One of my favorite assignments while A&E editor at Creative Loafing in Atlanta was taking the opportunity in 2008 to profile Turner Classic Movies’ host Robert Osborne at a time when the Turner property was undergoing a corporate sea change. It was the kind of corporate makeover that lots of people who follow the entertainment industry are all too familiar, but it was happening in Atlanta, far from the hubs of New York City and Los Angeles, and where for years TCM was allowed mostly to operate on its own and create a fun, unique, entertaining and yes, informative cable movie channel.
Robert Osborne was its public face, himself a walking library of Hollywood history. (I’ve got my copy of his “75 Years of Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards” coffee table book to prove it; the book is so thick it once served as my son’s booster seat at the dinner table.) Osborne is the kind of person you want to use the word “class” to describe but you know it sounds un-classy to use it. But he exuded a certain kind of sophistication that continually reminded you of his passion for culture, popular or otherwise. And he believed in the magic of movies and the importance of remembering its history.
As those who have noted Monday (March 6) on his passing, at age 84, that Robert Osborne was Turner Classic Movies. He was sophisticated, yes, but also humble about his rise in a fiercely competitive industry. He made his own curious niche and had become a survivor of sorts. As I noted in that profile:
Robert Osborne is the last of a dying breed, a once-aspiring actor who turned into a Hollywood insider and historian — an authority but a friend, a public face revered in private. He’s always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and if luck is when preparation meets opportunity, Osborne has prepared with the charm and knowledge to move up in a business swimming with sharks. He talks about his career like he does movies, never making a cinematic reference without context. He mentions his Seattle stage work after graduating from the University of Washington with a journalism degree and recalls landing a role in a 1958 production: “The actor I was doing the play with was Jane Darwell, who’d won the Academy Award for playing Henry Fonda’s mother in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ And she said, ‘You should come to California.’ I could stay at her family’s house, and I had some friends there.’”
Toward the end of the profile, which pondered how long an evolving network obsessed with demographics would keep such an elderly public face, Osborne was philosophical — this, nine years before his passing:
Even out of makeup, he could pass for 65, lines and all. He seems to pace himself in everything he does or says. ‘I would love to keep doing it as long as it’s still viable for Turner,’ Osborne says. ‘There obviously will come an age when you’re too old to be doing it, I guess, but I’d love to keep doing it. I feel good, and I love the people I work with. And I love this product.’”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go pop in a black-and-white movie.