The death of Robert Osborne, who’d served as Turner Classic Movies’ genial host since the network first started broadcasting in 1994, was announced yesterday morning, immediately followed by an outpouring of sorrow in the social media. Small wonder: Osborne, an actor turned journalist and film historian, was so ubiquitous a presence on the network that you felt as though you knew him. In addition, he had, like Roger Ebert, a knack for making the films he introduced sound irresistibly appealing. What he didn’t know about Hollywood wasn’t knowable.
TCM, like Osborne himself, has played a central, irreplaceable role in the lives of American film lovers. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal when the network celebrated its twentieth birthday:
TCM is a basic-cable channel owned by the Turner Broadcasting System that shows old movies, most of them released prior to 1970, around the clock. Some are familiar, others obscure, but all are uncut, uncolorized, uninterrupted by commercials and otherwise unaltered. No other enterprise has done more to make such films widely accessible to the general public.
What makes TCM so noteworthy is the quality of the films that it telecasts. On Monday it will be showing, among other things, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” “Gaslight,” “Gone With the Wind,” “It Happened One Night,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” You couldn’t ask for a more representative sampling of the best of studio-era Hollywood. Nor do its programmers restrict themselves to hits: They dish up cult films, foreign films, silent films, short subjects and pretty much every other kind of movie. Whether your brow is low, medium or high, TCM shows films you’ll want to see.
What made TCM more than a novelty was the coming of the programmable DVR, which makes it easy to harvest its offerings for consumption at a more convenient hour. I doubt I’m the only viewer who routinely flicks through the coming month’s fare and earmarks a half-dozen films at a time for future recording.
TCM, in short, transformed the way in which most of us experience classic films, so much so that we now take it for granted. The death of Robert Osborne serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t.
Osborne, who was eighty-four, disappeared without explanation from the small screen several months ago, and given the fact that he had suffered from poor health in recent years, it was pretty generally taken for granted, by myself among others, that he was dying. Even so, I was jolted when the news broke. Ben Mankiewicz, his replacement, is doing an excellent job and will, I suspect, play an important part in introducing TCM to a new generation of as-yet-unformed movie buffs. But for those of us who grew up, in a sense, with TCM, it is Robert Osborne of whom we will always think whenever we think of old movies on TV.
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Robert Osborne’s Los Angeles Times obituary is here.
Ben Mankiewicz pays tribute to Osborne in the Hollywood Reporter.