After majoring in journalism at the University of Washington, Robert Osborne became a contract actor for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He left acting to become a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter but found the perfect place to share his love of movies as host of the Turner Classic Movies cable network. At 81, the film historian's enthusiasm is as bright as ever. He has a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and is the author of several books. He hosts "Essentials" on Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Drew Barrymore on TCM. Tonight is the first installment and the U.S. TV premiere of Mark Cousins' 15-hour documentary "The Story of Film: an Odyssey" on TCM. Mr. Cousins will join Mr. Osborne to introduce each episode.
I once knew a film critic who said she gave it up because she was tired of spending so much time in the dark.
I never minded the dark. What I resented after a while and why I really quit reviewing films for a living was mainly the time I spent wasting my time in the dark. I wrote for the Hollywood Reporter, which was a trade publication, [and] you'd have to sit through the whole movie. There were so many bad movies being made. I did it steadily for about 10 years, and when I looked back, I wasted an awful lot of my life, and I didn't want to do that anymore.
I love movies and I will go see one many, many times. We are getting ready to do another session of "The Essentials" for TCM. They are movies we think are essential to see if you really want a well-rounded education in movies. We are going to talk about 30 of them, and many I have not seen for quite a while, so in order to talk about them in depth, you have to watch them again. I never mind that.
The dialogue in some of those old films is so superior to what we hear today.
Right. People liked dialogue then. People didn't have to have action all the time. Words were important. Thoughts were important. You also had great writers. We had on the other night "The Grapes of Wrath" written by John Steinbeck. It had a really great screenplay. People like Steinbeck wrote the screenplay for "Lifeboat," the Hitchcock film.
William Saroyan wrote the story for "The Human Comedy" we had on a couple of nights ago. You had great thoughts, great dialogue coming out. Not a bull's-eye every time, of course, but they were worth listening to, and they were saying things of importance. Now we are so gearing it to younger people most of the time, and they want action.
Have you ever tried to decipher what it was about the movies that attracted you so much?
I grew up in a small farm town in the state of Washington. I knew that the people I was seeing in the movies were so much more interesting than what I was finding in my town. I would go to the movies and they would be having very witty repartee talking about theater and talking about film and, you know, emotions. I just thought that is so interesting, and I was so eager to have a life around people like those people I was seeing in the movies. What I realized then is what I really needed was to live in the city.
People who live in small towns and are content to be in small towns are usually people who aren't that fascinated by things outside a small town community and mentality. There is nothing wrong with that. My sister lived that kind of a life and was very, very happy doing it.
So the movies were like a keyhole to another world for you.
Absolutely. Not only that, they taught me to be curious about the world. They taught me about different cultures, which I don't think movies do for people today. We very rarely have movies that have any historical value to them. They would pique your interest, particularly if you were in a small town, to make you want to go to a history book and learn more. The period I think is so fascinating is the whole Nazi thing in Germany and how that was allowed to happen.
If the only thing left of our society was films, what kind of impression would it leave?
If you could only leave one thing, that's not a bad thing to leave. I think that in many ways you'd get a cockeyed view of the world because it would be Hollywood's view of certain things. Hollywood, particularly in the older days, wasn't too accurate about how they told stories. It gives good indications of what the world was like during certain periods of history.
I'm thinking of "Berkeley Square" right now with Leslie Howard. It taught you kind of how they behaved in England in those times. Their behavior was different, and their moral structure was different. Things like honor were very important.
Today we have lost some of that. So many of our heroes today are people who lie and steal. It's like Michael Douglas in "Wall Street" -- "Greed is good." That is not the mindset people had for many years.
It might just be me, but there seems to be a lot of overacting in the old films.
Well, I think some of the people -- Norma Shearer from "The Women," for instance -- she had all of her training in silent films. So she was trained to do gestures that were bigger, and I think she had trouble ever getting away from that.
You get very much into this naturalistic kind of acting that people like John Garfield did in the '40s and Montgomery Clift and certainly [Marlon] Brando in the '50s. So I think you get a lot of realistic acting, too. That has to do with the era.
So why did you give up acting?
No. 1 was that the roles I was cast in and would be cast in were not the kind of parts that would interest me. Also, I had this great mentor, Lucille Ball. When she got to know me, I was under contract to her and Desi Arnaz for two years. She said: "You can do it. You can do this, but it's not going to make you happy."
She said: "You love research, you love old films. We have enough actors. We don't have enough people writing about movies. You are a journalism major from the University of Washington. You should write about films."
I knew she had nothing to gain from the advice she was giving me. I thought she is telling me that for my own good. I did write a book right away and got a job at the Hollywood Reporter and became a writer. It kind of led me to what I'm doing today and the kind of things that satisfied my ego.
It's interesting how things turn out, isn't it?
Absolutely. Sometimes I'll be in a situation and start to think: "Did you ever think you'd be sitting here with this person?" And I start to tell myself, "Isn't that amazing?" and then I think, "No, I always kind of knew this was going to happen." I always knew I was going to be successful in some way with films. I don't know why. I had no particular talent, but I always knew I was going to be sitting in a dining room with Lucille Ball and at a cocktail party with Bette Davis. I knew I would know Lana Turner. Where did I get that confidence?
What did your parents do?
My dad was a teacher. My mother was a homemaker until she went to work in a bank during the second World War, when all the young guys were taken off into the military. So I came from very humble beginnings, but I always knew I was going to be part of that culture.
That's pretty neat.
That's what I am saying. Is that just stupidity that you think that, or do you somewhat will yourself into these things if you're willing to work for it? I was never shy about working for it, and I worked all my life because it was what I wanted to do. I always thought it was leading me somewhere and it did.
Earlier you mentioned a cocktail party with Bette Davis.
Yes, she became a great friend of mine. She was a terrific lady, and I got to know [Barbara] Stanwyck and I got to know Betty Grable and Judy Garland and being in kind of their social circle. That happened because I went to California at a perfect time. I went there when many of those people that I had admired so much in films were not working that much. They had free time on their hands to talk to somebody like me, and they liked me because I knew so much about them. They didn't have to explain what they'd done or who they were.
There was a long time when there was no nostalgia and nobody caring about old films. Those people were disregarded in many ways. Fifteen years earlier, they all would have been very busy. Fifteen years later, many of them would have been retired or dead or moved on. So I went at a perfect time for those people I was so crazy about.
You must pinch yourself sometimes.
One of the things when you have a really active life, you don't have time to mull these things over too much. But every once in a while I will go back through a journal or something and think: "Oh my God! I'd forgotten I did that." These things will come back and you start saying, "Wow, I really have been busy and really enjoying this."