the pilot for the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.
Remarkably, de Havilland — whom he had been introduced to by Ball — phoned and asked him to escort her to a televised AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to Davis in 1977 at the Beverly Hilton. He soon found himself at the head table with, among others, Henreid, director William Wellman and their wives.
He celebrated Feb. 27 each year — that’s the day de Havilland called to invite him to the Davis bash. (For many years afterward, he spoke to the reclusive actress, then living in Paris, on the phone every Sunday.)
Ball once gave him advice that would change his life: “We have enough actors,” she said. “We don’t have enough people writing about the industry.” So Osborne took up journalism.
He recalled that James Stewart would invite local journalists to a one-on-one lunch every year.
Actors like Stewart “weren’t really working. They were beyond their peak years. They had time to talk to you,” he recalled. “They loved somebody like me who had a background like mine because they didn’t have to explain who they were … they didn’t have to say, ‘I was a big deal.’ I knew that.”
When Osborne had difficulty uncovering which actress won an Oscar in some particular year, he decided to write the first in a series of reference books about the Academy Awards. He went on The Dinah Shore Show, and a friend from Seattle saw him and reviewed his book for The Reporter. That led him to a writing position at THR.
In 1987, the THR editor allowed him to write his Rambling Reporter column from New York — but only for a year — after he landed a gig to chat about movies on CBS’ The Morning Program, co-hosted by Mariette Hartley.
But when THR was sold to BPI Communications in 1988, the editor quit and Osborne, wanting to remain in New York, didn’t get around to reminding anyone about that agreement to return to L.A.
While working as a host for The Movie Channel, Osborne was invited by actress Dorothy Lamour to lunch with AMC execs Brad Siegel and Jim Wise. They offered him the afternoon AMC hosting slot when his Movie Channel contract expired (Bob Dorian was then AMC’s primetime host).
Siegel then called and said, scratch that: He was moving to Atlanta to start a rival network, Turner Classic Movies, based out of Atlanta, and wanted Osborne there. He jumped at the chance.
In recognition of his contributions to classic film, Osborne received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006 and a special award from the National Board of Review in 2008.