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Article on Robert Osborne


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

 

By Adam Bernstein

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, August 14, 2005; Y07

 

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

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