Robert Osborne's gift to classic-movie nerds

TCM host Robert Osborne dead at 84
TCM host Robert Osborne dead at 84

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TCM host Robert Osborne dead at 84 00:57

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Robert Osborne was courtly, knowledgeable and a perfect film tour guide
  • Every person who's ever found comfort or joy from a vintage film owes Osborne a debt

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Robert Osborne, who died Monday at 84, was so much more than the de facto chief anchor for Turner Classic Movies.

He was the movie curator for the global village. He fulfilled even the most casual and least demanding TCM viewer's specifications for the perfect tour guide to the golden era of cinema, wearing his broad knowledge of film lore with the same crisp, unassuming grace as his tailoring.
And he was as attentive to the technical attributes of a Hollywood chestnut as he was to whatever off-screen dish and dirt was most pertinent.
However many worthy successors, such as the comparably sharp-witted and resourceful Ben Mankiewicz, assume his duties, it's going to be hard to imagine anybody adequately compensating for Osborne's absence.
Osborne knew to skip the excessive verbiage in his delivery and in his equally uncluttered accumulation of facts as he introduced the evening's classic offerings (he was as good a writer as he was a broadcaster). He didn't waste your time or wear out his welcome. He knew what you were there for and he made sure that only the most necessary information kept you from the opening credits.
He also was solicitous, almost to the point of tenderness, towards his audience. Somehow you knew that Osborne knew there might be someone watching who might be too young to know who Barbara Stanwyck, Lena Horne, Robert Montgomery or (even) Walter Brennan was. In doing so, he never insulted anybody's intelligence or came on too strong with his own. Osborne knew his manners when he entered your living room. He wanted to share what he knew with you by making you feel you and he had arrived at the same discoveries.
Such informed modesty, as anybody who's been to a party of smarties can tell you, is a rare gift. It also accounted for the easygoing intimacy Osborne was able to achieve when interviewing generations of actors and directors, many of whom were so relaxed with him that you often wondered if they'd disclose something they'd rather not.
Whether it was somebody who liked to talk (Tony Curtis) or a faded star whose travails followed them away from the screen (Betty Hutton), Osborne always managed to get them relaxed enough to talk about the only things movie nerds cared about: How did they DO the things they did for so long?
By his own admission, Osborne wasn't out for blood in his interviews. That was too vulgar and tawdry for someone with his refined sensibilities. Instead, you sensed he was trying to bring together a community of movie lovers, and as far as he was concerned, that community included those who worked the magic as much as those who consumed it.
Hence the frequent appearances on TCM of such notables as Sydney Pollack, Alec Baldwin, Rose McGowan and Drew Barrymore to chat with Osborne about movies they loved as they helped introduce them. Deftly, delicately, he coaxed these folks to disclose judgments free of gushing platitudes. These conversations were almost as illuminating as the movies they'd either just seen or were about to watch. If you weren't a movie nerd before you spent an evening lounging with Osborne and whomever he'd invited, you could easily become one before you called it a night.
More than anything, Osborne was the master of the arcane tidbit, the background information that even the most obsessed movie buff hadn't known before; whether it was how hard Gene Kelly worked Debbie Reynolds over in rehearsals for dance sequences in Singin' In the Rain," or how much power Stan Laurel exerted over his comedy partner, Oliver Hardy, in assembling their gags, piece by piece, moment by moment.
I can't remember, at the moment, the name of James Stewart's horse in all the westerns he made in the 1950s with director Anthony Mann. But Osborne would have known. And every person who's ever found comfort or joy from a vintage film owes Robert Osborne a debt for his unpretentious, eminently informative company, night after night, year after year.
Somehow, however difficult it is to imagine now, we'll keep watching -- and talking about -- the movies without him. Would that offend him? Hardly. It would offend him more if we didn't.