It’s hard to imagine anyone with more knowledge of films–and more affection for the people who make them—than Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, who died this week at 84.
I was lucky enough to meet Osborne on the inaugural TCM Classic Cruise in December of 2011, following his three month vacation/medical leave. He looked fit and handsome, and he exuded charm as he waved to everyone and greeted guest celebrities Ernest Borgnine, Eva Marie Saint, Norman Jewison and Tippi Hedren on deck the afternoon we set sail.
“You’re still a rock star,” I blurted out as Osborne moved toward a group of us at the welcoming party on the Celebrity cruise ship.
I wasn’t sure the elegantly dressed 79-year-old would take it as a compliment, but apparently he did because he smiled and nodded. Emboldened, I added: “Thanks for bringing back so many wonderful old movies. Especially The Mating Season. I waited decades to see that again.”
Osborne’s grin widened. “One of my favorites!” He sang the praises of the wondrous star, character actor Thelma Ritter, and I happily joined in the chorus.
Afraid I wouldn’t get a second shot at talking to him, I asked: “I know you were friends with Bette Davis and she really, really wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara. Do you think she would have been a good choice?”
Osborne shook his head—reluctantly, it seemed.
“No, I can’t imagine anyone but Vivien Leigh playing that role. She was perfect”
In his lecture the next day he would talk at length about Davis, but I had already grasped the essence of Osborne. As much as he loved her, he cared deeply about the quality of films. If the decision had been his, he would rather have seen the actress disappointed than miscast.
He lamented to the audience that both Davis and Katharine Hepburn chose “terrible” projects to end their careers—Wicked Stepmother and Olly Olly Oxen Free, respectively—in order to keep working. But he blamed the industry, which wanted to make money by honoring them at dinners instead of casting them in worthwhile films.
A Washington native, Osborne lived in Manhattan and shot his TCM segments in Atlanta. Yet a big piece of his heart remained in Hollywood, where Lucille Ball had hired him at Desilu studio and later urged him to share his wealth of film knowledge. He penned several books about the Oscars, wrote for the Hollywood Reporter and was a TV correspondent before becoming a host for the Movie Channel and then TCM.
Over the years he interviewed, critiqued and/or befriended legions of film icons, and his lectures on the cruise were peppered with spellbinding stories and thumbnail sketches.
His first encounter with Hepburn: She was starring in a play near his college and he sent her flowers and a dinner invitation. (She said no. Twice.)
Who most intimidated him: Lauren Bacall and Jennifer Jones–though it’s hard to believe anyone did. (Dude, seriously? After you asked Hepburn out when she was a star and you were a college kid?)
Toughest interviews: Veronica Lake (“extraordinarily difficult”) and Robert Mitchum (“gruesome”)
Favorite actors: Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young and Claude Rains and Cary Grant, to name a few
Top film picks: Notorious, Hobson’s Choice, Dodsworth, The Mating Season (“a honey of a film”) and Jewel Robbery were high on the list
I went to all three of Osborne’s lectures and had another brief chance to talk to him one on one, during the ship’s Casino Night, where he sported a wide-brimmed hat and resembled an extra from Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.
As he passed through the crowded lounge, I returned to the subject of Gone with the Wind. Before he got completely surrounded, I managed to ask “Who would you choose to play Scarlett today?”
Osborne considered the question briefly and shrugged. “I can’t think of anyone who could do it justice.”
I knew it wasn’t classic-film snobbery talking because I’d heard him praise many contemporary actors such as Sally Field, Alec Baldwin and Drew Barrymore. I’m guessing he just felt the role had already been portrayed by the best possible actress.
The Old Hollywood I revere is vanishing too fast, and with Osborne’s passing we’ve lost not only what TCM General Manager Jennifer Dorian termed a “world-class host” but also one of our most important curators of film and film-people lore.
His partner, theatrical producer David Staller, says Osborne promised to see us all “at the after party” and I’m holding him to it. This conversation is far from over.