"I'm gonna do this again."
Robert Osborne, the 75-year-old host of Turner Classic Movies, takes a few steps back on the living-room set of Studio C, nestled inside Turner Broadcasting's Techwood Avenue complex. He's having a hard time wrapping his lips around the name of the 1966 western Alvarez Kelly, directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring William Holden and Richard Widmark.
It's the "Alvarez" part that keeps tripping him up, and he knows it. The monotone suggestion "Slow it down" comes over a speaker from director of studio production Sean Cameron. They're longtime collaborators, and it's a long workday. They both know verbal gaffes come with the territory. Over five days during Osborne's monthly visit to Atlanta from his home base in New York City, they need to knock out 280 two-minute intro and conclusion segments for 140 movies.
In a minute, an assistant who's been with Osborne for seven years hustles onto the set to touch up his feathery silver hair and to adjust his tie, while Osborne takes a sip of hot water from a TCM coffee mug. There are times, he admits, when he just can't get into a rhythm.
"I can tell the minute I get out of bed if it's going to be a good day or not," he says offstage later. "Sometimes even my head will be clear and I get out of bed and it's just clouded. Or the mouth doesn't work sometimes, or sometimes you get phlegm in your throat."
Osborne finally nails "Alvarez" on his third try and gets back into a groove. In just a few minutes he delivers a Trivial Pursuit round's worth of movie nuggets. It all flows naturally from Osborne's light, measured baritone – that the 1927 silent Wings, debuting as part of TCM's monthlong "31 Days of Oscar" programming, was the first movie to win an Academy Award and was one of Gary Cooper's first major roles; that the 1933 Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical 42nd Street featured the debut of Ruby Keeler; that the 1948 Powell-Pressburger musical The Red Shoes inspired a generation of young ballet dancers; and that the 1954 sea drama The Caine Mutiny required protracted negotiations with the U.S. Navy to guarantee its cooperation.
So it goes with Robert Osborne, whose trademark segue in between movies, "Up next," is as familiar as the trivia he mines with TCM staffers. Though his once-settled network underwent a rare corporate shake-up last year, he remains a fixture: the tenured professor in Turner Classic Movies' film school of uncut and commercial-free presentations.
"31 Days of Oscar," which continues through Sunday's Academy Awards ceremonies, is Osborne and Turner Classic Movies at their best. The series highlights 350 Oscar-winning and -nominated works from inside and outside the Turner vault, famously made formidable back in 1986 when Ted Turner purchased MGM/UA Entertainment Co. (Turner eventually sold to TimeWarner, and left the merged company's board two years ago.)
To show off the vault and TCM's licensing prowess, viewers in an estimated 75 million homes this year are given two sets of themed programming: Daytime features movies by genre, while evenings present movies by the decade. And the network is introducing 35 new titles, including movies as old as 1927's Wings and as recent as 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
As usual, Osborne is spotted on weekend afternoons by the Los Angeles-based Ben Mankiewicz, scion of a movie-making clan. But Osborne is so associated with TCM that it's difficult to think of another personality who so clearly defines a network. "I can be Walter Cronkite!" he jokes.
TCM's popular programming and website, paired with Osborne's steady, high profile, overshadows an unprecedented year of upheaval, which saw the elimination of almost an entire level of upper and middle management. Turner executives primarily responsible for larger networks such as TNT and TBS assumed some of those roles, with others going to remaining TCM employees, as the more autonomous network is tucked more snugly into the broader corporate structure. The goal, according to new management, is to leverage TCM's revenue stream by working more closely with the other networks, which in recent years underwent their own "brand" overhauls.
"If you said to me, 'Make this into a multibillion-dollar business to compete with TNT,' that's impossible," says Steve Koonin, who, as Turner Entertainment Group's president, assumed control over TCM last spring. "That's not [TCM's] role. And that's why it had to be tucked into a portfolio and not be on an island – because it has big brothers and big sisters to help grow it and protect it."
What that means for Turner Classic Movies and its longtime host could be the 75-million-home question. Just how broadly can they expand the "brand" without diminishing the quality?
Regardless of how that question is answered, there is the ever-steady Osborne, who has built a career out of his poise, preparation and personality. He believes in his company, his movies, his mission and his audience, and is in it for however long he can be.
Hardcore classic-movie junkie "Kim Punkrock" gets tatted up for TCM co-host Ben Mankiewicz
Credit: Courtesy Turner Classic Movies