It was my 17th birthday, I was happy as I could have been. I was dating a girl who I'd spent a year pining for from afar and there was a whole big controversy because her boyfriend was the nicest guy in school and I'd kind of stolen her from him, but that's not what happened that's just how it looked. It took us months to get that back in order and for people to stop giving us sideways glances. For my birthday my parents, sisters, and grandparents took me to a sushi restaurant, which I'd planned because I knew my girlfriend would be there with some friends that night and I wanted to be able to look across the restaurant and smile at her and have her smile at me without interrupting her evening. I got a lot of super spiff gifts including a laptop an english teacher insisted I get because she didn't want to spend the entirety of my senior year in high school reading my handwriting. That was about as happy as I got back then.
I ordered what I always did at this joint, an eel and scallop roll (I ate fish by the pound back then) and smiled at my girlfriend and she smiled back, my younger sister and I were making each other laugh doing impressions of Colin Meloy from The Decemberists, and then there was a shooting pain in my throat. I coughed and sputtered and excused myself. Five minutes later the pain, excruciating, was still present. My dad drove me to the hospital, luckily only about ten minutes away. They admitted me put in a private room, traded my shirt for a gown so naturally the fat kid who wore a shirt to the beach was feeling really in his element. Then the really bad news came. They'd be putting an I.V. in so they could then feed muscle relaxers into my blood so I'd be calm enough for an X-Ray of my throat. There was reason to believe an eel bone was still stuck in there. I didn't get it and was furious and scared but I said yes and braced myself. I have a bad history with needles, have always hated them. I have one of those uncanny, impossible memories of myself as a child in a doctor's office getting a series of injections, crying and screaming "Not the shot!" The impossible thing is I can see myself in the office, as if I was standing in the doorway watching my childhood self, scrunched up red face and everything. Everytime a doctor mentions an injection or the drawing of blood I see that little boy's face and my stomach sinks to my feet. I've gotten slightly better since this night, but that may just be because it was undeniably the low point in my relationship to hospitals. I have a story about dentistry I'll have to tell you some other time.
They put the needle in my arm, that familiar, foreign sting, and the nurse says "Whoops." Always what you want to hear. Needle comes out, and then back in. Blood has shot out of the hole and onto the perfect white bandage around the area that they'd prepared. I hear myself lying and saying I'm ok but I'm transfixed by the needle. Can't stop staring. I put my hoodie over the arm so I have to stop looking at it. A minute later I'm walking down the hall, clutching my I.V., wheeling dumbly alongside me. They take the first X-Ray, I don't remember much about it, then I ask to use the restroom. I remember walking to the little bathroom behind the heavy door, I remember looking down at the toilet, and then I remember waking up believing I'd been kidnapped. I'm in a warehouse, I can hear the voices of my captors, they'll be back any second, I'm in Colombia…or Mexico… then it hits me. I'm on the floor of the bathroom, my head wedged between the wall and the heavy door. If someone had opened it, they'd have crushed my head. The I.V. is next to me on the floor and somehow the bag hasn't ripped, the needle hasn't come out. I stand up and slowly walk back to the X-Ray room. "I passed out." "Why didn't you say something?" The technician snapped at me. I didn't have an answer for that one.
I shakily walk back to the hospital room and wait for the results, the pain in my throat is still bad but it's taken a backseat to the feeling of disappointment that comes when you're a kid and your birthday is ruined, the pain in my arm, the embarrassment from having passed out, and my general disorientation (and my later frustration when it appeared as though the bone was long gone, it was just the pain that was still stuck in my throat). I need something, anything to take my mind off how catastrophically this evening turned out. I grab the little remote next to me and turn the volume up and whatever's on the TV. It turns out to be an interview on TCM with Robert Osborne and Anthony Quinn. Everything about it was calming. Osborne's melodious, slightly reedy voice with its pockets of brandy-aged lows, his practiced highs and lows, from years as a consummate professional in front of a camera. He was gentleness incarnate. Quinn, a rascal and a survivor laughing, smiling, forthcoming, two old pros who'd lived and breathed the subject matter at hand. The room they sat in, the one any TCM fan from that era grew to view as their second living room, the one they always wished they could visit, with its amber lighting, its soft greens and browns hiding discreetly in the set design, nothing too loud or upsetting. That was the experience of watching Robert Osborne, everything manicured to set you at ease. He was like Fred Rogers or Bob Ross, he was here to teach us, to help us and guide us through a mountain of information, a lot of ugly. He'd soften the blows, the deaths and tragedies, the careers shortened by alcoholism and studio politics with a sympathetic shrug and a little raise of the eyebrows. Robert Osborne taught me about life's disappointing tide in the most avuncular, sage way anyone could hope for. Sure, our heroes die (this week is an especially sombre testament to that disheartening truth), but if we're lucky, someone as charismatic and passionate as Osborne will make sure their legacies never vanish.
Osborne was going to be an actor before he wound up on my TV throughout my adolescence. He was good friends with people like Robert Wagner, Jill St. John and Jane Powell and he always kept that million dollar smile they taught actors of that generation. He leapt from job to job when performing didn't pan out, writing books and working as a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter - they knew he knew all about classic hollywood. He was the rare survivor who didn't have scars from his stint surrounded by the most glamorous people alive. He started hosting on TV in 1984 but he wouldn't cement himself as an icon until the creation of TCM in 1994. Osborne was the only man for the job. He had the knowledge, he had the enthusiasm and he had the softest possible presence. Even when they put him in the room with cantankerous Robert Mitchum, then on his death bed, he never lost the smile even though Mitchum dodged everything Osborne threw at him. He was all of us, wanting to reach into the screen Sherlock Jr. style, and pull out that gorgeously complicated history and share it with us.
I watched him every day. Video stores came and went in my hometown but TCM was forever. It was film school before film school. Osborne's hosting segments were the perfect introduction to any topic. Bite-sized, good-humoured, and always that smile, that voice. He was another grandfather. I'd watch, in perfect serenity, as he shared great conversations with co-hosts like Molly Haskell, herself a regal ambassador to cinema history. I loved watching him try to give outré offerings like Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! during his guest programmer sessions. He'd have generous but exacting talks with a murderer's row of guests like Lauren Bacall, Peter O'Toole, Ann Miller, James Garner, Liza Minelli Rod Steiger, and, as I learned on the worst night of my 17th year, Anthony Quinn. Osborne didn't just give us information and context on classic movies. He kept the past alive, let us know that history itself could be beautiful, as wonderful and comforting as it was to enter that soundstage every night with him. He worked like a dog, even when he was ill, which unfortunately was most of his last decade as a broadcaster.
In college I came home for holidays and summers and would mainline all the TCM I'd missed while I was away, keeping hours of programming on my poor mother's DVR. Osborne standing in his suit on that lovely, golden-hued soundstage, was as much a part of being home as being in my own house. In 2008 I noticed his voice shaking, he'd trip over his words and some of the longer names, and those deep pockets his voice used to occasionally dip into would last longer. He was sick, I could hear it. That's how well his viewers knew him. I worried. Used to hold my breath during the longer passages of his intros because I was concerned he wouldn't make it through to the end. I cringed when he slipped up because...basically I wanted him to live forever, to be the old pro I grew up with, who I'd been watching since at least 6th grade. I was heartened every time he'd return from his month-long absences. The old man still had a good fight left in him. During his 80th birthday celebration, which was shown on TCM, he looked so happy to be able to stand in the spotlight and just say 'thank you' to everyone watching. We'd put him up there and he never forgot it. As each new guest came out to wish him well, his smile grew larger and larger. It was tough not to get emotional watching him so happy up there, being feted in the manner of his introduction to his favourite films noir and musicals.
The truth is even now that he's gone Osborne's always going to be with me and everyone else who loved the films he loved and gave to us. His voice will drift through the silences in My Man Godfrey, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Dodsworth, Indiscreet, Bringing Up Baby and The Big Clock, reminding us that art is enough. It is purpose enough. It is beautiful enough. Life can be awfully cruel, but people like Robert Osborne wanted it to be a little more lovely. He wanted to give us art so that we might better understand life. He'll never be forgotten by kids raised on classic movies. He was like family.