Tribute to a friend: Robert Osborne

ROBERT OSBORNE

1932 – 2017

Bob Osborne once told me why he took the job at a start-up called Turner Classic Movies. He had a competing offer from American Movie Classics, which had been in business for years, and he asked Debbie Reynolds which offer he should take.

“Turner,” she replied succinctly.

“Why?”

“The film library!” she said, as if he was a slightly dim student who needed to understand show business reality.

There were a few places we liked to have dinner. In New York, it was the Trattoria del Arte, which is across the street from his apartment at – where else? – the Osborne. In West Palm Beach, where I live and where Bob owned a condo, it was the Rhythm Café. Wherever we were, dinner was going to be interrupted by a stream of people, many of whom happened to be famous, but who became star-struck fans when they spotted his always impeccably combed crown of white hair.

Dinner always consisted of Bob, my wife, Lynn, and myself, and the topic was always the movies. We all agreed that the two word answer to all of life’s knottiest problems was “Barbara Stanwyck,” as in “What would Barbara Stanwyck do?”

More often than not, the answer was, “Shoot the son of a bitch,” but that’s more easily accomplished in the movies than in life. Occasionally Bob would offer up bloodcurdling backstage stories from his days as an actor or at the Hollywood Reporter. He never told me they were off-the-record, but he didn’t have to.

I’ve never known anybody so generous with their time and energy. If someone Bob loved had a problem, it became Bob’s problem until he had solved it. He had the world’s greatest Rolodex and thought nothing of using it to help out a writer friend. Similarly, he delighted in putting his friends together and watching them discover each other. Even though he wrote the definitive books on the Academy Awards, he was unfailingly modest about his own contributions to film history.

He was passionate about TCM, believed in the channel, and he worked slavishly to spread the word. For the first 15 years of the channel’s existence, besides an intensive taping schedule he was on the road constantly, introducing films across the country, teaching, doing one-nighters for the channel. Watching him at work was to see a man completely engaged with his job: banging away at a script on his laptop in between tapings; on the phone to a researcher in Atlanta to clear up a fact.

Hosting on TCM wasn’t a gig, it was a mission. His apartments at the Osborne were full of splendid one-sheets and stills from the films that had meant the most to him as a boy growing up in provincial Washington. (He got a little blasé about modern movies, but never about the movies of his youth.) I always suspected that his years of being an under-employed actor had left him with a gnawing anxiety, and that he knew his late-life flourishing with TCM was as close as he would ever get to the actor’s dream of full employment.

Because of his knowledge, because of his enthusiasm, because of his warmth and innate elegance, he removed the musty smell from old movies. This great gentleman made them vibrant and engaging for the general population.

Bob was an intensely private person, so his health problems of the last few years are off-limits. Suffice it to say that he made heroic efforts to move forward, and fretted more about a loss of control than he did about illness.

He used to say that he was lucky because he had found the thing he had been put on earth to do. In truth, we – his audience, his friends — were the lucky ones.

 

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