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Writing an appreciation of Robert Osborne poses a significant, perhaps insurmountable, challenge — the certainty that Robert, who died today at 84, would write it better.
Robert represented not merely the face of TCM, but its heart and soul. In presenting movies on the channel for 22 years, Robert managed to thread a rather glorious fine line, reflecting both unbridled enthusiasm and common decency.
Thinking back on Robert’s legacy, I’m drawn — rather oddly — to a movie exposing a character nothing like Robert Osborne. It’s The Great Man, a 1956 release directed by and starring Jose Ferrer. It’s the story of a radio reporter prepping a tribute to the network’s star, who’s just been killed in an auto accident — the “great man” in the title. But as Ferrer digs deeper, he uncovers that the man was a fraud, a drinker prone to violence and a heartless self-promoter who personified the underbelly of all he claimed to champion.
The movie works because in our minds, if not our hearts, we know that we’re capable of deifying the dead, turning flawed human beings into heroic titans of virtue and justice. We do it even though intellectually, we’re aware that, to paraphrase The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we’re printing the legend. However, there are times when the truth requires no creative license. And this is such a time — Robert Osborne was a great man.
My truth is that, despite 14 years together at TCM, I didn’t know Robert as well as I would’ve liked. Because we worked with the same crew on set in Atlanta, we were never there at the same time. Not once. Robert would fly in from New York, while I came from L.A. But our lives will forever be intertwined, because in many respects, I owe my career, my professional identity, to Robert.
What’s funny is that like so many of you, I feel as if I know Robert well. For me, it’s a product of the people I’ve worked with at TCM for 14 years, many of whom worked with Robert for two decades. We had the same wardrobe stylist, Holly Hadesty, who made us both look sharper than we are; the same makeup artist, Pat Segers; the same camera dolly operator, Roger Sheerer; the same grip (and writer and photographer and craft services facilitator), Peter McIntosh; the same lighting director, Thomas Branch; the same teleprompter operator, Sandi Winslow. We also worked side by side with the same producers, Sean Cameron, Anne Wilson, Gary Freedman, Courtney O’Brien and Jacob Griswell.
Let me express how those people felt about Robert: They adored him. And respected him. And looked out for him. To a person, they will tell you their lives are richer for the years they spent with Robert Osborne.
Robert was a big TV star, the signature face of a network unlike any other on television, a channel that actually forged an emotional bond with its audience. For a host in Robert’s position, developing an outsized sense of self worth, a big head, a TV ego, is not only a possibility, it’s practically par for the course. But ask any of those people for a story of Robert losing his composure, or dressing down a member of the crew, or behaving like a prima donna, and you’ll be met with silence. Robert was as you saw him — distinguished, funny, unfairly charming and smart as hell. In 14 years, the worst story I ever heard about Robert was that he thought takeout Chinese food was good for him “because of all the vegetables.”
During a 2014 tribute to Robert to celebrate TCM’s 20th anniversary, I called him the Walter Cronkite of TCM. I sold him short. He was Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly rolled into one man, a man who could recall the fifth lead in a 1937 Warner Brothers B picture as easily and as stylishly as Vin Scully calling the fifth inning from Dodger Stadium.
And like Scully with the Dodgers and Cronkite at CBS, Robert made being the host at TCM a known entity, a job people knew and respected, a path others like me could follow. Look, we weren’t the first channel to show classic movies. AMC did it for a time. Local stations across the country did it on Friday nights or Saturday mornings for decades. What made TCM stand out? The answer isn’t hard. It’s Robert Osborne.
Robert’s intros fostered the link TCM has with its audience. It’s a visceral connection, built on a shared love of the movies we show on TCM and electrified by Robert’s face and voice, offering us a respite from our troubles, steering us through the historical context and Hollywood vortex of Sunset Boulevard or A Place in the Sun.
Those were two of Robert’s favorites, but his tastes were varied — and his enthusiasm showed on screen, whether he was introducing an energetic musical like The Bandwagon, a cold-blooded film noir like The Narrow Margin or a relatively unknown psychological thriller like My Name Is Julia Ross.
Thinking of Robert’s considerable legacy, I feel quite certain of two things. First, his edits would’ve improved this piece immensely. And second, the proper way to salute this great man is to continue celebrating and sharing the movies he cared about so deeply with TCM’s audience, whether they’re seeing them for the first time or the fiftieth time.
Ben Mankiewicz is a host of Turner Classic Movies.
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