Let us now praise the dedicated television host, the person who turns a program into a place, who erases the screen and makes his house your house, and your house, his.
Robert Osborne, who died in New York Monday at 84, was the face and voice of Turner Classic Movies from its 1994 debut, a man who knew his movies and had something to say about them. It was understood, given the cinema-centric nature of TCM, that you had come to listen and to learn.
Programmed with celebratory and educational intent to highlight the work of actors and directors, or explore themes and genres, TCM feels, to use the popular word, "curated." It's a revival house, sometimes an art house, of the air. It takes physical shape too at times, with a yearly Classic Film Festival — the next is scheduled for April 6-9 in Hollywood — and the TCM Classic Cruise. Osborne, as the network’s human embodiment, took part in both.
Born in 1932, Osborne was alive for most all of the film history TCM covers. As a film historian, he knew his material from the inside, and the stories he told about the movies he showed felt like his own research and writing, not copy delivered to his desk. As an interviewer, he was an informed conversationalist and good listener who never sought to impress his guests, or viewers, with a display of his own knowledge. You can find many of his introductions and interviews posted unofficially online; he had followers of his own.
Boyishly handsome into his eighties, he came across as cosmopolitan and confidential but also highly approachable. A journalism major turned actor turned journalist turned a television personality that combined those pursuits, he was the fan as expert, the expert as fan, and as a Hollywood Reporter columnist, from 1982 to 2009, a longtime member of Hollywood’s extended family.
He had been a host on the Movie Channel too, from 1986 to 1993. But TCM was something different, the public expression of an immense archive, the only surviving movie channel for people interested in film rather than just finding a movie to watch. (Though it performs that service as well.)
Strictly speaking, TCM could have gotten away without a host. All other movie channels do, and not every film on TCM comes with an introduction. (Or an introduction by Osborne — there are other hosts, notably Ben Mankiewicz, and guest hosts.) But, as Osborne demonstrated over more than two decades, there is much to be said for the expert voice. The wisdom of the crowd or the algorithmic recommendation machine only takes you so far. We want teachers and preachers, gurus and guides. We like to be prepared, warmed up, excited.
A man in a well-cut suit on a metropolitan living room set, Osborne turned an airing into an event, but also into a kind of date: a special occasion, a little fancy, a little intimate — something between the two of you.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd