I met Robert Osborne in the vicinity of a star, which is another way of saying I met Robert Osborne in his true element.
The gracious, effortless marquee headliner of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, who died early Monday in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 84, came to Chicago in 2011 for a TCM screening event held at the Music Box Theatre. He was traveling with his pal Jane Powell, the female lead in the 1954 MGM musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” I joined them at the Ritz-Carlton downtown and, because I don’t like interviewing two people at once – somebody usually goes away, muttering, with thoughts unexpressed – they agreed to meet and converse separately.
The column was about Powell, but Osborne, a Colfax, Washington, native, was no less interesting. He treated everybody well. Everybody.
He was the nicest, most humble TV star I ever got to know, and call a friend, and his humility, I suspect, came easy because he knew his material. He knew so much, and so many Hollywood legends he’d chronicled over the decades. How many TCM fans felt like they lost an uncle, or a brother, or a fellow cinephile, when they heard of his death Monday? (Robert’s longtime TCM producer Sean Cameron delivered the news that morning to the Atlanta TCM crew; in a quirk of timing, I was among them, filming a batch of guest-host introductions to be aired next month on TCM.)
I enjoyed a few dinners in New York over the years with Robert, and I hate to disappoint anyone, but dinner with that guy was as easy and delightful as you’d expect. We talked about writing, and writing for television, the sly, witty films of Ernst Lubitsch and Vincente Minnelli’s facility with musicals, melodramas and comedies. We talked about his Hollywood Reporter days, and his extraordinary good fortune in landing at TCM, one of the few things in contemporary media that everyone loves and admires.
We talked about his days under contract with Desilu, and how Lucille Ball saved him from a life of being a solid, unspectacular actor by suggesting he write a book about the Oscars. The performing Robert did on screen, and on stage, ended up being excellent training for the role of playing himself, comfortably, on television. He found it hilarious that, generations apart, we played the same dull romantic lead (the young psychiatrist in “Harvey”) in summer stock. Small world.
When Robert Osborne introduced a movie, or met a fan, or conducted an interview, he was subtly remarkable: a reminder that class and kindness make sense together, and too few people don’t bother with either. Hardly anyone on the planet, certainly anyone specializing in old Hollywood and the stubbornly enduring appeal of the movies, knew firsthand the sort of adoration and appreciation Robert did. He loved his life’s work, and took all movies, great and small, just seriously enough to make them matter, one anecdote, one scene, one close-up at a time.
Looking through some old emails from Robert, there’s one I love for its simplicity. Here’s hoping, he wrote in closing, “that life for you is like a Lubitsch film.”
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