Robert Osborne is used to interviewing screen legends, but now he knows how it feels to sit in the other chair.
As Turner Classic Movies begins its 20th-anniversary year, its principal host — who was an actor before he became a Hollywood columnist and historian — recounts how his career began and progressed in a new “Private Screenings” special at 8 p.m. ET/5 PT Monday (Jan. 6). Alec Baldwin, who hosted the Saturday-night TCM film series “The Essentials” with Osborne from 2009 to 2011, asks the questions.
“It never occurred to me,” the ever-genial Osborne tells Zap2it of becoming a “Private Screenings” guest. “Way back, Dwayne Hickman [the former star of TV’s ‘The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis’] said, ‘You know, you come into everybody’s living room every night, and they don’t know you. They like you, but they don’t know much about you. Sometime, you should do a documentary about yourself.’
“I think that was even before we had a ‘Private Screenings’ franchise, but I never thought anybody would think of doing that or even be interested in doing that, so I just kind of let it go.”
Now that it’s happening, viewers get firsthand stories of Osborne’s tutelage under television legend Lucille Ball — who brought him into a young-actors group she guided at her studio, Desilu — and how Osborne eventually left Hollywood for New York, his longtime home base since, and almost became a host for AMC instead.
Having Baldwin as his “interrogator” suited Osborne fine: “When the idea first came up, they said, ‘We have to figure out somebody appropriate to do that.’ I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back, but it’s not that easy to interview people sometimes. Because a lot of people make it look so easy, everybody thinks anyone can do it.
“Peter O’Toole hated being interviewed, and he said, ‘If you’re curious why I would let you interview me, in the tapes I saw, you listened to the person who was talking.’ So often, you can see in an interviewer’s eyes that they’re thinking about the next question and not really listening.”
Baldwin is “so good” at questioning, Osborne maintains. “He had a podcast for a while and interviewed me on that. When this came up, before I could even mention it, someone said, ‘We’re talking to Alec about whether he’s got some time in his schedule where he could do this.’ And I thought, ‘Good. He’d be perfect.’
“He’d always been very generous to me when we’d worked together, and it’s kind of tricky with actors, because they like to talk about themselves. They’re trained that way, but he turned out to be really good at this, I thought.”
The “Private Screenings” hour includes tributes to Osborne by numerous friends and admirers including Liza Minnelli, Robert Wagner, Nancy and Tina Sinatra, Eva Marie Saint and Chita Rivera. It also features rare clips of Osborne as an actor, in life-insurance and beer commercials as well as the long-ago soap opera “The Young Marrieds” — and the pilot episode of the classic sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“It was like having died and getting to go to your own memorial service,” Osborne says of his first viewing of the special. “It was also fun to watch those clips that I hadn’t seen in years. And there were some, like Lucy talking about me on Dinah Shore‘s show, that I don’t remember at all.
“You’re always kind of thinking of what you’re working on right now, and you don’t think back to the other times as much. This reminded me how long I’ve known people like Bob Wagner, and it was really exciting for me.” (Wagner was among the first celebrities to step in as a TCM guest host when Osborne took an absence for minor surgery in 2011.)
In one of his most amusing “Private Screenings” remembrances, Osborne recalls how he met the iconic Bette Davis. Olivia de Havilland asked him to escort her to the American Film Institute event at which Davis received a Life Achievement Award, and they ended up seated at the head table — with a panicked Osborne realizing that among all the faces familiar to her, Davis wouldn’t know him from Adam.
“I was really sweating so much that night,” Osborne reflects. “From what I knew of her at that point, I thought she wasn’t the kind of person who would let a stranger kiss or hug her. When you slow the footage down, there is a moment when she looks at me like, ‘Who the hell is that?’ It was classic.”
Osborne ended up making the perfect move by taking Davis’ hand and kissing it when she approached him (“I certainly didn’t pre-think that”), and he was amused for years after when that scene was shown in the introduction to subsequent AFI tribute programs. “I really thought she’d stop where her place at the table was,” he says, “and she would have, if Olivia hadn’t made this sweeping gesture and pulled her over.”
After the “Private Screenings” episode’s premiere, TCM will offer several movies selected by Osborne, starting with the zither-scored 1949 mystery “The Third Man” starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten.
Even with his own “Private Screenings” showcase a done deal, Osborne still marvels that it exists. “It cost them some money,” he says of TCM making it. “They had to license clips and do all that kind of stuff, and the fact that they were nice enough to do that was really fine of them. And a big surprise to me.”