Monday, May 3, 2021

Why TCM's Robert Osborne Mattered To Me

Before TCM (Turner Classic Movies) existed on cable television, I was a Robert Osborne fan. We worked across the street from each other. He was a contributor on the CBS weekday morning news show. I was across the street from the CBS West 57th Street location in New York City at a VH1 studio, taping my daily veejay segments and celebrity talk shows for that cable network. I watched Robert Osborne's segments and read his column in The Hollywood Reporter.


I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, a classic film fan since I was in the 1st grade. By the time I was in the 3rd grade, I could name three RKO musicals that starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Not long after I graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, I started my professional broadcast career. My first job was at a local FM station. I got newscast soundbites in-person from Bette Davis when she was in town to promote DEATH ON THE NILE. A year after trembling as I held a tape recorder and talked to Bette Davis, I was doing weekly film reviews and celebrity interviews for Milwaukee's ABC affiliate. Most of those interviews occurred during movie junkets held in New York City or Los Angeles. This was the early 80s. I was younger and slimmer then. Occasionally, junket cameraman would comment that I had a slight resemblance to Ashley Boone. There was always a definite air of reverence when they mentioned his name. From them, I learned that Ashley Boone was one of the most influential, creative, successful and beloved movie executives in Hollywood. He was the 20th Century Fox marketing whiz behind THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, the original STAR WARS trilogy, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and ALIEN to name a few projects. His wonderful sister, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, became the first Black person elected president of the Motion Picture Academy. That was in 2015.


Robert Osborne was the first and only White entertainment news reporter and film historian I ever heard acknowledge the late Ashley Boone and highlight the Black History he'd made in Hollywood. He mentioned that Boone practically ran 20th Century Fox for six months and helped bring the studio out of business turmoil. That Robert Osborne TV segment on CBS made me feel so significant. He'd shone a light on overlooked Black History.

I've been a TCM viewer since 1999. One of the several things that lit up my heart about his TCM host work was his continued acknowledgement of Black History. Not only that, he broke through a discriminatory color barrier that millions of TV viewers probably never realized existed.


 I've written numerous times about how segregated the TV field of weekly film critics seemed after the trailblazing Siskel & Ebert premiered on PBS and clicked with the public. Starting in the 1980s, the film review/movie historian TV duos that followed from Siskel & Ebert down to Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons doing AT THE MOVIES in 2008 were all White male pairings. There was no voice of color. The same goes for the Friday film critics we used to see on the ABC, CBS and NBC network morning shows. The same thing applied to hosts on movie channels. Those had no regular voice of color. We were excluded from the new movie and classic film conversations.

I can tell you personally that this exclusion did not happen because producers didn't know that Black film critics, historians and potential movie hosts existed. Many of us who sought that kind of weekly work were only contacted to be on-air and speak about recommended viewings for Black History Month or talk about Black images in film. To me, those marginalized opportunities were not so much an embrace of diversity but a move by TV executives to appear "politically correct" and "liberal."

To me, diversity and inclusion in the field of film talk on TV is not having a Black film contributor on just during Black History Month to talk about THE LEARNING TREE from director Gordon Parks. It's giving that Black contributor the same opportunities you give the White contributors -- the chance to talk about Parks' THE LEARNING TREE, Elia Kazan's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE and Jack Lemmon's performance in UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE.

Robert Osborne had Black talents on TCM to join him as guests in the classic film conversation. Spike Lee talked about the influence of Billy Wilder, Diahann Carroll discussed ALL ABOUT EVE. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a guest. So was Chita Rivera. Robert Osborne made a place for people of color. He acknowledged our awareness of classic films. I saw a reflection of myself on TCM thanks to Robert Osborne. I heard about our Black History in Hollywood. I heard us talk about classic films from the whole cinema menu -- not just side dishes of Black films and Black images. That's why TCM host Robert Osborne mattered to me.

Here's a career disappointment of mine I rarely mention. From 1990 to 2002, I had a terrific TV commercial and hosting agent. She was with a respected NYC agency called SEM&M. If I had cast Linda in a classic film, she would've been played by Thelma Ritter. Linda got me a lot of TV commercial and TV host work. What helped was that she was an Old School agent. She made people see me and give me a chance to audition. Linda McIntosh was not just my agent. She was also my hysterically funny friend -- and a fellow classic film fan.

She loved my celebrity talk show on VH1. After my VH1 contract expired in 1990 and I was seeking a new gig, I heard that AMC was soon to have auditions for a new host. Remember when AMC was American Movie Classics and showed classic films presented by hosts? AMC had good hosts. No one of color, but the channel did an annual salute to Black History Month. 

I told Linda about the possible auditions and she got on it right away. AMC was indeed looking to add a new host for its last cycle as a solely classic film channel. A few days later, while talking to Linda's assistant about another project, she mentioned that Linda was livid about something AMC related.

Apparently, AMC execs would not even book me for an audition. This angered Linda because they booked one of her other clients for an audition. A handsome, blue-eyed Caucasian guy.

Linda confirmed that exclusion to me on the phone and said this about her other client: "He's a good guy but he didn't have his own national TV show and interview some of the people in movies airing on AMC." She had the uneasy feeling my being denied an audition was race-related. In 2000 and 2006, I booked national broadcast jobs reviewing new movies and recommending classic films. I had to push for those auditions because, I was told, executives in charge of hiring asked "Does he know anything about movies?" I had to validate myself again and again.

Robert Osborne definitely broke through a color barrier in TV. I am still grateful to him for that.

Here's some of my VH1 talk show work:

Shirley MacLaine talks about TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS.


Kirk Douglas talks about his son, Oscar winner Michael Douglas and FATAL ATTRACTION.

Here's a montage of other guests I interviewed on my show.


It's May 3rd. Robert Osborne was born this day in history in 1932. He was a great talent.

18 comments:


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Before Astaire Danced on the Ceiling

 In the late 1980s, I was a veejay and talk show host seen daily on the VH1 music channel. Those were three of the happiest, most fulfilling...