“Movies are your church!” a date told me once when she couldn’t get my attention away from “The Philadelphia Story,” which was playing on Turner Classic Movies.
Robert Osborne, the charming, erudite, but never pompous, primary host of Turner Classic Movies was the high priest for all of us who worship the silver screen — from queers like me growing up in small towns to drag queens in urban gay bars to hetero suburban grandmothers. Osborne, 84, died on March 6 in his sleep in his New York City home, theater director and producer David Staller told the Los Angeles Times.
The LA Times, The Washington Post and other publications reported that Staller was Osborne’s life partner for 20 years.
Osborne’s New York Times obituary described Staller as “a longtime friend.” When asked why this term was used to describe Staller, Richard Sandomir, who wrote the obit, told the Times public editor, “I reached out to David Staller and ultimately ‘close friend’ was how he said he wanted to be identified.” (The Washington Post obituary ran a correction that said Staller was a “friend.”)
The mystery surrounding Osborne’s life seems fitting. Sitting in our living rooms, lying in bed – our eyes glued to TCM, it felt as if we knew Osborne. It seemed as if Osborne, our affable uncle, boyfriend, or pal, had stopped by to banter wittily one-on-one with us about the movies. What did it matter if we didn’t know about his personal life? If we thought (hoped) that someone who so knew and loved Tinsel Town and its stars was queer? In a mere one or two-minute intro to “All About Eve,” Osborne not only brought Margo Channing into our homes, he made us feel as if we had a personal connection to Bette Davis.
There are (and will be) other movie hosts. Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore and Ben Mankiewicz, among others, have talked knowledgeably and amusingly about movies on TCM. Yet, it’s hard to think of anyone who is as sophisticated, urbane or in love with movies as Osborne was. Former Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales aptly called him “an avatar of erudition.” As Staller told the LA Times, “It’s difficult to imagine a planet without him. He made the choice to call it a day, and he wants everyone to know that he’ll see them at the after party.”
Osborne, who was with TCM from its launch in 1994, was a Hollywood Reporter columnist. He was dubbed the “official biographer” of the Academy Awards for the books that he wrote on the Oscars. For the past 11 years, Osborne greeted celebs as they entered the red carpet at the Oscars.
He grew up in Colfax, Wash., a small town. All everyone talked about there was crops, he told interviewers. “I’d see Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney in ‘Laura’ and Bette Davis in ‘All About Eve,’” he told the New York Times, “and I’d think, ‘those people are so much more interesting than what I’m living around in this town.’”
Osborne was friends with Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and many other stars. Though he loved them, he sometimes spoke his mind. When he first met Davis, he wondered if he’d made the wrong impression. It was in 1977, and he urged her to see “Star Wars.”
“She said, ‘I hate that kinda movie,’” he told CBS’s Sunday Morning. “I said, ‘Oh, but it’s really good…’ And she…said, ‘…I HATE that kind of movie!’ And I said, ‘I can’t believe you would say something as stupid as that!’…I looked at her, and I knew I had her. And that’s what she was waiting for: A challenge. And we were friends from then on!”
Our celluloid dreams – of Fred and Ginger, Bette and Joan – Audrey and Kate are essential to us. Thank you, Robert, for connecting us with our dreams. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.