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Robert Osborne: a classic gentleman

Lucille Ball took Robert Osborne under her wing more than 50 years ago when the Turner Classic Movies host was a fledgling young actor in Hollywood. The legendary "I Love Lucy'" star ended up changing the course of Osborne's life.

Osborne's acting career was slowly building in the late 1950s. He was under contract to Ball and Desi Arnaz's Desilu Productions and had guest-star roles on TV series. He even appeared on the pilot episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies."

But one day, Ball took the native of Colfax, Wash., aside and told him, "you could be an actor, and I think you could be a success at it," recalled Osborne, 81. "But it's not going to make you happy."

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But she knew what would.

"She said to me, 'What you should do is write,'" he said. "'You were a journalism major at the University of Washington. You love to do research. You love old films. Nobody is writing about films. We have enough actors, but we don't have enough writers.' She is the one who kind of got me away from acting."

And the rest, as they say, is film history.

Osborne penned his first book, "Academy Awards Illustrated," with a foreward by Bette Davis no less, in 1965. And since 1989 he has been the official "biographer" of the Academy Awards. The sixth edition of his exhaustive history, "85 Years of the Oscar," has just been published. Osborne joined the staff of the Hollywood Reporter in 1977; five years later he began writing the "Rambling Reporter" column, which he continued to do until 2009.

The silver-haired Osborne was the on-air host for the Movie Channel from 1986 to '93 and has been the primary host of TCM since the nostalgia cable network began in 1994. Ben Mankiewicz came on board as the second host in 2003.  

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Osborne's hosting gig on TCM has made him a superstar among classic film buffs. A delightful hybrid of Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, Osborne is the most gracious of hosts. His introductions are clear-eyed, informative and respectful.

"Movies are his life," said TCM's Charlie Tabesh, senior vice president of programming. "People really connect with him. Over time he's become more than a TV host. He has come to personify the identity of TCM in a significant way. People just love him. There are people who watch TCM every single night. They feel like he's part of the family."

Besides introducing 35 hours of prime-time programming a week, Osborne also is the main host of the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. Next month, he sets sail on Disney Magic with Mankiewicz for the third annual TCM Film Cruise from Miami with stops in Nassau and Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.

"If I didn't have my little schedule book, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning," Osborne said, laughing.

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Osborne believes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected him to write the official Oscar history because in his previous books on the Academy Awards, "I didn't give opinions on things. That goes back to a book I read a long time ago about movie musicals. Whoever wrote it said 'Singin' in the Rain' was the best movie musical ever made. I thought it's great, but what if I like 'The Band Wagon' better? I found it insulting. I don't think a writer's opinion in this case is important."

Ironically, Osborne doesn't have much time to see contemporary films today. "That's something that's changed for me," he noted.

"When a movie opened — if you lived in New York you would see it at Radio City Music Hall, where it would play a couple of weeks and then you moved on to the next movie. Now you can see it the rest of your life — it's going to be on Netflix and DVD. I am a big James Bond fan, so when that opens I really have to see it. I did see 'Gravity,' but I don't have the enthusiasm to go see a movie as often as I used to go."

susan.king@latimes.com

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