Turner's Classic Host Robert Osborne Brings Film Gems to Life on TCM

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 14, 2005

If Robert Osborne, the dapper host of Turner Classic Movies, were introducing his own life story, he might tell you he came to Hollywood to be an actor and wound up in the 1962 pilot episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies."

The silver-haired Osborne, so suave that he appears to glide into his entrances, had been acting in television for a few years. His mentor was comedian Lucille Ball. And he hoped to be the next Cary Grant.

Instead came "The Beverly Hillbillies," a rags-to-riches CBS sitcom about an Ozark clan that buys a Beverly Hills mansion. There was talk of a recurring role for Osborne, as an assistant to the greedy bank manager. But he left after the pilot to act in commercials for cars, coffee and insurance.

"The show itself seemed so loony and unimportant," he said. "I was sure the pilot would never sell." It became one of the longest-running programs of the era, peaking at 60 million viewers and leaving Osborne to respond: "So much for my psychic powers."

At Ball's suggestion, he abandoned acting for writing and eventually became a columnist and critic for the Hollywood Reporter, a show-business trade publication. He also has published official Oscar histories, which he updates every few years.

Osborne joined TCM just as it began in 1994, and he helps choose among the 6,000 films TCM can air. Knowing that not everyone is a film historian, his introductions often include stories that turn a classic movie into something fun. This month's "Summer Under the Stars" festival on TCM, which highlights one entertainer each day, draws greatly from Osborne's Hollywood years.

Richard Schickel, a filmmaker and Time magazine movie critic, praised Osborne: "You feel like it's not just a guy up there reading copy that people prepared for him to read. That's a good quality and increasingly rare in the television climate of our times. He's something a lot more than just a talking head."

Osborne recently renewed his contract as TCM's primary host for three more years. His hobby is now his career. "All I ever wanted to do was go to movies," he said.

Growing up in the 1940s, Robert Jolin Osborne found movies a major source of pleasure, an escape from the wheat, pea and lentil fields of his native Colfax, Wash. He studied journalism and advertising at the University of Washington and while in Seattle was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout while playing the whistling psychopath in a thriller, "Night Must Fall." He came under contract to a television production company run by Ball and husband Desi Arnaz.

Osborne's knowledge of the old supporting actors impressed Ball. He became part of Ball's small entourage, traveling to New York and Las Vegas. Sometimes the group spent evenings at her house, and Osborne, foreshadowing his work at TCM, selected movies for the group to see. Meanwhile, he said, "Desi was out chasing his girlfriends."

Knowing Ball gave Osborne insight into the loneliness of the great stars and provided a way to meet some of his favorite actresses, he said.

He once was actress Bette Davis's date to the Academy Awards. He also accompanied her to Pickfair, the estate of silent film actress Mary Pickford, where, he said, "I remember Olivia de Havilland in the kitchen talking to Rita Hayworth, and Rita was so vague. At the time, everyone thought she drank. Olivia afterward was so depressed." Hayworth, it later became known, had Alzheimer's disease. In 1977, he moved to New York and joined the Hollywood Reporter, for which he still writes his "Rambling Reporter" column.

"I turned out to be very bad as a columnist," he said, "because I would be told secrets, and I would keep the secrets. I knew Rock Hudson had AIDS long before that came out. I had a big argument with an editor about that, and I said, 'This is not a politician and not something that will affect our lives. And it's something this man wants to keep secret.' "

In his TCM interviews with former stars, he respects their privacy on personal subjects but can often get them to speak tantalizingly of their career. The raucous musical-comedy performer Betty Hutton broke a silence of many decades to tell Osborne how miserably she felt she was treated on the set of "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950). "They wanted Judy Garland, and they never let me forget it," she said of fellow cast members.

Osborne said he has a lively correspondence with viewers, including composer Stephen Sondheim, who "is wonderful about correcting my pronunciations." Another thing about Sondheim, Osborne said, unable to resist the irony, "He loves all kinds of movies except for musicals."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company