The room comes alive as the two men saunter in to meet the press. The self-described “hick farm boy” wears a light patterned silver suit with a yellow shirt open at the collar. The other, from a family steeped in politics, broadcasting, and show business, is dressed in jeans with his shirt tail out. Both men with degrees in journalism, born a generation apart, are at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood for roundtable interviews to kick off their duties as the main hosts of the TCM film festival. Four days of 83 classic films and several seminars drawing diehard movie fans from 49 states and 7 countries. Special guests will include Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Rhonda Fleming, Norman Jewison, Stanley Donen, and many more. But the true stars of this event are the gentlemen I’m describing, Robert Osborne and Ben Mankewicz.
Osborne, who grew up on a farm in Colfax, Washington, spent his spare time at the local movie house, marveling at Fred Astaire, Ginger Rodgers, and his hero Alan Ladd who was, in Osborne’s words, “the daredevil I could never be.” His love of film fueled his youthful curiosity. Osborne read “anything I could get my hands on about filmmaking.” He first came to Hollywood in the early sixties intent on acting. He signed with Twentieth Century Fox, humbly stating, “Anybody who could walk and talk in those days was able to get a six month contract.” This led to an opportunity to audition for Lucille Ball who was so impressed with this young man’s film acumen that she hired him on the spot. Taking Osborne under her wing, she later suggested that he should combine his love of movies with his journalism background and write a book. Osborne smiled as he recalled her advice, “It doesn’t matter what it’s about, it doesn’t even have to be good, just write it. It’s the only way people will take you seriously in this town.” Rising to the challenge, Osborne wrote Academy Award Illustrated in 1965 eventually becoming a correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter establishing him as the official biographer of “Oscar.” In 1986, he became host of The Movie Channel until 1993. Osborne has been the main host of TCM since it’s inception in 1994.
Mankiewicz was born and raised in Washington D.C. He entered the world of broadcasting after graduating from Columbia, producing, writing, and hosting a variety of television news programs. He landed in Miami at WAMI-TV, creating and hosting the daily news magazine show The Times. A film critic and former host of the national radio show The Young Turks, Mankewicz was hired as the weekend host of TCM in 2003.
Osborne is as engaging and warm in person as he is on the air, and during the press conference articulated his passion for classic movies. Every aspect of movie making on both sides of the camera continues to fascinate him. From the machinations and politics at the studio when the film was made, down to the nuts and bolts of every production. Was this cast the first choice? Which actor turned which part down? Why did the director walk off the set? Whose career was saved by this film? Whose career was ended? All the obscure juicy little tidbits he seamlessly weaves into his bookend commentaries that makes watching any film enjoyable as well as edifying.
He spoke glowingly about the policy at TCM, which shows every film uncut and commercial free. “You don’t want to interrupt the flow or mood of a Hitchcock film. It’s important to experience the film exactly the way it was intended to be seen. And this festival takes it one step further, classic films on the big screen without the distraction of doorbells or ringing cell phones.” When asked what his response is to people who don’t like old movies, Osborne sighed, “That’s like saying I can’t read Huckleberry Finn because it’s an old book.” We’re not asking people to take medicine.”
The laid back Mankewicz, a shameless Bruce Springsteen and sports fan, instantly displayed his dry wit and self-deprecating humor that makes him the perfect counterpart to Osborne. When asked about the wide variety of films scheduled at the same time, Mankewicz replied, “We stole that idea from the Telluride film festival. We want the fans to make hard choices. It keeps the events well attended and provides more opportunity for film lovers.” He spoke fondly about his travels to Philadelphia and Houston with Eva Marie Saint hosting showings of On The Waterfront. He marveled at her “great story telling abilities” as well as her energy and tenacity. When the former newscaster was asked about Sidney Lumet’s Network, he branded that film as well as Billy Wilder’s Ace In the Hole and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd as three films at the top of his list that were “way ahead of their time.”
As the session wound down, the genial hosts seemed to be gearing up for the festival to begin.
As he rose from the table Mankewicz shot a glance to his colleague and said, “When we walk out on that red carpet, Robert Osborne becomes Mick Jagger. And me, I might be Charlie Watts.” Of course, it all makes sense.
Osborne: The perennial rock. Mankewicz: The easy roll.