It was a New Year’s Eve of my early 20s. My family had plans, my friends had plans. I, however, did not have plans. I suddenly thought that I should have plans. I should be out with someone, I should have someone over. I began calling people as those were the days when you actually phoned someone. Every person I called had plans, no one was free to come over. Depressed and sunken I accepted that this would be a New Year not spent with the company of a charming lass, but alone.
I decided to see what would be on Turner Classic Movies that evening. I didn’t want to watch the ball drop, I didn’t want to see people making out in Times Square, I just wanted to watch something else. TCM was showing a marathon of Marx Brothers movies that night, favorites of mine and I thought to myself “At least I’ll have some company.” As the clock crept closer to eight I placed a frozen pizza in the oven, went out to the sunroom where the TV was, and flipped it to TCM.
On the dot at eight o’clock was Robert Osborne, wearing a tuxedo and holding a glass of champagne, welcoming me and telling me how happy he was I would be joining him for the evening. It wasn’t a bad way to spend New Year’s Eve. I never met Robert Osborne, but when he passed away last week at the age of 84 I felt like I had a lost a friend. Since its inception in 1994 Robert Osborne was the heart and soul of Turner Classic Movies. Sometimes at the end of a terrible day I knew I could rely on my friend to be there for me with a movie, perhaps one I had never seen before, with a little bit of info as why I ought to check this one out.
Osborne had been, in essence, preparing his whole life for his TCM hosting gig. A native of Washington state, Osborne moved to Hollywood as a young man with the goal of becoming an actor. Osborne found himself under contract to Desilu studios and soon hanging out with Lucille Ball. It was Ball who noticed that Osborne had such an intense curiosity for classic Hollywood, encouraging him to become a writer and chronicle about the movies he loved most. “It was the best advice I was ever given” he would later recall.
His first book “Academy Awards Illustrated” was published in 1965 and he would soon find himself striking many friendships with the stars he adored so much. In the late ‘70s he began a long running stint as a columnist for “The Hollywood Reporter,” in 1982 he began a five year run on a local Los Angeles TV station as an entertainment reporter, all leading up to his “dream job that didn’t exist yet” as the host of Turner Classic Movies.
TCM wasn’t the first place to show classic movies on TV, nor the first cable outlet to do so with hosts (that would have been American Movie Classics, aka AMC long before anyone thought of zombies). But at TCM is where Osborne made his biggest impact. By the early 2000s TCM was starting to develop a strong and fervent fanbase of young people. Countless numbers of people in their 20s and 30s who fell in love with film noir, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Fred and Ginger, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder.
I count myself as one of those young people who began watching TCM regularly when I was in high school. Sometimes if a film was coming on TCM that I had seen, and I was rushing to get ready to go some place, I’d tune in as I’d just wanna see what Robert Osborne would have to say about it. The greatest gift he gave us classic film fans was sharing his love and infectious joy for these films with an entire generation who had never seen them before. In an interview from a few year back Osborne remarked that the number of young people who attend the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood every year is “a huge percentage.”
I’ve been fortunate to be involved with The Capitol Theater, a restored movie house from the 1930s in downtown Greeneville. There I’ve been able to introduce some of the films that I and Robert Osborne love so dearly. Whenever I work on my notes for an introduction I always think to myself “What would Robert Osborne do?” Robert Osborne was one of a kind, he was to TCM what Walter Cronkite was to CBS. To say he will be missed is an understatement of the grandest order. TCM is in good hands with Ben Mankiewicz, who joined the network in 2003, Tiffany Vazquez, who joined last year, and Eddie Muller who hosts the new Noir Alley spotlight that began this month.
TCM will always be “The house that Robert Osborne built.” It’s my great hope that he knew the wonderful legacy he left behind, the impact he made on people’s lives, and how much he meant to us. TCM has become more than just a cable channel, it’s become a community with TCM as the clubhouse. I’ve made so many friends through the TCM internet community that I have nothing but the greatest thanks for.
To those of us, especially in our 20s and 30s, who love these movies, talk about these movies, obsessed about these movies–we owe Robert Osborne a debt we can never repay. I’ll try my best my showing these movies to as many people as I can get my hands on. Sleep well, Mr. Osborne. Thank you so much for everything you did for classic film. The world will be a much poorer place without you, though you leave it richer.