Robert Osborne, R.I.P.


Robert Osborne (1932–2017), who died on March 6, started out as an aspiring young gay actor, whose talent was not equal to his aspiration. His acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act. Acting, after all, is only one aspect of the art. He didn’t repine; he kept involved. He became a writer about film, and eventually he became the founding and continuing host of that great American institution, Turner Classic Movies, which presents movies on cable TV, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and never edits or censors them.

Osborne’s genial, knowledgeable, and above all genuine presence made him a central figure in my life and the lives of many other people. I remember sharing happy hours watching TCM with the late Ronald Hamowy, when he was ill and had difficulty leaving his house. Ronald and I watched whatever movies Osborne presented, always appreciating the way he handled his role as host and (concise) commentator. Ronald knew more about movies than I did, and consequently knew better than I how to value Robert Osborne; but over the years I learned more about film, and a lot of it came from watching Osborne and TCM. There are few things in life that are both good and available at any time. TCM is one of those things, and Osborne was largely responsible for its continuance and success.

Osborne's acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act.

Osborne was famous for his friendships with Hollywood stars, but he was no idolator or press agent. His interviews with them dwelt on serious questions of art and craft and the challenges of life, and he had a way of gently bringing people out in conversation so that pretense vanished and personality emerged. He took human weakness for granted and went beyond it, to more interesting things.

I have no idea what Osborne’s politics were, because they were irrelevant to his work. I wish I could say as much about the unequal figures who have occupied the scene at TCM during recent years, years of the mysterious illness that seems finally to have claimed Osborne’s life. He was himself a strong personality, but he never thrust the purely-Osborne forward; he was always Osborne in pursuit of the life of film.

For this I am thankful. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” People who don’t know the history of film are missing much of the food and most of the fun. Osborne’s mission was to issue invitations to the banquet, to inspire in others his own enthusiasm for a great art form. He was not a “legend,” as dead celebrities are always proclaimed to be. No, he was a reality.

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Anastasia Beaverhausen

So according to you his politics were irrelevant, but you took pains to broadcast his sexual orientation in the first sentence? That was just as irrelevant.

Gary Jason

I couldn't agree more with your thoughts on Osborne's career as TCM host. What I found infectious was his genuine enthusiasm for the classic movie era, which for me was from around 1930 to 1965—precisely the Hollywood of the oft-bashed studio system.

Osborne will be greatly missed, indeed.

Stephen Cox

Thank you, Gary. You are making an excellent point about the old Hollywood studio system. Everything we do has debits and credits, and the studio system had plenty of both. Its debits are often noted, but it took the risk of investing in hundreds of productions a year, often involving expensive new technology, with only a gambler’s chance that these productions would succeed at the box office. Studios always ran the risk of being bankrupted; there was then and is now no reliable means of approximating audience response. More important for us, the audience, is the fact that the studios invested continuously in new people—actors, writers, producers, directors—trained them, paid them a lot of money, and perfected their careers, to their own profit as well as that of the studios. It developed an astonishing array of talent, and not just that of the great stars, who usually would not have realized their capacities without all that the studios did for them. It also developed a host of terrific B-list actors who created perennially interesting roles. What besides the studio system would have given us Claude Rains, Edward G. Robinson, Franchot Tone, Hattie McDaniel, Mary Wickes, Mary Astor, or hundreds of other one-of-a-kind actors? On one hand, the studio system was a paradise of corporate repression; on the other hand, it was the enabler of thousands of unique contributions and the creator of a great art form.

Jo Ann

Thank you, Stephen, for this warm and heartfelt remembrance of Robert Osborne. I think many of us feel the same way about his influence — his storytelling style was so natural and his anecdotes so personal that he seemed like a friend inviting us into his living room to share his favorite hobby with us. And because of him, "old movies" became recognized as a legitimate art form instead of just TV programming filler.

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