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Robert Osborne, TCM Host and Film Historian, Dies at 84

Film historian Robert Osborne, the effervescent primetime host of Turner Classic Movies since the cabler’s inception in 1994, has died. He was 84.

TCM’s general manager Jennifer Dorian released a statement saying, “All of us at Turner Classic Movies are deeply saddened by the death of Robert Osborne. Robert was a beloved member of the Turner family for more than 23 years. He joined us as an expert on classic film and grew to be our cherished colleague and esteemed ambassador for TCM. Robert was embraced by devoted fans who saw him as a trusted expert and friend. His calming presence, gentlemanly style, encyclopedic knowledge of film history, fervent support for film preservation and highly personal interviewing style all combined to make him a truly world-class host. Robert’s contributions were fundamental in shaping TCM into what it is today and we owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this time.”

Osborne was an irrepressible advocate for the films of Hollywood’s golden era who wrote the Motion Picture Academy-sanctioned “50 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards” in 1978 and a number of updates ending in 2008 with “80 Years of the Oscar.”

Osborne lived in New York but shot his TCM appearances at the cable network’s headquarters in Atlanta. As TCM’s primary on-air personality, Osborne occupied something of an unique position in the history of television: Where once it was common for channels to provide hosts for the movies they programmed, TCM is now the last U.S. movie network to regularly feature hosts who offer information about a film before it begins.

Before the launch of TCM, Osborne hosted films on the Movie Channel from 1986-93.

Osborne started in showbiz as an actor under contract to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Desilu. He made a few guest appearances on TV series including “The Beverly Hillbillies” and appeared onstage in the Ball-produced “The Desilu Revue”; a national tour of the play “Generation” with Robert Cummings; and the first production of Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Latent Heterosexual,” directed by Burgess Meredith and starring Zero Mostel. Nevertheless, Ball, impressed by his college education, suggested that Osborne write a book. (She remained a friend until her death.) He responded with a short history of the Oscars, “Academy Awards Illustrated,” leading to stints as an entertainment reporter for TV stations in Los Angeles and New York and then to a similar gig on “CBS Morning News” in the late ’80s.

Osborne joined the staff of the Hollywood Reporter in 1977 and penned its “Rambling Reporter” column from 1982-2009; he wrote breezy, personality-oriented items and also reviewed films and Broadway plays.

After Variety’s Army Archerd, Osborne was the official greeter on the red carpet for the Academy Awards from 2006-10. Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger replaced him in 2011.

As TCM sought to expand its brand beyond the smallscreen, Osborne hosted the inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival in 2010 and subsequent editions in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, and he took to the seas for the TCM Classic Cruise in December 2011 and in subsequent years.

In a 2006 New York Times profile of Osborne and his apartment — at a tony Manhattan building coincidentally named the Osborne — the genial film maven gently expressed his frustration with enthusiastic but unknowledgeable fans of classic movies. After such a fan guessed that he would not know what turned out to be a familiar title, he responded, “Well, do you want me to tell you who’s in it in order of their billing or would you rather I tell you what theater it played in New York and for how long?”

He hosted TCM’s “Essentials” series of films with a series of co-hosts: Molly Haskell, Carrie Fisher, Rose McGowan, Alec Baldwin and Drew Barrymore. (“Saturday Night Live” spoofed the series in a recurring sketch with Jason Sudeikis as Osborne.) For TCM’s “Private Screening” series, Osborne interviewed stars including Lauren Bacall, Betty Hutton, Angela Lansbury, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Mitchum, Jane Powell, Anthony Quinn and Jane Russell; producer Walter Mirisch; and directors Sidney Lumet, Stanley Donen and Norman Jewison.

In addition to his TCM- and AMPAS-related activities, Osborne sponsored an annual classic-film festival, named after him, at the U. of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication in Athens, Ga. The nonprofit event was held from 2005-10.

Osborne had a small role as a reporter in 1980 film “The Man With Bogart’s Face” and sent up his TCM persona in an episode of Adult Swim’s “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” named “Turner Classic Birdman.” He also narrated numerous film-themed documentaries or appeared onscreen offering his take on the subject matter as a film historian. Among these documentaries were a number on Alfred Hitchcock as well as one called “The Desilu Story.”

Robert Jolin Osborne was born in Colfax, Wash., served two years in the Air Force as a lieutenant and graduated from the U. of Washington’s School of Journalism.

Osborne served as a host-narrator with several symphony orchestras, including the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the Boston Pops and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

He took a three-month medical leave of absence from TCM starting in July 2011 that stretched to five months, but he returned in December 2011 to a somewhat diminished set of responsibilities as Ben Mankiewicz, his fellow host on TCM, increased his on-air duties.

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