Robert Osborne arrived in Hollywood in the early 1960s as a contract actor with Desilu, the production company founded by Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz. It wasn’t long before Lucy persuaded him to switch careers.
“She saw that I was interested in the history of movies and she told me I should become a writer,” Osborne said in an interview. “She said, ‘We have enough actors, but not enough writers.’”
Osborne went on to work for the Hollywood Reporter, write several books on the Oscars, start his own film festival and host cable TV’s Turner Classic Movies. His latest project is TCM’s “Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood,” a seven-part documentary that premieres tonight at 8 p.m. New York time.
The series, written and produced by Jon Wilkman and narrated by Christopher Plummer, traces the story of movies from their invention in the 1890s through the 1960s, when independent actors and filmmakers shook up the studio system that had dominated the industry for decades.
“Moguls & Movie Stars” includes rare archival footage, clips from famous films and interviews with Osborne, directors Sidney Lumet and Peter Bogdanovich, and producers Richard Zanuck and Samuel Goldwyn Jr., both sons of early Hollywood moguls.
Osborne, 78, spoke with me on the phone from his New York City apartment.
Warner: Almost all the original moguls were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Why were they drawn to the movie business?
Osborne: Movies were new, so there weren’t any rules and anybody could get involved. These were men who wanted to build something they could leave to their children and grandchildren. It was much different than today, when a lot of people are just looking to make a quick buck.
Warner: Those moguls learned early on that stars were what drew people to the theater.
Osborne: It was a gift but also a nightmare. Because when silent-film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford became so successful, they wanted more control over their movies.
Warner: Joseph Kennedy, the father of the Kennedy political dynasty, played an important role in the development of Hollywood. What kind of impact did he have?
Osborne: He started out by buying a small film distributor called FBO, which eventually became the major studio RKO. He had great instincts as an entrepreneur and showman and he made a lot of money in the movie business. He also had an affair with Gloria Swanson, which helped him make important connections in Hollywood.
Warner: I was surprised to learn there were a lot of women writers and directors in the early days of Hollywood. That seems to be one area where women have actually gone backward.
Osborne: Movies weren’t taken that seriously for a long time, so they were given opportunities. And they didn’t just work on weepy, women’s movies. Frances Marion, for instance, wrote “The Big House” and “The Champ,” a prison movie and a film about a prizefighter. But when the studios started to see how much money could be made, that’s when the guys came in and pushed the women out.
Warner: How did television change the movie business?
Osborne: The movie moguls hated TV and didn’t want anything to do with it. It was really dumb on their part because if they had gotten involved from the start, they could have controlled it. TV desperately needed product and the movie studios could have provided it, but they thought it was a fad that would fade away.
Warner: Why did the studios decline?
Osborne: For years, they told actors how to dress, who to date and which pictures they would make. But then rebels like James Dean and Marlon Brando showed up and they didn’t give a damn about that stuff. It was like the peasants storming the palace. They weren’t paying attention to the kings anymore.
Warner: Is it true you were in the pilot episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies”?
Osborne: It is. I had a small part as the assistant to the bank president. Nobody thought it would become a hit. First of all, it sounded like a dumb title. Buddy Ebsen was considered a has-been and Irene Ryan just did bit parts. So everybody was surprised that it became such a success.