Robert Osborne: Memories of the Movie Man

Post by Nick Fleming

Robert Osborne, film enthusiast, historian, journalist, and host of Turner Classic Movies passed away March 6. The following post, written in the days since his death, is in honor of his memory.

Hindsight reveals an obvious truth: first experiences are a dime-a-dozen when you’re young. For every humdrum cliché we’re coerced into listening to comes the experiences that teach us vital life lessons. This is the education you get in less obvious places and times. The dark corner of the gymnasium during the school dance; the after-midnight exploration of your hometown on a summer evening; dining in at McDonalds surrounded by the lionized elders of the community.

We all have those times where “the learnings” come at you left and right. If you’re lucky, you have the presence of mind to internalize the time, place, and players involved. If you’re sharp enough, you remember how it all unfolded and by the very act of recollection you pay tribute.

I’m one of the lucky ones and today I pay tribute to the heart and the head of Turner Classic Movies, the late Robert Osborne.

We all have our poison of choice: for a jock it’s the thrill of the game, for the music enthusiast it’s the mastery of the instrument, for the social butterfly it’s simply good banter. Regardless of which social clique you subscribed to in Sandwich, IL these indulgences and more were in no short order and it was all thanks to the town school district for giving “tomorrow’s future” the appropriate outlet for such passions.

Let me be frank: as a kid, I was too soft for competitive sports, too impatient for the guitar (I’m still holding out for a drum set), and my social skills were shaky even on days when I was at my most confident. It wasn’t as if I was totally devoid of any and all interest in these things; no, my problem was that I was holding out for something slightly alien to what home and school had to offer me… Making matters more complicated than they should have been, I possessed the uncanny ability of being incapable of describing to my parents and guardians what it was that channeled my passions.

“What are you into, kid?”

“I dunno, I really like movies.”

“Yeah? You make them?”

“No. I don’t know how to do any of that.”

“So you watch them a lot, yeah?”

“…Yeah.”

It was usually at that point when my train of thought was derailed and I found myself unable to explain to both the listener and myself what it is I wanted to do with this…thing. To the listener, I was just a young kid who watched movies; not unlike the typical pre-teen who passively digested blocks of Adult Swim programming or direct-to-DVD gross out comedies. Way on down the road, the day did come where I cut my teeth and made a series of awful short projects for college, but by and large, I was without a direction, unable to differentiate what I felt was a unique interest in movies from the rest of Sandwich’s youth who simply “watched em”. For the time being, I would remain incapable of crystalizing what my relationship with movies was.

Somewhere down the road, there was some clarity…

Much like Abraham Lincoln and trying to pinpoint the moment in time when you first learned about his very existence, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was one of those things growing up that was simply known, but always on the peripheral; never out in front. Buried beneath the much cooler American Movie Channel (“Look dad, The Three Stooges!”) and Cartoon Network (“Cartoon Cartoon Fridays”) TCM’s uncut and commercial free programming of old black and white movies and network promotions didn’t get a lot of fanfare in the Fleming household; my mom was a nut for crime procedurals and my old man never turned off The History Channel. They were more than content in their ways.

My tastes, fortunately, began to change at some point towards the end of my stint in middle school. Dexter’s Laboratory had lost its luster, CSI was beginning its long downward spiral into mediocrity, and on the movie-front, I was in danger of exhausting the staples of my childhood. You can’t watch Halloween (1978) year-round and avoid looks of concern…

The stars in the sky had aligned; a little box-TV in my bedroom (“what a gift!”), time to waste, and most significantly, a readiness to lower my defenses and take some chances. Before bed, with the specter of sleep perched above me, TCM’s kind and classy host offered greetings and salutations. “This guy’s got class.” During those early years, a Robert Osborne-foreword into a Warner Bros. oldie was enough to temporally prolong my inevitable slumber; soon after, I stayed up all the way through. I was hooked. TCM starting at 7PM IL time was the beginning of “night school” where Osborne held court; he the teacher and I the protégé.

I had so much to learn, so much I wanted to learn, and I still do. Like Osborne had realized for himself long ago and had since shared in countless interviews, I recognized that the more I knew about any one movie, the more I researched, the more interesting it ultimately was. Sure, not every movie was a gem. Case in point, Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959) might be a “bad” film, but knowing something about the time and place in which it was made and what was happening behind the camera and in the lives of the people makes the very act of watching much more involving. A true experience.

Above all other lessons, listening to Osborne helped me get over certain apprehensions, particularly my fear of being seen as shallow for being as taken as I was with something as commonplace as movies. I learned to embrace my passions with a little more confidence and to my relief, I could better articulate my relationship with movies and how I saw them differently than most of the people around me: as passages to places and people in the world outside my own two-story town.

Osborne, with all of his love for the medium, opened the door.   

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