As host of Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne plays the role of ambassador to a bygone era. We hear the journey he took to get there—which could have been a classic movie itself. It all started when, as kid in a small town, he frequented the cinema and “fell in love with the movie business.”
Osborne also speaks about some of challenges he faced while at The Hollywood Reporter, when he found himself writing what was really supposed to be a gossip column: “I never felt comfortable intruding upon people that wanted to keep a secret. Because I think secrets are important to have.”
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you're listening to Here's the Thing from WNYC Radio.
Alec Baldwin: Can you hear me?
Robert Osborne: Yeah. If I call you Drew by mistake, you'll cut that out?
Alec Baldwin: Right? If you call me Drew by mistake? Ouch.
Robert Osborne: You'll cut that out right?
Alec Baldwin: Robert Osborne has been hosting Turner Classic Movies for the past eighteen years. Drew Barrymore is his copilot this year. I had joined him for three years and I’m still waiting to be asked back. At Turner Classic Movies Bob Osborne plays the role of ambassador to a bygone era that he’s helped make more popular now than ever. The journey he took to get there could have been a classic film itself. Small town kid falls in love with the movies and with nothing but instincts and charm finds himself thrust into an incredible adventure. In Osborne's story the players are legendary, the backdrop is epic, and the plot twists will make you say, "That could only happen in the movies."
In Robert Osborne's odyssey, the detours are numerous but hardly incidental. You'll be glad he leaves nothing on the editing room floor.
Robert Osborne: I grew up in a small town where I went to the movies a lot and fell in love with all these people. I also fell in love with the movie business. So all I saw were actors on the screen so I thought, well, that's what I have to be if I want to be a part of the movie business. Nobody then was talking about film editors, there were no film schools, talking about directing, any of that kind of stuff. I decided I wanted to be an actor. And so I was doing --
Alec Baldwin: What did your parents say about that?
Robert Osborne: That was fine. As long as I got an education in something.
Alec Baldwin: They were open minded people.
Robert Osborne: Yeah, they were. They were. They were the kind of people that said be practical, get an education in something you can make a living at, but do what you want to do. At least try it and then if it doesn't work out move to something else. So I started doing a little theater work in Seattle, and one of the plays I did was a play called Night Must Fall with Jane Darwell. Jane Darwell is the lady - you would know this - who played Henry Fonda's mother in The Grapes of Wrath-
Alec Baldwin: In The Grapes of Wrath.
Robert Osborne: And won the Oscar for it. And she's the one that said, "You know, when you get finished with this what are you going to do? When you finish your Air Force -
Alec Baldwin: And she came up to Washington to a regional theater to do Night Must Fall?
Robert Osborne: To do the play, yes. So I said, "Well, I'm going to go to New York." And she said, "No, you have more of a California look. You should come to California." And she said, "You can stay at my house." She had a staff and all of that kind of stuff. They lived out in the valley. And she said, "You can at least get your feet on the ground there, I'll introduce you to an agent", she said, "I think you'd do very well." So I did. I stayed with Jane Darwell and her family at her house on Ethel Avenue in the San Fernando Valley.
Alec Baldwin: I know Ethel Avenue.
Robert Osborne: Yes. Introduced me to an agent with MCA. In those days, if you could really walk and talk at the same time you could get a contract at the studio for at least six months. The first one he took me to was Fox. And they said "We want you to be under contract". I was there for like six months. And during that period of time I did a television show which was a western that - I was doing a little theater group - this is a convoluted story but I'm going to get to where I'm going - and it was a theater group run by an actor named Francis Lederer, so I was doing some improvs in the class and one of his friends came to it and it was Paul Henried. You know, with the two cigarettes and Betty Davis? So Paul Henried was saying, "Well, I'm directing a western. I've got a part coming up I think you'd be right for. I want you to come over and read for it next week."
I was kind of new to all of this and I thought, I went to California and I got a contract right away, and got a part in a TV thing right away - I thought this is kind of easy. Anyway, I did the TV show and I had the lead in it for this one episode. The stage that we shot an outdoor sequence for this western on was where Paul Henried had made the Spanish Main, which meant it was also the sound stage where Fred and Ginger did all their big dance numbers. So that was kind of thrilling to me. It didn't mean anything to anybody else. Fred who?
I went back the next day to thank the casting man and the people that had put me in this thing for Paul Henried -
Alec Baldwin: The Californians.
Robert Osborne: The Californians. There was this wonderful man, Milt Lewis, who used to be a talent scout at Paramount Studios, he was in the office and I thanked him. And I think he said, "Well, do you have an appointment for the Lucille Ball auditions?" And I said, "No, I don't know about any Lucille Ball auditions." And he said, "Well, yeah, she's putting a contract group together and so she's going to have the auditions and I think they're next week, but I'm not sure, but let me call up to her office and find out." Instead of her secretary answering, Lucy answered and he said, "I've got this guy down here and I thought he might be a good bet for your contract people." So she obviously said, "Well, I'm not doing anything, send him up right now." So I went up to this office, there she was. Now I have to tell you, I was impressed by her but I didn't see a lot of I Love Lucy because when that was really hitting its peak I was in college and I was studying. I had study hall.
Alec Baldwin: Not a steady viewer.
Robert Osborne: I didn't watch TV. You know, I loved the movies. If it had been Lana Turner I met or somebody I wouldn't have been able to talk, but it was Lucille Ball. And she was impressed that I'd been to college because she hadn't finished high school. This I got to know about her later. But also, she was impressed by the fact I was living at Jane Darwell's house. Because I had asked her in our conversation who some of her favorite leading men were and she said, "Leading man didn't mean that much to me, I like working with talented people but it was the character actors that I love." She said, "I loved Edward Everett Horton, and I loved Harpo Marx and I loved Donald Meek." Well, I knew who all those people were. And she was impressed by that because at that time, nobody knew who those people were. There was no nostalgia. Nobody cared.
Alec Baldwin: So it's interesting how at that point in your life the passion you had and the curiosity you had, that you've turned into a career now, that the roots of it were you were just impressing a smaller circle of people than now. You're there and Lucille Ball's going, "God, I love Jane Darwell. When are we having lunch together?"
Robert Osborne: Yeah. So she said, "Is there any film on you?" And I said, "Well, I just did this thing with Paul Henried and I'd also done a test with Diane Baker." So she called over to Fox, "Can I see the Diane Baker test? This is Lucille Ball. How soon can you send it over?" Lucy was somebody that the minute she wanted something she did it. She hung up the phone, she said, "They're going to send it over, it'll be here in about a half an hour". So we kept talking. Well, the test was made for Diane, not for me, so there was a lot of the back of me. When it was over, Lucy doesn't really say anything, she just thanked me for coming by, and I thought, well, she wasn't that impressed but at least I got to spend some time with Lucille Ball. Like a week later, a message comes on my voice -
Alec Baldwin: You're answering service.
Robert Osborne: My answering service. Absolutely. Answering service. Call Lucille Ball's office right away. Here's the number.
Alec Baldwin: Hello? La Brea 9 - 2000, who are you calling?
Robert Osborne: Sue’s answer phone, yes. I called the number and the secretary said, "Well, Lucille Ball wants you to come to dinner on Friday night if you're available and meet Dezi." I thought, well, that's interesting. So I go to Lucy's house that Friday night, there's no Dezi, but there's Lucy, there's Janet Gaynor, there's Joseph Cotten, there's Kate Thompson, Chuck Walters, Charles Walters, the Director, Roger Edens, and a couple of other people and her sister Cleo, who is actually her cousin but raised as her sister, and me. After the dinner, and they were all chatting and laughing and all of that -
Alec Baldwin: Drinking.
Robert Osborne: Drinking. Not Lucy. Lucy wasn't a drinker at that point. She learned how to drink a little bit later on, but not at that point. So we went in the living room and --
Alec Baldwin: Where was the house?
Robert Osborne: On Roxbury. Right next door to Jack Benny.
Alec Baldwin: Right in the heart of Beverly Hills, right?
Robert Osborne: Exactly. And just down the street from Ira Gershwin and around the corner from Agnes Morehead --
Alec Baldwin: Don't do celebrity map with me, you.
Robert Osborne: So anyway, after dinner we went in the living room, she pushes the button and the painting goes up, pushes another button and the screen comes down, and I'm thinking, 'Did you ever believe that you'd ever be?' And I thought, 'No - wait a minute - I always knew I was going to be here.'
Alec Baldwin: Did you?
Robert Osborne: I did.
Alec Baldwin: Did you really?
Robert Osborne: I remember I thought I first started to say automatically, 'Did you ever think - God this is --'
Alec Baldwin: And that was the beginning for you.
Robert Osborne: Yeah. And I thought, 'No, I always knew I was going to be with people like this.' And I relaxed then. I really relaxed. Because I thought, 'No, this is where you're supposed to be.'
Alec Baldwin: You're comfortable.
Robert Osborne: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: They liked you and you liked them.
Robert Osborne: Yes. This is where I'm supposed to be.
Alec Baldwin: What did they screen? What movie? Do you remember?
Robert Osborne: Funny Face. Which was about three years old.
Alec Baldwin: Your memory is so annoying.
Robert Osborne: But what was great about it was there's a part in Funny Face when Kate Thompson and Audrey Hepburn get up and do a number called "On How to be Lovely" together. Kate Thompson got up by the screen and did the number. And it was fun, watched the movie. The movie was over, everybody starts to go. So I think, 'Well, I'm supposed to go too.' I still don't know quite why I'm here. And it certainly wasn't Lucy was saying, 'Stay around little boy,' or anything like that.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. It wasn't that. Yeah.
Robert Osborne: So we got to the front door, was thanking Lucy for the evening, she said, 'Well, have you signed the papers yet?' And I said, 'What papers?' 'I want you under the contract.' And I said, 'Well, nobody's ever mentioned anything about --'
Alec Baldwin: Do you think I just brought you here to have dinner? We're doing business you fool. It's Hollywood.
Robert Osborne: Yes, you idiot. Nobody's ever mentioned anything about a contract or anything. And she said, 'Give them the address tomorrow and sign the papers.'
Alec Baldwin: We don't offer these contracts to just any one, you fool.
Robert Osborne: Jesus. So I was under contract then to Desilu. And so that was for two years. The great thing about it was is that was --
Alec Baldwin: For film and television.
Robert Osborne: Film and television. They didn't pay us much money at all but it was like a master class for me because there were about twelve of us under contract but there were three of us who were really interested in the business and she kind of recognized that right away and took us under her wing. That's when I first met Bette Davis. Bette came to LA in a play called The World of Carl Sandberg. So she took us to the play and then took us back stage afterwards to meet Bette Davis. And Vivian Leigh came in Duel of Angels. So she went back stage and said hello to Vivian Leigh and took us with her. Any time there was somebody like that, Noel Coward, or Marlene Dietrich, she would take us there, pick up the tabs - because again, she knew she wasn't paying us enough money --
Alec Baldwin: To keep up.
Robert Osborne: - for us to be able to do that, so we got this terrific education. And she also - now Dezi at this point was womanizing. He wasn't around much - so she would get movies that we wanted to see or hadn't seen - because they weren't that accessible in those days - and run them at her house or she would show us I Love Lucy shows she'd done, bad ones, and show us why they didn't work. Then show us a good one and why it did work.
Alec Baldwin: She wanted to share with something.
Robert Osborne: She also, the first day any of us were under contract there and we first met, she arrived, she'd just gone to a bank which was right around the corner from Desilu, and she got twelve savings accounts that she opened, put like $50.00 in, and she gave us - in each of our names - gave us the books and she said, "Every week you have to put something away." And we were, as I say, making very little money. And it was like, "Lucy, we don't make barely enough to live on." She said, "It can be only $5.00, but every week put something away. You won't miss it. It'll add up."
Alec Baldwin: She had a very maternal instinct.
Robert Osborne: Yeah. And she said, "No matter what, the thing you must do is have enough money that you don't have to make decisions based on money." For a kid from Colfax, Washington, this was just invaluable. I'd been to college but I never had these kind of life lessons. In the course of it she met my folks and she got to know me, she said to me early on, 'You can do this as an actor,' but she said, 'I think you could do well, but it's not going to make you happy. This is not the right line of work for you.' And she said, 'You love old films. You love history, you love everything about the business and you're journalism major in college. We have enough actors, you should write about movies. And the first thing you should do is write a book.'
Alec Baldwin: Who said this to you?
Robert Osborne: Lucy. She said, 'It doesn't even have to be a good book, but find a subject about the movies that nobody's done and write a book about it.'
Alec Baldwin: And you did?
Robert Osborne: And I said, 'Why?' She said, 'If you write a book it shows you have the discipline to sit down and do that.'
Alec Baldwin: And did you?
Robert Osborne: Yes, I did.
Alec Baldwin: What book?
Robert Osborne: It was a book about the Oscars.
Alec Baldwin: Is this the book right here?
Robert Osborne: Oh my God, yeah. "Academy Awards Illustrated."
Alec Baldwin: I want our listeners to know that Mr. Osborne's stunned expression as I show a copy of the book that he found. That's the book.
Robert Osborne: That is amazing.
Alec Baldwin: There he is.
Robert Osborne: Yes, there he was.
Alec Baldwin: There he is. No wonder you were getting in and out of all these parties back then. There's a picture in this book - let me just mention to our listeners there's a picture in this book, it's on page 7 by the way, of "Academy Awards Illustrated" written by Robert Osborne with a forward by Bette Davis, "Hollywood and the Oscars, 37 years of Film History," and in it is a picture of Robert Osborne circa 1960 or so. Who's he look like here?
Robert Osborne: Well, I always got tagged that I looked like Robert Wagner.
Alec Baldwin: And there's somebody else you look like, too. It will come to me. So now you're a writer.
Robert Osborne: So now I'm a writer.
Alec Baldwin: You're in Hollywood, it's the early 60's still, you're a writer.
Robert Osborne: And so I would do anything I could to pay my rent. The Desilu days were over. Lucy had gone to New York to do Wild Cat on stage. I was also realizing that I'd done all that I'd kind of wanted to do. I did a couple of years of summer stock touring in a play with Robert Cummings --
Alec Baldwin: Do you think you clearly make a choice at this point in your life or is the choice made for you?
Robert Osborne: The choice was kind of made for me. Because I was not getting parts like Night Must Fall that I loved doing. I did a soap opera for a couple of years called The Young Marrieds. I was always in a suit with a tie and with a briefcase helping the plot along, but it wasn't interesting. And I wasn't interesting. I did a lot of commercials. I thought, 'If this is the best I can do at this point I got to get out of this all together.' Because I would look at a part and I'd think, 'George Pepard could do this so much better than I can,' or 'Tony Perkins would be great in this. Better than I would be.'
Alec Baldwin: You fell out of love with it.
Robert Osborne: Yeah. And I was not stage struck anymore.
Alec Baldwin: Real simple. Yeah.
Robert Osborne: Then the next phase came with Olivia De Haviland. I didn't interview with her for "In Flight" magazines, they didn't pay me anything, but it was a way to get free tickets to screenings.
Alec Baldwin: That seems to be the rule in your life.
Robert Osborne: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: I wasn't getting paid enough so I'm going to moonlight - yeah, go ahead, I got it --
Robert Osborne: I could get free tickets to see movies. So I wrote reviews for this magazine and they would ask me occasionally to write a interview or something. So Olivia De Haviland was doing a movie called Airport 77. I did an interview with her, I did very well at the interview, had a lot of champagne courtesy of Universal Pictures. When it was over, I felt very comfortable with her and said we must stay in touch, so she sent me a note. She said, 'I'm going to be coming to Los Angeles in March. At that time, I will take you out for champagne.'
Okay, time goes by, Bette Davis was being honored by the AFI. I'd only met her briefly when she did the forward for my book so I didn't really know her, but I also knew the industry that I loved was coming to an end. Jimmy Cagney would be there, Fred Astaire would be there, Baryshnikov, I mean all these different people, the old and the new, so I thought, 'I got to go to that but I really can't afford to go to that.' So John Springer's PR company was handling it. I knew a guy, an actor named Ray Strickland who now worked for John Springer. So I called him and I said, 'Look, I got to go to this thing, is there any way you could sneak me in?' And he said, 'Well, I can't get you a place at the dinner, but go out and rent a tuxedo and I will sneak you in through the kitchen.' 'Great. That's all I want.'
One day I went out and I rented a tuxedo and when I got back there was a phone message from Olivia De Haviland. So I thought, 'Ah, she's come to go the Bette Davis thing, she's calling to ask when we could have a bottle of champagne or something.' So I called her back and the first thing she said was, 'I have a proposition for you and it's not an indecent one, there's an event for Betty Davis on Tuesday night would you escort me to it?' I was so stunned because here I'd just gone out to rent a tuxedo to sneak in through the kitchen. She took my nonresponse for hesitation --
Alec Baldwin: Doubt.
Robert Osborne: Doubt. And so she said, 'Well, we'd be sitting with Bette at the head table and I think you'll have a good time.' So I thought, 'Oh my God.' So I called Tom Jones quickly and said, 'Look, Olivia's asked me to this thing, I've got to get a car. I can't take her in my Volkswagen. Is there any way through Disney you can get me a car?' And he said, 'Absolutely.' So I went in style. We went to this event, they introduced Bette Davis, she walks in, they're playing the theme from Now Voyager, and she's waving to everybody, she comes up on the stage and right at the first people she runs into there's Paul Henried and his wife. So of course she goes over and says, 'Hello,' and kisses Mrs. Henried and Paul. The next one to her is Joseph Mankiewicz and his wife. So she says, 'Hello,' to Joe and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God.'
Now I'm sitting just two steps to her left. Next to her is Olivia, and then me. She knows everybody else. She's not somebody that's going to kiss a strange person. What do I do? So she comes and there's Bob Wagner and Natalie. So she kisses all of that and she's about ready to sit, but Olivia, in a great flurry of theatrica goes, 'Betty,' and throws her arms out so it pulls Betty to this side of the table.
Alec Baldwin: So it's on you now.
Robert Osborne: So I think, 'What the hell can I do?' All I could think of to do was I quickly took her hand and kissed her hand. When they cut it and edited it they show her entering and they show her up on the stage greeted by Olivia and then this gallant man kissing her hand. And for years after, whenever they would do recaps at the beginning of the AFI tribute, they always showed Betty Davis and this guy kissing her hand.
Alec Baldwin: And Prince Charming. The beer can amongst cut crystal in his own mind, right?
Robert Osborne: Absolutely a beer can.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s the Thing. More in a minute.
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Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and I'm talking with Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies. We pick up our story after Osborne has been discovered if you will, at a tribute to Bette Davis. Olivia De Haviland is still in town and has been asked to appear on The Dina Shore Show. De Haviland is excited yet hesitant. Turns out, Osborne had hit it off with Dina Shore's producer, Fred Tatashore. As he always seemed to be back then, Robert Osborne is once again in the right place at the right time.
Robert Osborne: So I'm thinking, 'This is where my All About Eve aspect comes in.' I'm thinking --
Alec Baldwin: Your Ann Baxter's coming through.
Robert Osborne: Yes, my Ann Baxter's coming through. Fred Tatashore said, 'You're a really interesting guy, I'd love to have you come on the show some time if we could ever find a place to fit you in.' So I'm thinking, hmm, well Libby's won an Oscar, I wrote a book about the Oscars, hmm. So I call, I didn't say anything, but I called Ray Strickland and I said, 'Who else do you have in your office that's won Oscars?' And he said, 'Well, we have Shelley Winters, we have Shirley Jones, we have Eva Marie Saint.' And I explained this to him. I said, 'Fred Tatashore is looking for a subject that Olivia could be on and I'm just going to throw out that maybe an Oscar show and you could also mention me,' because he did mention if he ever found a place I could fit in. So it was done. And we did the show with some very heavy hitters.
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
Robert Osborne: These ladies. And they had an awful lot to talk about. So I didn't say much but I had one great moment. Shelly Winters was sitting next to me and I said, - and Dina being the consummate hostess started talking about my book - and I said, 'You know the reason I wrote that book? One reason is because of Shelley Winters.' And Shelley Winters said, 'Really?' And I said, 'Yes. Because I'd seen you on so many talk shows talking about your Oscar nomination for the movie A Double Life with Ronald Coleman' - was her big breakthrough part.
I said, 'You always talk about your nomination.' And I said, 'It's very easy to find out who won Oscars but there's no list anywhere of people who were nominated. And when I started doing the research I found out you weren't nominated for that movie.' And she said, 'What? What?' And she just had a fit. And I said, 'No.' And I listed the ones who were nominated. It made a really wonderful television moment. Dina liked that. And Fred got an extra plug. So they said, 'Hmm, why don't you come back and do some entertainment things for us?' And so I started doing that.
Out of that, an old friend of mine from The Hollywood Reporter, where I'd been trying to get in as a writer for years --
Alec Baldwin: So this is the beginning of The Hollywood Reporter years?
Robert Osborne: Yeah. Called and she said, 'I'd always wondered what happened to you and you've written a book.' And I said, 'Yeah, but it's not a new book. It's been out a couple of years.' And she said, 'Well, send it and we'll review it.' And I said, 'It's been reviewed by The Hollywood Reporter.' 'Well, I'd like to see it anyway.' Margie Wooster her name was. Probably still is. So I sent her a copy of the book and she said, 'Well, it's a terrific book and would you ever like to write for The Hollywood Reporter?' I said, 'I've been trying to do that Margie, for ten years.'
Alec Baldwin: Now why, one of your gifts is handling, obviously, these powerful personalities and doing it very elegantly on TV, why didn't you want to stay with TV? Why didn't you want to go write for the paper?
Robert Osborne: Well, TV was one shot and The Hollywood Reporter at that point was very important.
Alec Baldwin: That's the point. The Reporter. And I like Variety.
Robert Osborne: Yeah. It's a steady job.
Alec Baldwin: The read and the green as they call it.
Robert Osborne: Yeah. It's a steady job. The great thing about The Reporter -
Alec Baldwin: It's a big deal.
Robert Osborne: Big deal. The two trade papers, that's where you everybody got their entertainment news. There was no cable. And it was also, it never had to do like everything else in Hollywood, whether or not you were doing it successful or not. The Hollywood Reporter was always in. You always got great tables. You always got great seats at screenings. You always got treated well if you were at the paper.
Alec Baldwin: You knew all that jargon back then, right?
Robert Osborne: Yeah. I said, 'I'd love to.' She set me up with an appointment with the lady who ran The Hollywood Reporter, Tichi Wilkerson Miles.
Alec Baldwin: What year is this now?
Robert Osborne: This is like 1977.
Alec Baldwin: You go to work for The Reporter.
Robert Osborne: No, no, I get the interview with Tichi Wilkerson Miles. It was obviously a courtesy call and I could tell I had made no impression at all. So I called Margie and I thanked her, but I said, 'You know, Tichi didn't even see me.' She said, 'Well, I'll figure some other way.' Then she called me and she said, 'Look, what are you doing,' and she gave me some dates. And I said, 'I'm working in the box office of the Greek Theater.' And she said, 'Can you get off for this two week period?' Hank Grant, who writes the main column, "Rambling Reporter," is taking vacation and they've asked me to write the column for him. And she said, 'I'll tell them that I will, and then at the last minute I'll tell them I can't for some reason. I'll recommend you do it, they'll have to get somebody to do it.'
Alec Baldwin: This is your life story. You're going to go through the kitchen and then Olivia calls and you don't have to go through the kitchen anymore.
Robert Osborne: There's a lot of struggle in there beforehand, but once it starts --
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, yeah, we get it.
Robert Osborne: Once it started going it really started going right.
Alec Baldwin: But this is a great opportunity for you.
Robert Osborne: Yeah. So I got called in, I had stories ready. I'd been doing it for about three days and I got a call from Tichi Wilkerson Miles and she said, 'Do you work for us?' And I said, 'No, I don't, but I'm just coming in to help out.' And she said, 'Would you like to work for us?' And I said, 'Yes, I would.' She said, 'You've got a job.' I said, 'Well, I've got another job right now.' I don't think I told her it was the Greek Theater box office. She said, 'When you finish that, come here. What date would that be?' I gave her a date. She said, 'On that date, you show up for work.'
Alec Baldwin: It's Lucille Ball all over again. Okay. Come up here now.
Robert Osborne: On that date I showed up for work, the editor said, 'I don't have any room for you in here, so just kind of wonder around and get to know the paper. When she comes back, we'll ask her what she plans for you to do.' Just before she came back, Marjorie, who wrote a column called "On Location" where you visit film sets for the paper, she got in a fight at the paper and she quit. And when she was going out the door they said, 'What are we going to do? Your column's due? We have to have a column for tomorrow.' She said, 'Have Osborne do it, he's not doing anything around here.'
Alec Baldwin: Isn't it amazing how people who don't know these kinds of businesses, like the newspaper business, how it's really true? How do you become the drama critic? You're writing the gardening column and the drama critic drops dead at his typewriter and they're like, 'Osborne, get over here and do this.' And so that's exactly what happened here.
Robert Osborne: That's right. All of a sudden I wasn't writing in the editorial department, I had a column.
Alec Baldwin: And how'd you feel about that?
Robert Osborne: I loved it. Except I don't think I was very good at it. Because I tell you what, it really is supposed to be a gossip column, or at least have inside dirt, and I never felt comfortable intruding upon people that wanted to keep a secret. Because I think secrets are important to have.
Alec Baldwin: You're very discreet. I've been around you many, many hours and you've never told me, 'There's a story that so and so told me, you know so and so,' you never get into that. So that was problematic for you in writing that column.
Robert Osborne: It was.
Alec Baldwin: You're not interested in dirt and making people look bad.
Robert Osborne: I'd worked for, during one period, for a PR firm, and for a while Rock Hudson was a client of ours so I knew him well, and I knew when he had AIDS, that he had AIDS, but I would not write about that. At that time I was also doing the evening news. Because all TV stations at one point had entertainment reporters. The lady who, a wonderful lady Marcia Brandwynne, who was the kind of news head there and I had gotten into a big argument over that. She knew I knew about Rock Hudson and she said, 'You've got to go on the air with that.' And I said, 'No. He doesn't want that known. This is a very sick man and he's an actor.' I said, 'If it was the President, that affects all of us in this country. He's an actor.' I wasn't that good at that. I mean I think I wrote a lively column and an interesting one --
Alec Baldwin: How long did you write the column for?
Robert Osborne: Oh, boy. For about 20 years.
Alec Baldwin: You're doing The Reporter, it's 20 years at The Reporter, and then what?
Robert Osborne: Okay. Then the CBS Morning Program in New York asked me if I would do entertainment reports at night in Los Angeles that could be put on the air on a new CBS Morning Program the next day. I'd always wanted to live in New York so I said, "What if I did them live in New York?" The minute I got to New York I thought, "I can't ever go back."
Alec Baldwin: What about New York appealed to you? Did it seem more serious to you?
Robert Osborne: No, every time I was in New York I felt alive. I saw people reading books. There was so much activity going on.
Alec Baldwin: And Hollywood had changed. You were ready to leave that Hollywood.
Robert Osborne: Yeah. There was also cars and you had to drive to get anywhere. In New York you're on the street, you run into somebody and you go have a drink with them. I loved all that. That's when Dorothy Lamour came to town and she said, 'Look, they're honoring Jimmy Stewart, I'm going to come back for two days, we were always going to have dinner in LA, we never did, why don't you take me to the Jimmy Stewart thing, I'll have the tickets and everything, and then we'll finally have that dinner the next night.'
Alec Baldwin: Greatest show on earth.
Robert Osborne: Mm-hmm. So I said, 'Where would you like to have the dinner?' And she said, 'Well, at 21. When I was a star that's about the only place that's still in New York that was around when I used to come to New York.' I took her to the Jimmy Stewart thing, and then she said, 'Look, I got a problem. I'm doing some promotional work for AMC and the people at AMC want to take me to dinner and the only night I can do it is the night we were going to go to 21. Would you mind if a very nice guy, Brad Segal and the publicity guy with him, Jim Wise, if they joined us?' And I said, 'No, not at all.' And we all just sat around at her favorite table and we talked and told stories and all of that.
And soon after, Brad called me and he said, 'You know a lot about movies.' And I said, 'Yeah, I guess I do.' And he said, 'Well, we're going to get rid of our afternoon guy at AMC, I'd love you to come and be the afternoon guy.' This was a big deal. And I thought, 'It's perfect for me.' Negotiations were under way and then all of a sudden he called me and he said, 'I'm not going to be here. I'm leaving. I'm going to go work for Ted Turner in Atlanta. But you're in good hands, everything will be fine.' And I was really disappointed because I liked Brad Segal a lot. A couple of months went by and then he called and he said, 'Hey, have you signed with the AMC thing yet?' And I thought he was badgering me to sign. I said, 'No, but I got the papers. I'll do it.'
And he said, 'Well, don't. Ted's going to start his own movie channel and I want you to be the head guy.' He said, 'I just want to tell you, if you come with TCM, you'll start with only six million viewers, if you go with AMC, you'll have 60 million. If you come with TCM you're going to have to come to Atlanta at least once a month, if you go with AMC, you can work in New York. But, the library.' He said, 'If you come with TCM, you're going to have the MGM library, the RKO library, the Warner Brothers library, and all of that.' And so there was really no choice.
Alec Baldwin: That was what year?
Robert Osborne: That was like 1994.
Alec Baldwin: '94. So we're coming up on 18 years now you've been there. They launched TCM with you as the hood ornament so to speak, of that vehicle. Now the thing is that in that ensuing time, AMC completely changed.
Robert Osborne: Right.
Alec Baldwin: They got out of the classic movies, now they're just another movie channel. You became the imprimatur, if you will, in classic film, how did you feel about that?
Robert Osborne: I felt very good about it. I was confused why they gave up on that. But --
Alec Baldwin: Me too. A lot of people wanted to cancel their subscriptions to the cable. They thought it was false advertising.
Robert Osborne: The problem is that they didn't have their product. Turner owned the product. So they had to spend money to get their product. It was also called American Movie Classics, which means you can't show European films. We have a franchise in it where we show nothing but European films at certain hours of the day.
Alec Baldwin: Let me say this, I'm a huge classic movie junkie. And it may not be every style and every period. You, when we compared our lists and everything, because people don't realize how it works, they'd send to me, here's the films that are not preferred, but here are the ones that you would likely not want to show because they had been in the rotation a lot the last 12 months, so they'd give me a list and they'd say if you can, choose from this list. And here's our list that we own and if you can stick with that great, but if you want to deviate we'll see if we can get it.
Robert Osborne: And the main reason for that is so that we're not showing Sunset Boulevard every year.
Alec Baldwin: Exactly. Oh, yeah.
Robert Osborne: Casablanca and all that.
Alec Baldwin: I totally understand their methodology. So, they would send me the list and they'd say you pick 30 and Bob picks 30 and then you guys will call it together and you guys will come up with a joint list of 30. And you'd picked some and I'd say to myself, "I'm not really wild about that movie." You know, Random Harvest I liked but I wasn't crazy about it. But I learned from you what makes that a classic film because of how it fits into that whole line of Hollywood filmmaking.
But I want to go back to something you said, which is that you saw that film business had changed and you were in those rooms with those people and you were their friend, and then realism came. What was a movie that you saw at that period that you said to yourself, 'My God, the movies have changed?'
Robert Osborne: Easy Rider.
Alec Baldwin: I was just going to say the same. I can't believe you said that.
Robert Osborne: I remember I was --
Alec Baldwin: '69.
Robert Osborne: Yes. I happened to be in London. A place I never went to very often, but I happened to be at The Royal Court Theater one night seeing a play, Allen Bates was in a play, and in the row in front of me was Dennis Hopper who had just come back from I believe the Cannes Film Festival where they showed Easy Rider and it won some awards. Or maybe it was the Venice Film Festival. Whatever. And they were talking about it and I thought - the way the papers were writing about that - I thought this is something very strange. That that movie about a couple of guys on cycles -
Alec Baldwin: It had no story.
Robert Osborne: Smoking a lot of grass. The story has no plot. And then as that thing came out and it became so popular I thought -
Alec Baldwin: This is really a seminal change.
Robert Osborne: Yeah. Seminal change. But that was kind of on its way from back in the late '40's when Ingrid Bergman, the reason she wanted to go do that, something with Roberto Rossellini, she'd seen Open City in Pizan, and they were real. These were real people on the street. So that was starting to come. But then when Easy Rider came out and was so embraced by this country, not just by foreign film addicts or something like that, I think that was a big turning point.
Alec Baldwin: Did you think that the Vietnam War was responsible for that change?
Robert Osborne: I think Kennedy being assassinated changed the world. That shot changed everything about America, and made us cynical, made people discontent and angry.
Alec Baldwin: You know, for me, when I was young, there was a man who, when you saw this man on TV, he was the movie business. A man that would sit at a desk and he'd get up from that desk and he'd talk to the camera and this man became the emblem, and that was Walt Disney. And to me, you are the Walt Disney of your generation. You come on TV and right away - because you have become so synonymous. People just love you. They love your show. And you mean the movie business. Do you sense that when you're out on the street with people?
Robert Osborne: I get a sense of that, but I honestly don't see it.
Alec Baldwin: Who do you think you're talking to when you talk to the camera? When you do the wrap arounds -
Robert Osborne: I talk to three people. I talk to my aunt who lives on a farm who loves old movies but doesn't know much about them, but I always know if I mention Dolby Mayor, I have to identify who he was. I can't say Bertolucci without explaining that he's a director. It can't be shorthand for my aunt. I also talk a guy that is now a young man, but he was in his early 20's, worked for The Hollywood Reporter that called me one time and said, 'You know, I just loved this great movie the other night and I was wondering if the lady in it made any other movies, I'd like to see some of those movies.'
And I said, 'What was the move?' He said, 'I didn't get the name of it.' 'Well, who's the actress?' 'I don't know what her name was.' 'Well, describe the movie to me.' He described it and it was Gilda with Rita Hayworth. And so I'm also talking to him. He's interested in movies he wants to learn about movies and all of that. And I'm also talking to a friend of mine who died recently called Robert Rosterman in Chicago who knows as much about movies as any of us know. And I -
Alec Baldwin: What was his profession?
Robert Osborne: He worked for years as a booker for 20th Century Fox.
Alec Baldwin: So he was in the business.
Robert Osborne: Kind of. Yeah. But he was a dedicated movie fan. But I want to say something in each introduction that's also going to be news to him. So I try to gear it for those three people. My aunt, and my friend John, and Robert Rosterman to cover all bases.
Alec Baldwin: Robert Osborne, he turns 80 next month. Last year I went to a book party for Keith Richards. I found myself seated directly opposite Richards and his wife, Patti Hansen.
And long story short is, Patti Hansen says, 'We just so love you, Alec. We love you on that TV show,' and I thought, 'Oh good God,' I go, 'Patti Hansen and Keith Richards don't watch 30 Rock, this is preposterous. She's just being so polite.' And she said, 'What's that show? Keith, that show we watch every week.' And Keith Richards looks at me and he goes, 'We watch you on Turner Classic Movies, man. Every weekend. It was so fantastic. We love that show.' And I thought, 'God damn it, Osborne has upstaged me again.'
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you're listening to Here's the Thing from WNYC Radio.