by Jill Blake, Senior Editor
Five years ago this May, I had the honor of sitting in on one of Robert Osborne’s shoots for TCM. I had recently attended a screening of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) in Atlanta with Robert and actress Jane Powell in attendance. Since I was on assignment for a website, I needed some publicity stills of the event for my piece. My PR contact at TCM was extremely helpful, and along with images of the event, she extended an invitation to visit the set for a taping. Of course I eagerly took her up on the generous offer. At that time, Robert was still filming here in Atlanta at the Turner Broadcasting studios. Every four weeks or so, Robert traveled to Atlanta for several days and would churn out a marathon session, taping intros/outros for around 100 films, in addition to any promotional material needed for the network.
When I entered the Turner campus, I was led down to the studios by a member of the marketing team. I felt like I was being escorted to a secret bunker for a highly classified film briefing. I won’t lie: I was hoping for a room full of Futurama-esque head jars of all my favorite movie stars. I never received confirmation that they don’t exist, so I’ll keep believing it.
My guide and I continued down a long corridor and into a darkened room, lit by strings of white lights. I quickly realized this was “backstage.” There he was: the silver fox, Robert Osborne, relaxed in a white shirt and suspenders, sitting at a table talking with staff and crew, enjoying the last moments of his lunch break. When he realized I was standing there, I promptly received a warm welcome and firm handshake. It was obvious that Mr. Osborne spent significant time in the South because he told me to make myself at home and help myself to the craft services table. Robert offered to take a few photos with me on the set, but made sure to tell me he needed a few moments to put on his jacket and look spiffy.
While I waited for Robert to dress, I was allowed to look around the set and take photos before filming resumed. Like many sets and studios, Robert Osborne’s on-air penthouse was much smaller than it appeared on television. I looked out his “window” (which faces a lovely backdrop of a nighttime skyline, presumably New York City), admired the photography on the walls (taken by crew member and professional photographer Peter McIntosh), and fought the urge to tickle the ivories with a little bit of Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date.” Sparing everyone from my rudimentary piano skills, I soon directed my attention to the focal point of the room: the two red leather armchairs we used to see on TCM every single night. The crew saw that I was unable to contain my excitement, and I was invited to sit down in one of the chairs to have my picture taken. As I took my seat I thought to myself, “a whole lot of famous people’s asses have sat in this here chair.” You couldn’t beat the smile off my face.
While the crew finished up their last minute adjustments for the shoot, Robert walked out and called me over for several photos with him. Although he was quite focused on getting back to work, he took his time making sure each shot was carefully staged. He walked me to the edge of the set and showed me to my seat. Before he returned to his spot at the red chairs, Robert said to me “I hope you enjoy this. We will talk afterward.”
For about an hour or so, I quietly sat off stage watching a master at work. Although he had filmed thousands of wraparounds for films airing on TCM, many for the same films over and over (I’m looking at you, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and North By Northwest), Robert approached each script with the same level of professionalism and enthusiasm. And believe it or not, he made mistakes. He was quick to correct them, though, getting frustrated with himself for stumbling a bit over the script, but promptly moving on to the next wraparound. Here I was, a nobody, watching this great historian, writer, journalist, and television host behind the scenes. It was an incredible and truly surreal experience.
After he was done with his filming for the day, Robert immediately walked over to me with a big smile on his face. “So, how did you like it?” I wanted to gush and fangirl, but I somehow found some bit of restraint within (those who know me are fully aware how difficult this is for me) and had a lovely conversation with him. I won’t bore you with all the details of our chat, but I will say that he’s like any other diehard classic film fan: he loves to talk about movies, movie stars, and the glamour of old Hollywood. In that moment, it wasn’t TCM host Robert Osborne and the grand nobody Jill Blake; it was the meeting of two fans, instantly bonded over their mutual love of classic film. I will never forget that moment. By the end of our conversation, which lasted for quite a while, Robert kissed my hand and gave me a big hug. “You’re welcome here anytime, Jill. It was a pleasure having you here today.”
One thing that I noticed when I was speaking with Robert was how his eyes lit up when we talked about his favorite films and actors. Here is a man who has been long considered the expert in classic Hollywood and Academy Award trivia—a man who has been friends with some of the biggest and greatest stars— and he still could get excited over Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s performances in Notorious. And even though his enthusiasm for film was always present while introducing films on TCM or at live screenings, he approached discussions surrounding classic film in a relatively objective way. This fact-based approach landed him that coveted position as the official historian for the Academy Awards. Away from the cameras and audiences, however, Robert traded in a bit of that objectivity for pure, unadulterated fandom. I’ve read interviews where he had the opportunity to “geek out” a bit over his favorites, but experiencing it one-on-one was truly special. In that moment I felt like we were old friends, picking up a conversation from where we left off.
It was an honor to meet you, Robert. Thank you for allowing this nobody to catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the work that so many of us have long admired. I miss you terribly.