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TCM host Robert Osborne is remembered with a classic film celebration

Robert Osborne
Film historian Robert Osborn is shown at HBO’s New York studio on Oct. 31, 2013.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Actress Diane Baker first met Robert Osborne more than 60 years ago when they did a screen test for 20th Century Fox. It was the beginning of a lifetime friendship.

“We worked on the scene and then we did the test,” Baker recalled in recently. “We both were invited to the little room [on the lot] to watch it. I remember vividly him looking over at me, whispering in my ear, ‘Your voice is so high the dogs can hear it.’ My relationship with Robert Osborne started then and lasted all these years.”

Osborne’s acting career turned out to be short-lived, but he went on to bigger and better things as a popular host for the Turner Classic Movie channel, as well as a writer and film historian. He died two years ago at age 84, and Baker vowed then to keep his memory alive.

That promise will come to fruition Oct. 7 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new series, the Robert Osborne Celebration of Classic Film, kicks off at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

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The trustee of Osborne’s estate asked Baker to come up with ideas to keep him and his love for movies alive. Noted Baker: “I began to think, ‘What could the most important places be who would protect and further Robert’s life?’”

Her first thought was the film academy, where she contacted Randy Haberkamp, managing director, preservation and foundation programs.

“We worked on various concepts, and an annual evening celebrating classic films, presenting them on the big screen with a specific mandate of generating an audience of younger film enthusiasts was the combination we all thought would be most fruitful,” Haberkamp said in an email interview. “We’ve gathered several of Robert’s closest friends to inaugurate the event, and we’re working on an outreach to our Academy Gold interns and film schools to add a special layer to the audience.”

The academy’s first Robert Osborne Celebration of Classic Film features a new restoration of one of his favorites, William Wyler’s 1936 drama “Dodsworth,” produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor, and a panel discussion with Baker and fellow Osborne friends and fans Robert Wagner, Angela Lansbury, Eva Marie Saint and Carole Cook.

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(“Dodsworth” was restored by the Academy Film Archive and the Film Foundation in association with the Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Family Trust. The George Lucas Family Foundation funded the restoration.)

Ruth Chatterton and Walter Huston in a scene from the movie “Dodsworth,”  1936.
Ruth Chatterton and Walter Huston in a scene from the movie “Dodsworth,” 1936.
(AMPAS)

Haberkamp noted that the restoration of “Dodsworth” was underway when the Robert Osborne Classic Film Celebration was created. “We asked for a list of films that were a favorite of Robert’s with an eye toward selecting one to be featured as the first presentation” he said. “‘Dodsworth’ leapt from the page as though it was an ordained choice.”

The trio of stars, Haberkamp said, “form a perfect cast of familiar yet underappreciated performers, and the combination of director William Wyler, screenwriter Sidney Howard and novelist Sinclair Lewis makes this a particularly delightful rediscovery. The film itself was nominated for eight Academy Awards and is a timeless and poignant film about changing family relationships. Robert had a lot of favorites, so we’ll have no problem reviving classics both celebrated and lesser known for years to come.”

Baker said Osborne loved “Dodsworth” because “of the truth and values in it. It’s about a human being. He loved the idea that there was this change, a shift and that the character grew and became a person he admired.”

“I thought his taste in film couldn’t be matched,” said Wagner, who became friends with Osborne in the 1950s. “He was very meaningful to me. He was loved by everyone. I have been on the street with him when people have stopped and wanted to talk to him. He always took time with everyone. He was who he was. I think people felt that they knew him.”

As an aspiring actor, Osborne studied at Lucille Ball’s Desilu Workshop and even appeared in the 1962 pilot episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” It was Ball who convinced Osborne that writing was his true calling.

He wrote his first book, “Academy Awards Illustrated,” in 1965. He joined the staff of the Hollywood Reporter in 1977 and five years later began his “Rambling Reporter” column for the trade paper. Osborne became the official biographer of the Academy Awards in 1989; his last edition of the ultimate history, “85 Years of the Oscar,” was published in 2013.

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But Osborne was best loved as the genial, sweet and knowledgeable primary host of TCM over two decades, as well as the main moderator of the TCM Classic Film Festival and TCM cruises.

Haberkamp said Osborne was a stickler for presenting the best restorations or most complete version of films. “He loved sharing information about why the versions the audience was seeing was a return to the original quality or the details of what the actual film had been through the years,” he added.

Unlike Baker and Wagner, Saint didn’t meet Osborne until he interviewed her for TCM. Osborne interviewed her several times and became good friends with the actress and her late husband, director Jeffrey Hayden.

“I was so amazed he had been an actor,” said the Oscar winner for 1954’s “On the Waterfront.” “I think that’s one reason he had such esteem and love for actors.”

She also loved his interview style. “He was so cool with his questions,” said Saint. “It wasn’t like a question, answer, question, answer that some people do onstage. He would throw you that little ball and you’d catch it and just go with it. You felt you could say anything.”

‘The Robert Osborne Celebration of Classic Film’
Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7: 30 p.m. Oct. 7
Tickets: $3-$5
Info: www.oscars.org


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