Robert Osborne, the actor-turned-film historian who played a vital role in keeping popular interest in classic Hollywood films alive through his work with Turner Classic Movies, has died. Osborne began his career as an contract player at Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Desilu, before changing careers and joining the staff of The Hollywood Reporter in 1977. In 1994, he joined then-nascent cable company Turner Classic Movies, and was the primary on-air personality for the network up until his death.
Osborne died in his sleep at home in New York City, according to the Los Angeles Times. His longtime partner, theater director and producer David Staller, adds: “It’s difficult to imagine a planet without him. He made the choice to call it a day, and he wants everyone to know that he’ll see them at the after party.” He was 84.
After studying journalism at the University of Washington, Osborne moved to Los Angeles, where he received coaching from Lucille Ball as part of her Desilu Workshop program. After a handful of TV appearances and uncredited walk-on parts in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, he appeared on the pilot episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, but declined to return for the series because he didn’t think the idea had legs. With his career stalled, Ball—who would remain a lifelong friend of Osborne’s—suggested that he should apply his wit and education to writing a book; he took her suggestion, penning Academy Awards Illustrated, the first of many books he would write about the Oscars, in 1966.
Throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Osborne worked as a roving entertainment reporter on local TV stations in both New York and L.A. (He also served in a similar capacity on CBS Morning News in the early ‘80s.) In 1977, he took a steady gig as a staff writer at The Hollywood Reporter, and wrote its dishy “Rambling Reporter” column from 1982 to 2009. Further cementing his insider status, he was also the official greeter on the Oscars red carpet from 2006-2010, and a host on the Movie Channel from 1986-1993.
But perhaps Osborne’s greatest cause was advocating for the preservation of classic Hollywood cinema, a role that was inextricable from his job as a host on Turner Classic Movies. Beginning in 1994, Osborne—sometimes alone, sometimes with a celebrity guest—would provide educational commentary before films that aired on the channel, providing greater context for the movies audiences were about to watch. (TCM is now the last American movie channel to provide such a service.) Osborne also hosted the TCM Classic Film Festival from its inaugural edition in 2010 through 2014, and sponsored a classic film festival named after him at the University of Georgia that ran from 2005 to 2010.
Turner Classic Movies has released a statement on Osborne’s death, which you can read below.