If ever a man got to live out his dream, it was Robert Osborne. Twenty-three years ago he was hired to be the on-camera host for Turner Classic Movies. He was the perfect man for the job because his enthusiasm was genuine and his knowledge was vast. Yet I don’t think the people at TCM realized how indelibly he would become identified with the network—or how connected his viewers would become with him.
I can testify to this, having watched the reaction of people who traveled from all over the country to attend the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. When Robert would appear in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel he’d be mobbed like a rock star. He represented everything these fans loved about TCM and what it stood for: a pathway to vintage Hollywood and great movies of the past.
He never could have envisioned such a gig. Robert started out as an actor and wound up in Lucille Ball’s Desilu comedy workshop in the early 1960s. He made a handful of TV appearances and might have gotten by, but he always credited Lucy with giving him life-changing advice: she encouraged him to draw on his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood instead of becoming just another working stiff in front of the camera. Eventually he became the official historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, compiling and updating a massive coffee-table tome about the history of the Oscars. He also appeared as the official greeter on the Oscar red carpet.
By the time I moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s he was a fixture on-camera as the entertainment reporter for station KTTV. He found another perfect vehicle when the Hollywood Reporter gave him a column of his own called “Rambling Reporter.” Here he would write about anything that struck his fancy, which usually meant classic, old-school show-business.
Film historian and author Scott Eyman got to know him when Bob purchased a condo in Florida and calls him “a remarkable human being. I never spent time with him without coming away feeling better. He was the kind of friend you read about and hear about but don’t think you’ll ever meet. If you had a problem, it was his problem and he wouldn’t rest until he did something about it. A completely simpatico person.”
He never stopped being a movie-struck kid, even though his years of experience revealed the secrets Hollywood hid from its fans. “Nobody could dish like Bob,” says Eyman. “He knew where all the bodies were and who put them there…but he never got jaded about movies of the 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s.”
When he moved to Manhattan, he found an ideal apartment on West 57th Street, near Carnegie Hall, in a building that (impossibly) was named The Osborne. It had housed many famous people in the past, including Clifton Webb. Eventually, Robert owned three apartments there: one to live in, one to use as an office, and the other to store his formidable collection of movie memorabilia. (His particular passion: one-sheets for 20th Century Fox films.)
Robert was always kind to me and my family–from the time I first met him as a newcomer to Los Angeles through the many years at TCM. He remained a private person, even to those who knew him well, but he was always impeccably turned out, and just as impeccable in his demeanor with friends and fans alike.
The TCM job was a godsend for him and his audience. As Scott Eyman told me, “This was not a job; it was a mission to him. This is what he was put on this earth to do.” It’s become a cliché to say “he will be missed.” In the case of Robert Osborne, the plain fact is this: no one can or will ever replace him.