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Robert Osborne takes center stage in TCM special

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Monday, January 6, 2014 - 8:31 am

LOS ANGELES — Mention a favorite early 20th-century film to Robert Osborne — "Sullivan's Travels," in this instance — and he's quick to offer an intriguing bit of Hollywood history.

"No one made a fuss of it at the time," the Turner Classic Movie host replies. The marketing campaign didn't even mention filmmaker Preston Sturges, making va-va-voom star Veronica Lake its centerpiece.

Osborne, who's interviewed a succession of Hollywood greats as part of his TCM duties, can't resist sharing his film knowledge even when he's supposed to be the subject, whether in conversation or in a special edition of "Private Screenings."

Alec Baldwin, a regular visitor to TCM, does the questioning in the episode airing Monday (8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. EDT). According to Osborne, it took a bit of arm-twisting by TCM to get him to discuss his life and career.

"It seemed very strange having someone like Alec, so prominent in his career, ask me questions rather than the other way around," said Osborne, who also wondered whether he would his story would be interesting enough. Simply put, it is.

He recounts his long-standing obsession with Hollywood, including his years in college when he maintained a black book, nicknamed "Blackie," of his research into the films and talent behind them, and the ribbing he took from his classmates for it.

That was well before the resurgence of interest in old movies, before there was a TCM and what Osborne, who started out as an actor, calls a "lucky" chance to make a career out of his passion.

"I was ready with all that information when a job was created. I prepared for something that didn't exist," said Osborne, who joined TCM as its prime-time host when the channel launched in 1994. He's also the author of several books on the Academy Awards.

Osborne preference is for the industry's golden era of films, up through about midcentury, when he says the studios knew how to find and groom actors and actresses to be extraordinary. It's different now, he said.

"We don't seem to want people bigger than life. We want people who look ordinary," Osborne said. Growing up in a small Washington state town, he said, "there was never anybody who looked like Audrey Hepburn or Lana Turner or Hedy Lamarr .... actresses who were bigger than life."

Films also were uplifting then, he said, even when the subject matter was gritty, citing "The Grapes of Wrath" and "High Sierra" as examples.

The silver-haired Osborne, 81, said he's offered to step aside if TCM considers him too old for the job, but the channel has declined to accept. So as long as he has the energy for it, he said, he's sticking around.

"If I wasn't doing it (on TV) I'd be doing it as a hobby, so I might as well get paid for it," he said.