Thursday, January 18, 2007

TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES "31 DAYS OF OSCAR"—The Evening Class Interview With Robert Osborne

As prime time host and anchor of the Turner Classic Movies ("TCM") cable television network, Robert Osborne brings viewers out of their living rooms and into the world of classic Hollywood, providing insider information, facts and trivia on TCM movie presentations.

Born in Colfax, Washington (population: 2700), Osborne graduated from the University of Washington's School of Journalism, appearing in local plays in his non-study hours. He soon went to Hollywood as an actor under contract to Desilu Studios and joined the staff of The Hollywood Reporter in 1977. Six years later he began writing the paper's influential "Rambling Reporter" column, which covers all aspects of the movie and television business. He also attends the Cannes Film Festival to review films for the paper and is The Hollywood Reporter's chief Broadway critic, covering New York plays and first nights.

Osborne began as the on-air entertainment reporter for the nightly news on Los Angeles' KTTV in 1982. In 1987, he was signed by CBS to make daily appearances on the CBS Morning Program. From 1986-1993, he was also a regular host of The Movie Channel cable network.

From 1981-83, he served as president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA). He is a frequent guest on Entertainment Tonight, Good Morning America and other network shows; won a Golden Mike for excellence (for a TV special he wrote, produced and hosted titled Lana Turner Today); has twice been a CableAce nominee for his "Osborne Report" segments for The Movie Channel; and was nominated for an Emmy Award as Best Host Moderator. Osborne is also the winner of the 1984 Press Award from the Publicists Guild of America.

In addition to his hosting duties for TCM, Osborne has also done several specials for the network, including Private Screenings, an hour-long interview series with such Hollywood luminaries as Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Shirley MacLaine, Ann Miller, Mickey Rooney, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis.

Anticipating ABC's broadcast of the 79th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday, February 25, at 5 p.m. PST, TCM will be showcasing the versatility of the films honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences during its 13th annual on-air festival "31 Days of Oscar", February 1 through March 3. Each day of programming will be themed into different categories including "Directing", "Cinematography," "Actor," "Actress," "Song," "Costume Design," and "Original Screenplay." Additionally, a 72-hour "Best Picture" marathon, from 5 p.m. PST Thursday, Feb. 22 through 5 p.m. PST Sunday, Feb. 25 will serve as a drum roll leading into the 79th Annual Academy Awards telecast. Though the complete schedule is not quite yet up on TCM's website, it soon will be, though it has been announced on TCM's Now Playing subscription magazine.

Robert Osborne will be guiding viewers throughout more than 350 movies aired during the festival introducing landmark movies such as Breakfast at Tiffany's, From Here to Eternity and West Side Story. More than 75 titles are new to TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" this year and nearly 40 films are a network premiere, including The High and the Mighty, The Son of Monte Cristo, The Absent Minded Professor, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Four Weddings and a Funeral, just to name a few.

I had the welcome opportunity to briefly chat with Robert Osborne this morning via telephone. As a self-proclaimed "Oscar junkie", I imagined him trembling in his boots right around now. Of course, he admitted, but all the more so because it's been a truly fine year for film. There's some major projects out there that make this year special and noteworthy.

His frontpiece essay for TCM's Now Playing on "31 Days of Oscar" reads customarily wry, especially his comment about the prominent placement of those strange ads in publications and billboards screaming, "Me, me, me! I'm the best" by people who—when they win—have to be helped from the stage because they're so overcome with surprise. ("Who me? I'm the best?")

Osborne is the first film commentarian I've heard of who is actually billed as an "Oscar historian" and is, indeed, the official biographer for the Academy Awards. I asked him what that meant, exactly, his being an "official biographer"?

Thanks to a series of books he'd written earlier in his career on the subject of Hollywood's annual Academy Awards—notably his "home-made" Academy Awards Illustrated—he was invited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to author 75 Years Of the Oscar. They gave him access to their voluminous files and archives and gave him free rein to include whatever he deemed important. The book has since been called "the most comprehensive and definitive book ever done on the subject" and one of the achievements he took most pride in was giving focus to actors who had been blacklisted from Oscar nominations during those sad, nefarious days of Hollywood.

Along with introducing TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" Osborne has been invited back by the Academy Awards to be a red carpet greeter. I asked if there was anyone he hadn't met yet who he was hoping to meet on the red carpet this year?

Osborne explained that he doesn't really get the opportunity to "meet" people. They've a particular agenda when they're on the red carpet and a specific duty to their fans and press. But it's fascinating to watch how individuals work the crowd, someone like George Clooney, for example, is a master at it while other actors are not as skilled. But's it's always wonderful to briefly greet someone you admire. Last year he got to speak with Judi Dench and Meryl Streep and some of the old guard was there as well—Lauren Bacall and Jane Russell.

Before the Academy entrusted him out front, Osborne also served as a seat-filler at the awards ceremony. I asked him about that experience.

That was a long time ago, Osborne chuckled, before he had an actual print gig. He was freelancing, and was offered a chance to be in the auditorium as a seat-filler. Whenever a man had to go backstage to prep for an on-stage presentation, Robert would fill their seat so that when the camera turned on to the audience, there would be no empty seats. He did this for several years. One of his favorite years was when Richard Burton was called backstage and he got to sit down next to Elizabeth Taylor. Burton ended up not returning to his seat, remaining backstage drinking, which infurtiated Elizabeth to no end. She was cussing up a storm, calling him four-letter names under her breath. She wanted to be backstage drinking too.

Noting that he had become the face of TCM, sporting a confident avuncular style, what I would enviously call t.v. glamour and—although he's been working the field for a long time as a critic-columnist for The Hollywood Reporter—I posed that it would be safe to say that for many of us his hosting on TCM was our first exposure to his wit and encyclopedic knowledge. I asked him what precipitated the shift from print film coverage to on-air coverage?

Basically, he chuckled, he was invited. Everything opened up for him when he got his job with The Hollywood Reporter because, in those days, if you worked for a trade journal, you were invited by the local television affiliates to cover entertainment-related events. If, for example, Henry Fonda was in the hospital and they thought he was going to die, they'd send you down to the hospital. In time, he was invited to handle their entertainment coverage and, over time, was invited to host on The Movie Channel and Turner Classics. It wasn't anything he sought out personally. His hobby just got out of control. He still considers himself more of a print writer.

Having recently spoken with Osborne's Essentials co-host Molly Haskell who commended his grasp of "high-level gossip" (Osborne chuckled at the characterization), I observed how he charmingly caters to moviegoers' prurient interest in the lives of actors and filmmakers and sifts out interesting trivia about the filmmaking process. I was curious how he obtained all that information and how he stored it? Did he have some kind of sophisticated file card system?

Much of it was timing, he bemused. When he arrived in Hollywood it was at a time when press were not like today's paparazzi. It was not as frantic and intrusive. You could go to a party and Judy Garland would be singing at the piano, maybe Cary Grant would make an appearance, or Henry Fonda and his wife Shirley, things were much more relaxed. And the thing was that most of these actors, like Bette Davis or Judy Garland, had passed the heydays of their studio careers and they were charmed by someone, like Osborne, who knew about their careers and what they had done. They were forthcoming because of that. At that time there was not yet a nostalgia for Hollywood's yester years and certainly nothing like TCM to educate the public.

I commended Osborne on his fair approach towards appreciating films. Even with just a one-star film or a two-star film, he highlights just enough information to convince his audiences that even a minor vehicle deserves respect and attention. Rather than rip movies apart, which often seems the critical rage, he focuses on how they are put together. I love that.

Robert was so happy to hear that and appreciated the feedback because it's exactly what he's trying to do. Even if a movie isn't a great movie, who's to say it's not deeply loved by someone and what good does it do to ruin their enjoyment?

While Osborne was an actor under contract with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, it was Lucy who encouraged him to become a writer. I asked if he could speak a bit about her and why it was he heeded her advice?

Though Lucy was famous for her comedy, Osborne described her as a very serious business woman who suffered a bit for not thinking she was smart, even though she had major street smarts. After interacting with Osborne for a while and noting his great interest in Hollywood history, she suggested he shift into writing because—while there were plenty of actors to go around—there were not as many writers. Further, she wasn't confident that Robert had the necessary street smarts to deal with auditions. There were so many aggressive young actors who could do nothing else with whom Osborne would be competing and Lucy felt he should explore his other talents. He could write. He had a passion for Hollywood's film history. Osborne took Lucy's advice and has never regretted it. To this day he has not seen a play or a movie where he felt he should have played the part. Lucy remained his friend over the years, checking in at least annually to see what he was doing, who he was socializing with, and frequently inviting him over for dinner.

When I asked what advice he might give young people approaching the field of film writing or on-air film reportage, he said first not to do it unless you have a passion for it. And secondly, he had to pass on the same advice Lucy gave him, which was to write a book. It doesn't have to be a great book. But find something that hasn't been written about and write a book. That will show others you have the discipline to write and works well as a calling card.

Elsewhere, I recommend Scott Holleran's Box Office Mojo close-up on Robert Osborne,'s detailed interview, Joanie Kauffman's New York Times write-up on Osborne's real estate interests, and Adam Bernstein's profile for The Washington Post. Osborne likewise moderates a late March Classic Film Festival at Grady College of Journalism at The University of Georgia. I'm tempted to attend. How about you?

Cross-published at Twitch.


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Anonymous said...

Nothing posted for almost two weeks and than several big articles almost at once! On the times we watched TCM, Lumena kept asking how come I didn't have Robert Osborne's job, or least sit in the chair occupied by Ben Mankiewicz. Lumena asks about your health by the way.

Michael Guillen said...

Please thank Lumena for her kind thoughts, Peter.

I imagine all of us wish we could be in either Osborne's or Mankiewicz's shoes.

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