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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010

Robert Osborne: Talk About a Classic

Turner Classic Movies host to speak at Ten Chimneys

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Robert Osborne got his start as a young actor in the production company run by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (Desilu), but his greatest role began after he turned 60 and continues to this day. Osborne has been the genial host of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) since the channel began in 1994. There is nothing else like TCM on cable. The channel is commercial-free and makes film history accessible to popular audiences through the good offices of its immaculately dressed, unpretentious and always knowledgeable spokesman.

On the road from Desilu to TCM, Osborne was a columnist for TheHollywood Reporter and wrote the first of many books on the Academy Awards.

“Lucy said, ‘Write a book,’” Osborne recalls. “If you write a book, which shows you have patience and discipline, you will get your foot in the door.’”

Before the publication of that first book, Academy Awards Illustrated (1965), it was hard to locate a complete year-by-year list of Oscar nominees. Trivia mavens as well as film buffs should be forever grateful.

Osborne began his lifelong love of cinema history back when the ability to see old movies was hit or miss. Home video still seemed like science fiction and the only easy access to classic films was the late show on television.

“A friend at 20th Century Fox said that after three years the prints of movies were destroyed,” Osborne says. “Movies had a very short shelf life in those days. Many films were like theater performances, recorded only in the minds of the people who saw them.”

During the 1960s small circles of young people began to reconstruct the lost history of Hollywood. It was like High Fidelity for motion pictures.

“There were groups of us strange people on a certain wavelength—it was like being part of a secret fraternity,” Osborne remembers. “It was an island of our own inhabited by people with the same interests.”

Osborne attributes interest in golden-age Hollywood among the general public to “That’s Entertainment,” a series of documentaries on the musicals of the 1930s-’50s released in the ’70s. During that time, film-appreciation classes and classic film clubs sprouted on college campuses. And then came the VCR.

Meanwhile, Osborne gained experience hosting entertainment television programs; eventually he was called to Atlanta by rising media mogul Ted Turner. “I was nervous about meeting him,” Osborne admits. Turner had courted controversy by showing colorized versions of classics on his other movie channels, but agreed that anything screened on TCM should be shown in its original form. Osborne was put at ease when he realized Turner’s love for old movies. The basis of the channel’s repertoire, and one of the reasons it has remained commercial-free, is the library of more than 7,500 films purchased by Turner from the archives of RKO, MGM and Warner Bros.

“We do lease some packages of other films. We’re always introducing movies we haven’t shown before,” Osborne says. “The selection always looks fresh. We don’t want TCM to be a museum where nothing ever changes.”

Osborne is not the channel’s programming director, but he gladly offers input. A New Yorker since the late ’80s, he spends one week a month at Turner’s studio in Atlanta, taping 130 movie introductions and other spots, and travels to film festivals and other events as the face of TCM. Although the channel’s focus remains on Hollywood from the ’30s through the ’50s, TCM’s roster includes a silent movie show, a foreign classics program and a carefully culled selection of more recent Hollywood titles from the ’60s through the ’90s.

“I was astonished by how many young people came to TCM’s classic film festival in L.A.,” he says. “The kids are responding to those movies, not because of any publicity campaign but because they recognize their quality.”

Robert Osborne will speak 8 p.m. Nov. 13 at Ten
Chimneys in Genesee Depot.

All tickets have been sold.