Exclusive: Robert Osborne talks movies, Lucy and TCM

Those of us who have had a lifetime obsession with film, TV and animation have certain books that become important parts of our lives—which we read over and over. In my case, in addition to Leonard Maltin’s The Disney Films, Robert Osborne’s Academy Awards Illustrated. So much of what I know about films came originally from that book. Back in 2014, he was gracious enough to do this charming interview with me. This is the first time it has ever been published in its entirety.

GREG EHRBAR: You’ve had two very fascinating careers, first as an actor. You were one of an elite group who were mentored by Lucille Ball as one of the Desilu Players. Did you get to know Lucy and Desi?

ROBERT OSBORNE: Oh yes, I was under contract to them for two years.

GREG: Desi never received proper credit for all that he did for entertainment, did he?

ROBERT: He never did. And he was somewhat of a genius with all that sort of thing. I don’t think he ever got an Emmy nomination. Frawley, Lucy and Vance did. He was sort of left out in the dark. He was the genius of three-camera [sitcoms], he was the genius that got Karl Freund of all people – he photographed “M” for Fritz Lang – he brought him to be the photography head for the I Love Lucy shows. He was so forward-thinking about that stuff. He wanted the show to look good and wanted it to last and it did.

He was really a very smart businessman, but never happier than when he had a set of bongo drums and a band playing behind him. That’s when he really came to life. That’s what he loved more than anything. He didn’t really want to be a businessman, he just was great at being a businessman,

GREG: His music keeps enjoying a resurgence every few years. Lucie Arnaz released an album called Latin Roots, which was also her live touring show.

ROBERT: She became heir to all that music, all the arrangements. She did that at Feinstein’s at the Regency and several places. She sings with a Latin band playing. The opening night when she did it here in New York, she introduced the band members, and who was playing in the band but her brother! He’d been retired from things like that, but there was Desi, Jr. playing the drums.

GREG: Lucy really took you under her wing, didn’t she?

ROBERT: There were three of us that she was particularly fond of. She realized that we were interested in the business and how it ran. [The Desilu contract players] was like a master class. She would order prints of I Love Lucy shows, we’d watch them in her living room and we’d watch them on her big screen. She would show us why one thing worked and why another thing didn’t work, and how if you had to play a cello badly you first had to learn to play it correctly, otherwise you couldn’t be funny doing it.

She was paying us, but very little, so she knew we couldn’t really go to the theater, so when Vivien Leigh would come to town to do Little Angels, or Bette Davis was doing The World Of Carl Sandburg, or The Rat Pack was playing in Vegas, she’d take us there.

GREG: Who were the two other actors she was most fond of?

ROBERT: Carole Cook and Dick Kallman. She adored the three of us. She adored Ken Berry too, but he was not so much a part of it because he was already a rather active actor and dancer so he was getting a lot of offers that were above what Lucy could afford to pay actors under contract to Desilu. I just talked to Carole last night on the phone. I was best man when she got married. We’ve been great friends for the last 50 years. Good person.

GREG: I grew up loving the movie The Incredible Mr. Limpet, in which she co-starred with Don Knotts. Desilu was very influential, having produced what became the Twilight Zone pilot and launched shows like The Untouchables, Mannix, Mission: Impossible and Star Trek.

ROBERT: Majel Barrett, who married Gene Roddenberry and became one of the permanent cast members of Star Trek, was a also member of the Desilu contract players–so we went through her meeting Gene and getting married and Star Trek and all that.

GREG: Did you remain close to Lucy over the years?

ROBERT: We had a very intense friendship for two years there. She met my folks and took them out to dinner when they came to California. And then she went back to new York to do Wildcat and marry Gary Morton. Then about every year she would call up and ask “How you doing? Are you eating right? Who are your friends?” and invite you over to the house at least once a year, always had the door open. After she married Garry Morton, we didn’t really have that much in common anymore. We stayed in touch through the years, but not on a day-to-day basis like those two years at Desilu.

She was terrific and interesting. She loved what she did as an actress. The thing I found so fascinating about her was that she wasn’t funny. She didn’t “think funny” like Carol Burnett does. Judy Garland used to think funny and be very funny. Lucy knew how to be funny but she didn’t think funny.

Life was not easy for her. She didn’t finish high school. She started to work in the marketplace when she was about 15, passing herself off as 17. There was no father around. She was supporting her family. She had a brother, sister and mother and she was the breadwinner. This was in the Depression era when it was difficult to get a job.

She didn’t have a talent like Streisand’s singing voice or Eleanor Powell’s tap dancing. She was just a pretty girl and there were a lot of pretty girls trying to survive, so life was tough for her. She was not happy at the point that I knew her, owning that studio. She didn’t mind being responsible for a family, but she didn’t like being responsible for 300 families–meaning the people who were putting their kids through college, buying their houses and all that who were working for Desilu. It was all resting on her shoulders once Desi abdicated and left. Life was not a merry’go-round for her.

She was brilliant at what she did and she was a really, really good person.

GREG: One of the reasons Lucy was dedicated to mentoring young performers was because of Ginger Rogers’ mother, Lela, who nurtured her early career.

ROBERT: Lela Rogers was really the person who made it work for Lucy. Lucy was under contract to RKO. They wanted to get Lela off the Fred Astaire set because she was driving him crazy. She would want them to shoot a new take if Ginger’s dress was not flowing correctly or something. They didn’t want to offend Ginger because she was a major star, so they very smartly put Lela in charge of all the contract players.

They built a barn on the lot – it’s still there but now it’s the commissary at Paramount – as a theater for her. She would take the contract players and they would work on scenes. Every Friday, before a producer or director checked out of the lot for the weekend, she had them watch the young actors do scenes so they could maybe place them in one of their films.

Somebody could see Lucy doing something and say, “Oh gosh, she could be funny, I can use her in the flower shop for this one movie,” or something. Because of Lela, they started noticing Lucy on the RKO set, because Lela saw how funny Lucy could be. Before that, everybody saw her as this statuesque, beautiful redhead, but as Lucy said, she looked like a hat check girl or cigarette girl at Ciro’s or something. She didn’t look like Maureen O’Hara. She had always this sort of hard look about her and she recognized that.

It was those scenes that she did for Lela that got Lucy’s career started. So when she owned her studio, the first thing she wanted to do was put a contract stable together. The thing was, that it didn’t work like a movie studio because a movie studio owned their product. At Desilu, Lucy and Desi had a percentage of all the shows that were being done on the lot, but they didn’t own, say, 50% of Private Secretary with Ann Sothern or various things. All they owned all of was the Lucy and Desi show, which at that point was an hour show. They didn’t really have control over people using their contract players. Producers would say, “I own 60% of my show, I’m going to use who I want to use.” It never really worked out in that way, but it certainly worked out for Carole, myself and others who got to know Lucy and were guided by her wisdom. It was kind of a wonderful miracle.

GREG: And it was Lucy who encouraged you to write about movies.

 ROBERT: She said to me, “You could really [make it as an actor], but it’s not going to make you happy. You’re from a small town in Washington. You’re not street smart like some New York kid that knows how to kind of fight in the alleys. You can learn to do it, but it’s not your nature. You’re not going to be happy doing it. You love research, you love classic films, that’s what you should be concentrating on. And because I knew that she was telling me this for my own good, I listened to her. She was absolutely right. Once I quit acting, I never ever had a desire to do it again. The way she guided me on this course was absolutely right for me. I will always appreciate her for that.

GREG: Did being an actor help you appreciate the actors you have written about?

 ROBERT: Well, I think it does. I realize how difficult it is for people to do. I have great respect for people who make it look so easy. But what it did more than anything was it taught me how to relax in front of a camera, how to talk into it and do all those things that have helped me in what I do today. The experience I got in the pursuit of being an actor came to my rescue when I got a chance to do what I do now. My training was at Desilu. I’ll always be grateful for that.

I’ve always been totally engrossed and fascinated by Hollywood, the product they put out, how it worked and all. As a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, I had access to the studios at a time when there were still people around that went back to the early days of filmmaking—to talk to them and tell their stories being in Hollywood then. It was a wonderful time for me because people that I had admired so much, like Bette Davis, Hedy Lamarr, Lana and that whole group were still around, but their careers had peaked. They were not so busy anymore and they had time to talk to me. If I had gone out there, say, ten years earlier, they’d have been totally engrossed in their careers and not had time for me. Back them there were not too many people around then who do what I do, who were knowledgable about film or interested in film. So that led me on this journey.

When I was with The Hollywood Reporter. I was doing entertainment reports on television for the local channels. I went permanently to Channel 11, the Metromedia channel there. Because I had done the Desilu stuff, I was rather comfortable in front of a camera. Sometimes its best to stumble out of sight, when they don’t see you. The last place you should try to do something like that is New York or LA, because if you don’t do it well, they’ll never give you another chance. You strike out, and if your name comes up they say “No.” But because of that early training I had, I was okay at it, but it could have been a disaster.

GREG: What did you think about Turner Classic Movies when it first began?

ROBERT: I knew TCM would be popular because they had the stuff that I would want to watch on television. And it was uncut. That’s always fabulous. It’s always bothered me that they cut movies up for commercials. A movie has a certain rhythm that it must have, which means you can’t cut it up or you destroy the rhythm.

Anyway, I felt very lucky to be able to do this but what I didn’t realize was that I was going to become a “nurse.” So many people gravitated to the channel because they were going through unemployment or a divorce or cancer treatment or whatever. So this became a destination for people to get through great crises in their life by watching this wonderful channel with these terrific movies that had been locked away in vaults and never been seen for years.

GREG: It’s funny you should mention the “nurse” thing, because when my wife was pregnant, we watched a lot of TCM. We love it anyway, but at a time like that, it’s especially comforting.

ROBERT: I didn’t think it would help people get through times in their life, entertain them and perk them up when they needed it. This is a wonderful thing the movie industry used to do, and I don’t know that it does anymore. Even the most serious films, like The Grapes of Wrath or High Sierra, always ended on an optimistic note. The people who ran movie studios in those days wanted people to come back to the theaters the next week and pay their 25 cents or 50 cents to see another movie.

Today, you can see No Country for Old Men and want to put a bullet in your head, it’s so depressing. It doesn’t really encourage you to want to go out and see movies again right away–which always surprises me because there’s so much negativity in the world today, you’d think that people would want to go to more movies if they made them feel better.

But we don’t make a lot of feel good movies anymore. We need Fred and Ginger, we need to be entertaining. We don’t need everything to be so realistic, with so much blood flowing–particularly when you’re getting that on the nightly news anyway.

GREG: Another unique aspect of TCM is that it isn’t ratings driven.

ROBERT: Yes it is, and that’s really quite accurate. We don’t have to show a Clint Eastwood movie on Saturday night if we want to show a Joe E. Brown movie that few may think they want to see–except that the people that do want to see it are so appreciative.

People become devoted to the channel. I love the fact that, with our programming, festival and cruise, people trust us. We sell out every cruise before people even know what movies are going to be on it. And you don’t just have to book Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and those big titles, you can have obscure titles and people will rush to see it because it’s in the festival. They know it’s going to be good because otherwise we wouldn’t have it in the festival. That happened almost immediately and I think its one of the great compliments of the channel.

GREG: In a way, that’s a more dynamic way to program. It’s also fun to see some really strange movies like Zotz! Everything’s Ducky or Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title. Thanks to TCM, we discovered It Happened on 5th Avenue and now it’s a holiday tradition in our house.

ROBERT: Charming, charming movie. No one had heard of that one before.

GREG: Another great one is Remember the Night with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

ROBERT: Yeah, we discovered that for people. Everybody knew about Double Indemnity, nobody knew about Remember the Night. When you have a channel like that, you make sure you show the favorites that most people want, but then you really want to see some of these obscure movies that you’ve never heard of before and out of those you can discover something quite charming entertaining that you want to see again. Its kind of a win win situation on all fronts.

GREG: There’s been a lot of talk about young people refusing to watch black-and-white shows, but I’ve found that all of that depends on whether the material is good or not. According to advertising research, Millenials could not care less when something was made, they just want to see it if it’s cool, if it captures their attention. They also want to make their own choices and not be told what to like and not like.

ROBERT: Oh yeah. We don’t have a lot of old people on the cruises and things like that. It’s very interesting that a large percentage of our guests are between the ages of 25 and 40. They’ve discovered Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sothern and some of these people. They’re captivated by them and it’s very exciting. I know that, in some people’s minds, that TCM might be a channel for older people but it hasn’t turned out to be that way.

At our first festival, there was a young couple from Europe. In their early 20’s, a brother and sister. They’d seen a trailer in New York about the festival and decided they had to be there. They came in, they have ever since and are besotted with these films. We get great prints so they look new. Many of the films have stories and are done in a way that is very contemporary. You would swear they were made yesterday. A work is great no matter when it was made.

It all moves in cycles. Just when you think a world that is interested in what I’m interested in is all gone and disappeared, you turn around and find other people who are discovering it now. The one regret I have is that the Stanwycks and Gaynors are not around to see that their work would mean something to a young person today. That’s kind of thrilling.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Greg's Blog.

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