Robert Osborne in 2014. As the primetime host of Turner Classic Movies, he reached more than 82 million homes from its inception in 1994, the channel said. Robert Osborne, a onetime actor who turned his lifelong love of old films into a starring role as the marquee host of Turner Classic Movies, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.
For the last 23 years, the silver-haired Mr. Osborne brought a sophisticated, gentlemanly air to TCM, where he turned his savant-like familiarity with films, their back stories and their stars into absorbing intros, outros and interviews.
He typically introduced 18 movies a week, as well as marathons and special presentations, that provided an escape into a golden age when Fred and Ginger were dancing, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman ruled and Marlon Brando was transforming acting.
And, it turned out, his presence and storytelling helped turn TCM into a prime destination for movie buffs.
Robert Jolin Osborne (/ˈɒzbɔːrn/; May 3, 1932 – March 6, 2017) was an American actor, film historian, television presenter, and author best known as the primary host for the cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Prior to TCM, Osborne had been a host on The Movie Channel, and, earlier, a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Osborne also wrote the official history of the Academy Awards, originally published in 1988, and most recently revised in 2013.
Osborne began his career working as a contract actor for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s Desilu Studios. There, Osborne became part of Lucille Ball’s Desilu Workshop, in which Ball worked with and nurtured such young performers as Osborne and actress-singer Carole Cook.
One of Osborne’s early television appearances was in a 1959 episode of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse called “Chain of Command”, starring Hugh O’Brian. He was also featured in the Christmas Day Desilu Playhouse installment “The Desilu Revue” in December 1959. He also had small roles in such TV shows as The Californians and the 1962 pilot episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, “The Clampetts Strike Oil” (as Jeff Taylor). Not thinking the show would be a success, he decided not to sign up for the series, instead deciding to focus on acting in television commercials.
Ball suggested that Osborne focus his energies on becoming a journalist, as he would often quip, “especially after she saw me act”. After The Beverly Hillbillies, Osborne would focus more on writing and journalism. In 1965, Osborne had his first book published, Academy Awards Illustrated.
In 1977, Osborne began his long-standing stint as a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. The following year, he published 50 Golden Years of Oscar, which won the 1979 National Film Book award. Having joined the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, he was elected its president in 1981, and served as such till 1983. In 1982, Osborne began a five-year stint as the entertainment reporter on KTTV Channel 11 in Los Angeles. In addition, he began his Rambling Reporter column for The Hollywood Reporter, published five times weekly.
In 1984, Osborne began hosting for The Movie Channel, as well as winning the Publicists Guild of America 1984 Press Award. The following year, he began a relationship with Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), when he hosted a tribute to Shirley Temple at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills. In 1988, AMPAS commissioned him to write 60 Years of the Oscar; he later wrote six updates to the volume, the latest being 85 Years of the Oscar in 2013.
In 1994, Ted Turner created Turner Classic Movies as a competitor to American Movie Classics (now known as AMC). Osborne was selected as the host of their nightly broadcasts. For TCM, in addition to hosting four primetime movies seven days a week, he was also the host of special one-on-one “Private Screening” interviews featuring many familiar actors and directors. Beginning in 2006, Osborne also co-hosted TCM’s The Essentials. His co-hosts were Molly Haskell from 2006 to 2007, Carrie Fisher from 2007 to 2008, Rose McGowan from 2008 to 2009, Alec Baldwin from 2009 to 2011, Drew Barrymore and finally Sally Field.
Osborne also participated in events at the Paley Center for Media in New York City saluting the television careers of Lucille Ball and Cloris Leachman. Beginning in 2005, Osborne hosted the annual “Robert Osborne’s Classic Film Festival” in Athens, Georgia. The non-profit event is held by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. In 2010, Osborne hosted the very first TCM Classic Film Festival, and participated in subsequent annual festivals.
In 2011, TCM announced that Osborne would be taking “a short break from his TCM hosting duties for minor surgery, followed by a vacation.” Osborne did, however, continue to appear on Saturday nights hosting “The Essentials” with Alec Baldwin. In 2012, Osborne began to share some of his hosting duties with Ben Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz hosts primetime films two nights a week as well as many daytime events. Osborne stated that he will continue to work “as long as I have health, and as long as I think I look O.K. on camera.” He also said, “If I really couldn’t do it with enthusiasm, that would be the time to quit.”
In 2014, as part of an exclusive programming deal with Disney, Turner Classic Movies agreed to become the sponsor of The Great Movie Ride. The attraction underwent a refurbishment in 2015, with the addition of a new pre-show and post-show hosted by Osborne, who also provides onboard narration to the ride. The changes were unveiled on May 29, 2015.
Osborne left the air in early 2016 due to an undisclosed health issue, and missed a number of TCM annual events over the next year. Died at his New York City home on March 6, 2017. The cause of Osborne’s death was not immediately announced. He was 84.