Robert Osborne returns Thursday as the regular host of Turner Classic Movies. (TCM/TCM)

For 17 years, Robert Osborne has been the face of Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel that features films from Hollywood’s golden age of cinema.

But as loyal viewers are well aware, that face has been largely absent for four months. That will change this Thursday when the 79-year-old Osborne resumes regular hosting duties.

Officially, the reason given for Osborne’s MIA status was “minor surgery, followed by a vacation,” according to a TCM Web site announcement last summer. That explanation didn’t sit well with many puzzled viewers, leading to much speculation in the classic movie blogosphere. But, Osborne explains, it was no great mystery.

“I had a few medical tests, got dental work done, and had crowns put on some teeth, then took a much-needed rest,” Osborne said a few days ago from his New Yorkapartment. “I’ve never really taken a vacation since I started working for TCM, so I was ready. Just this year, from January to June, I took 23 airplane trips and was quite exhausted. I was determined to keep away from airports! So I went absolutely nowhere — didn’t even leave Manhattan. I’ve lived in New York for over 20 years and never spent so much time there. It was wonderful.”

Osborne was originally scheduled for a three-month hiatus, but it was extended to four. And for that, his viewers can blame Drew Barrymore.

“Drew is replacing Alec Baldwin on our Saturday-evening ‘Essentials’ program for 2012,” Osborne explained, referring to the movie-discussion series. “She has a very busy film and TV schedule, and could only tape the interviews in October. So I spent the month doing those. She is a perfect co-host and very knowledgeable about the Barrymore legacy and film in general.”

As he resumes his own hectic agenda traveling around the country attending film festivals and conducting interviews, Osborne will again become a frequent flier on the New York-to-Atlanta route. He makes the two-hour flight every month and spends several days at Turner Studios recording commentaries for the dozens of movies he introduces on TCM each month.

During his absence, a dazzling array of guest hosts subbed for Osborne, including movie veterans Jane Powell, Robert Wagner and Eva Marie Saint.

“I filled in around 26 times for Robert and loved it,” Saint said by phone from Los Angeles. Saint co-starred alongside Cary Grant in “North by Northwest” and with Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1955.

Saint has admired Osborne for years, she says, but the two met for the first time at a recent TCM Film Festival in Los Angeles. They’ve since traveled to film events across the country where Osborne and the 87-year-old actress discuss her career.

“Director Martin Scorseseis well-known for his involvement in the restoration and preservation of films,” she added. “I think Robert is also doing that in his own way by showing these films, talking about them, and introducing them to new audiences. I call him the rock star of the classic movie world!”

As a star from that era herself, Saint says she is frequently questioned about her legendary co-stars. “Fans always ask me, ‘What was Marlon Brando really like?’ or ‘What was it like to kiss Cary Grant?’ ” she said. “But now, they also ask ‘What’s it like to be hugged by Robert Osborne?’ ”

Osborne and Saint will get more hugging time in early December, but not on land. Together with other classic film celebrities, and some 2,000 passengers, they’ll be heading out to sea aboard the Celebrity Millennium for TCM’s first Classic Cruise on Dec. 8.

During the four-day voyage from Miami to Key West and Cozumel, guests will enjoy screenings, discussions with film star guests and trivia contests.

“We’ve never done this before, so it’s an experiment,” said Osborne. “We’ll also have Ernest Borgnine, Tippi Hedren and director Norman Jewison on board, so it should be great fun.”

In addition to mingling with stars, passengers attending the interview forums can expect to be treated to Osborne’s popular, relaxed style of interviewing.

“I like to think they are more conversations than interviews,” Osborne says. “I’m flattered that people enjoy what I do and it’s amazing how many people are so passionate about the classics. TCM has become an oasis for movie fans who enjoy films that leave them with a good feeling.”

Nick Thomas is author of the new book “Raised by the Stars: Interviews with 29 Children of Hollywood Actors.”