Robert Osborne never made movies. He wasn't a film director, never wrote a screenplay, and to say his acting career was brief is being generous. Yet to generations of film viewers, particularly Generation X and Millennials, who came along after the glory days of the 'Golden Age of Cinema', Robert Osborne was the face of this era, how many of us learned about film. It was thanks to him that so many received a Master Course to the Art and Joy of Classic Films.
I remember well when I first knew of Osborne. I even recall the movie: On Moonlight Bay with Doris Day. That was the film where I fell in love with Doris Day, and it was the first film I remember watching on Turner Classic Movies. I'm pretty sure I had seen the channel before, but this was the first time I remember actually paying attention to it. From that moment, I was hooked.
Robert Osborne, for many, was how we came to understand not just the importance of films pre-Star Wars, but the pleasure one can derive from them. He didn't dislike Star Wars: on the contrary, he talked about how he got into a bit of a tiff with none other than Bette Davis when she flat-out told him she didn't like that kind of picture and he replied how could she say something so stupid. He, however, was also dismissive of those who stated they didn't like black-and-white films, or silent films, without actually having seen any.
His brief talks before and after a film were not just methods of introducing or concluding a particular film's presentation. They were little nuggets of both information and a fan's appreciation of them. Osborne was no film snob. I remember one time when he introduced the camp classic Queen of Outer Space, informing the audience that while Zsa Zsa Gabor was the main attraction, she herself was not the actual 'Queen of Outer Space'. There was a soft, wry humor to this, not condescending but gently amused at something so offbeat as Queen of Outer Space.
I think his importance to millions of TCM viewers was that he wasn't speaking as some grand old man of cinema, someone who was imparting his decades of knowledge to us, though he certainly did that. He also spoke as a fan, someone who genuinely enjoyed these films. The most passionate missionaries are those who love what they preach on, and Robert Osborne was passionate about film. His enthusiasm and appreciation for both the Art and Pleasure of Cinema was infectious, and so many of us learned to love and/or appreciate all types of film thanks to him.
He insisted that these films and those who made them be studied and respected, not because it was a chore, but because it was a pleasure. He took the remoteness from movies that were older than some of our grandparents. Osborne, I don't think, ever said or believed that every film made before TCM started was brilliant or that films made today wouldn't measure up. I think what he would have said was that we should give them a chance, to be open to all types.
His introductions to the films were erudite, elegant, and gentle, a calming presence that could be trusted to give us both information and enthusiasm. Over his twenty-two years at Turner Classic Movies, he to many of us WAS TCM itself, the face of a network which was devoted to treating cinema's past with respect. He was the perfect host: one who mixed vast wisdom with boundless enthusiasm.
I have great respect for Osborne's manner: elegant, respectful, and always willing to listen to those he shared the screen with whenever a guest discussed a film with him. The only time I reproached him was when he mispronounced Mexican comedian Cantiflas' name for Around the World in 80 Days. He said "CAN'T-in-flas", when it's pronounced "Cahn-TEEN-flaws". Still don't understand why no one guided him.
I for my part will miss him, though ever since he quietly went off the air knew he had to be seriously ill. The other hosts have failed to be universally loved as Osborne. I know some people who dislike the weekend host, Tiffany Vasquez, because they hold she's too hesitant and withdrawn. I have never liked Ben Mankiewicz, finding him irritatingly smug, more interested in showing off what he knows and making bad jokes and snide asides (usually against those he disagrees with). Mank in particularly wouldn't suffer fools gladly, a skill Osborne perfected.
Whatever their virtues, both won't match Osborne's courtly, elegant, and ever-so-polite and pleasant manner.
Robert Osborne loved film and film history. He was an advocate to their importance. I figure he'd be sad if he had learned about my Millennial coworker: she'd never heard of Bob Hope apart from being the name of a street, thought John Wayne was Batman, and not only had never heard of Cary Grant but, like Smalls in The Sandlot, asked, "Who is she?". Worse would be her disinterest in learning about any of them, let alone watching any of their films. His importance in introducing millions to a film catalogue that is unavailable on Netflix or Redbox cannot be underestimated.
Robert Osborne was the warm, gentle, congenial and elegant face of what is called 'classic film'. So many learned to love and appreciate the joy and craftsmanship of film thanks to Robert Osborne.
Thanks For the Memory, Bob.