Mr. TV: Celluloid Hero | Adweek
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Mr. TV: Celluloid Hero

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This q&A with Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osborne is a real labor of love because it focuses on my favorite cable network, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary tomorrow.

Launched on April 14, 1994, with a presentation of the 1939 epic, Gone With the Wind, Peabody Award winning TCM is an endless fount of uninterrupted, uncut and commercial-free classic titles enhanced by wrap-around commentary by Osborne’s expert observations, themed programming and a growing slate of originals, like the Fan Programmers this month and the 10-part Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood docu series, for 2010.

I recently sat down with the famed on-air commentator (and respected author and Hollywood Reporter columnist) to discuss our mutual love of the silver screen.

First, and foremost, I must ask you about Lucille Ball. You credit Lucy for giving you “the best advice at the best time.” Can you elaborate on that?

I started as an actor in the business and was signed by Lucy and Desi as one of their young contract players for Desilu Studios. This was in the late 1950s when they were shooting The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and I got to know Lucy quite well.  When she realized I had a deep interest in movies, she suggested I write a book about it, so that is how Academy Awards Illustrated came about. “Hollywood has enough actors, many who are tougher than you,” Lucy said.  “There is more you can do.”

What was Lucy like? At the risk of sounding like Kathy Bates in Misery, I am her “biggest fan.”

Well, Lucy was a stickler.  She worked hard, honed her craft and expected the same kind of commitment from everyone around her. But she never felt like she accomplished enough. As beautiful as she was, she never felt like she measured up and was always looking for that great dramatic role. Comedy she felt took a backseat to those big dramas. There was always a mask of insecurity surrounding her.

So, you wrote your first book and then what happened?

Well, the years progressed and I made ends meet as a writer. But the exposure from the book led to on-air appearances on local TV stations for career overviews on the stars they happened to be talking about. And a guest spot on The Dinah Shore Show in the early 1970s opened the door at The Hollywood Reporter [where he remains after 32 years]. More television followed and I became one of the hosts of The Movie Channel. Although AMC eventually courted me, I ultimately chose TCM because of the caliber of the film library and the chance to become the primary historian.  

How do you prepare for the countless movie introductions you do?

And have you already seen every movie? At this point of my life, yes … I have just about seen every title in our library. While I have a great team of researchers, I go through each script, put it in my own words and add the points that I think are relevant … and often personal.  It’s the personal approach that adds something unique.

Did you personally know most of the actors you discuss?

Many of them, yes. Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda …  Once I became known as someone knowledgeable about movies and the actors involved in them, many of these people liked to talk to me because I knew as much about their careers as they actually did.

TCM is also known for its one-on-one Private Screening interviews. Give me your wish list … Who would you like to sit down with next?

Well, let’s see. I’ll start with Olivia de Havilland. Then there’s Michael Caine and Gena Rowlands. Doris Day—now that would be a great catch—but at this stage of her life she really has nothing to really gain by doing it. Viewers might be more curious to see what she looks like than to hear what she has to say.  

What are your favorite movies?

Well, that changes all the time, but here are five: Sunset Boulevard, The Third Man, Laura, The Adventures of Robin Hood and A Place in the Sun. There are so many to choose from!