Robert Osborne’s passing from this mortal coil on March 6, 2017, at 84 leaves a void in the world of film appreciation that will be filled, but perhaps without the wealth of first-hand experience, knowledge and savvy that the onetime actor and columnist brought to his role as the lead host of Turner Classic Movies. But in the more than two decades in which he performed that role with a courtly and engaging manner, he set a standard for class and backstory about the films he introduced that the cable channel must continue to pursue as co-hosts Ben Mankiewicz and Tiffany Vazquez presumably step up to take his place.
Not that I was always in love with Bob Osborne’s approach and TCM’s selection of films, but to each his own. I know he was enamored of the movies that defined Hollywood’s Golden Age, especially musicals produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But there were times I wondered if he had a certain disdain for some genres and really hadn’t seen some of the flicks he discussed, instead relying on the introductory notes prepared for the broadcast. Case in point: the classic British science fiction entry “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955, U.S. title: “The Creeping Unknown”), in which he continually mispronounced the name of the film’s hero, portrayed by Brian Donlevy, as “Quar-ter-mass” instead of “Quay-ter-mass.” Just ask my poor wife about how that drove me up the wall.
But Bob Osborne realized that if TCM was to survive with exacting fans, all kinds of movies, from “Gone With the Wind” to the Bomba the Jungle Boy series, needed to be screened for subscribers. So he can be forgiven the occasional lapse (and I know, I’m being petty). Besides, I’m sure he had many other things to do apart from watching movies all day, such as discussing “The Essentials” with various celebrity co-hosts, authoring books on the history of the Academy Awards and hosting at various film gatherings, including the annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Bob Osborne started with TCM in 1994 and quickly turned the channel into a terrific resource for cineastes, thanks to such features as “Silent Sundays” and “TCM Imports” that were introduced in successive years. My cable provider at the time did not have TCM and didn’t until three years after its debut; however, a friend did have it on his service and graciously taped a copy of a film that my father spoke of highly that he had seen on its original release, 1937’s “They Gave Him a Gun,” starring Spencer Tracy, Franchot Tone and Gladys George.
As I saw the film, it struck me that it had probably been decades since this M-G-M drama had been even seen on TV. It was a tale of a timid World War I draftee (Tone), hardened by his experiences in the trenches who returns home to build a fearsome reputation as an underworld killer. But despite the film being considered an anti-war polemic indicative of its time and a minor effort in the careers of Tracy (as Tone’s pal) and his co-stars, it got an opportunity to be seen again, and I regret that my dad, who passed not long after I received the copy, never got to see “They Gave Him a Gun” once more. But through the efforts of Ted Turner, Bob Osborne and the channel that showcases the big and small exhibits of cinema history, many worthy movies have gotten and are getting a second or more chance at viewing, and that really says something.
The fact is, TCM is about the last stand for commercial-free and quality presentation of classic movies. When TCM began, its immediate rival on cable was American Movie Classics, which premiered in 1984 and was hosted at various times by Nick Clooney, Bob Dorian and John Burke (remember them?). Like TCM with M-G-M and Warner Bros. product, AMC once focused on films from Twentieth Century-Fox, RKO and British studios, but has since transformed itself into a venue for action blockbusters, reruns of “The Rifleman” and original dramatic programming.
Fox Movie Channel was also a welcome addition in 1994, focusing on great movies from that studio, but severely needs to have its selection freshened with other items from the vaults. It has been left to TCM to carry the banner for films of all stripes and preserve the history surrounding them, as the channel did with such mammoth documentary series of recent vintage as “Moguls and Movie Stars” and “The Story of Film.” This is all due to the enthusiasm that people like Bob Osborne brought to TCM, and we are the better for it.
In a statement to USA Today following his death, TCM General Manager Jennifer Dorian said that Bob Osborne was “a world-class host.”
“Robert’s contributions were fundamental in shaping TCM into what it is today,” Dorian added. And no truer words have been uttered.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years when not watching old movies, resides in Vinton, Ohio.