During his 20 years as primary host of Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne has coaxed some fascinating revelations from the veteran stars he has welcomed to his popular Private Screenings series of specials.
Now, Osborne finds himself opening up about his own life and career as he switches chairs with frequent TCM guest Alec Baldwin for Private Screenings: Robert Osborne, a star-studded 90-minute special premiering Monday on TCM.
Baldwin opens his interview by asking Osborne whether he thinks luck, talent, or charm was the main thing responsible for his success. No surprise, the self-effacing Osborne credits luck. Yet while it’s true Osborne has enjoyed and taken advantage of an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, it’s equally significant that he had the skills and preparation to seize each moment as it came along.
Even as a child, Osborne was an obsessive fan of classic Hollywood movies, at a time when there was no professional job description that included that knowledge as a requirement. Once he got to Hollywood as a young man, however, his encyclopedic knowledge of vintage performers absolutely fascinated Lucille Ball, who shared Osborne’s admiration for great character actors.
It was Lucy who gave Osborne one of his first Hollywood jobs, putting him under contract at her Desilu Studios as a promising young actor who deserved grooming. He got some work in TV and commercials (happily, we get to see clips), but ultimately Ball sensed that Osborne was too much of a gentleman to have the killer instinct for surviving in the acting game. She encouraged him instead to return to his journalism roots, and his writing about old Hollywood put him into contact with a number of Tinseltown legends, including Olivia de Havilland, who remains a close friend even today, at age 97.
The two-time Oscar winner figures prominently in one of Osborne’s most amusing anecdotes involving a 1977 AFI salute to film legend Bette Davis. Still on a tight budget, Osborne couldn’t afford the $100-a-plate admission to the event, so a friend who was working with the telecast agreed to sneak Osborne in through the hotel kitchen.
Osborne had just returned from renting a tuxedo for the evening when he got a call from de Havilland, asking the stunned young reporter to squire her to the Davis tribute, where they would be seated at Davis’s table. Thankfully, the TCM special includes a clip of Davis entering grandly and working her way around the table, kissing and welcoming old friends and dignitaries, then giving Osborne one of the great “and who the hell are YOU?” stares when she gets to him.
Osborne also shares with Baldwin memories of some of his favorite TCM interviews, including his now-classic conversation with a quivering and deeply insecure Betty Hutton, but admits that his attempt to get Robert Mitchum to open up was “a nightmare. He totally stonewalled me. He was just being mean.”
It may have been luck that played the principle role in getting Osborne where he is today, but from his engaging anecdotes and insights into the stars he has befriended, it’s clear this man also has talent and charm to burn. Thanks, TCM, for giving him his due in this delightfully entertaining hour and a half.