ATLANTA — On a pair of red leather chairs, against a homey faux brick wall and fireplace, Alec Baldwin and Robert Osborne face off. Both impeccably dressed in crisp suits, the pair riff, sans notes, about Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball.
The discussion is about "Stage Door," the 1937 dramedy starring both women (as well as Ginger Rogers). Moments earlier, talk between Baldwin and Osborne had focused on 1954's "The Caine Mutiny" and Fred MacMurray's commanding presence while sharing the screen with Humphrey Bogart.
It is not unexpected, though still impressive, that Osborne, a nationally renowned film expert and keystone of TCM, spouts trivia as effortlessly as one might recount a grocery list. But Baldwin's top-of-mind movie knowledge is profound.
Granted, the film and TV star, as magnetic in person as he is on celluloid, is the first to admit that he prepares studiously for his stint as co-host of TCM's "The Essentials" series, now in its 11th season.
On this day, a gray December Saturday, Baldwin has flown in from New York for an overnight stay and an afternoon of taping at TCM's Turner Broadcasting headquarters in Midtown Atlanta.
"I do a lot of research. Robert knows everything off the top of his head. He is fully immersed in (movies) over many decades. But I will go on many sites, IMDB in particular, to get the most basic information about the principles behind and in front of the camera," Baldwin said.
"The thing I've learned in the years I made films is how collaborative an effort it is. I have an even greater appreciation from (co-hosting 'The Essentials') of how difficult it is to make a good movie."
This is the third year that Baldwin sits across from Osborne to discuss and dissect 30 classic films that will air weekly through early 2012.
Months before taping, both movie buffs compile a list of about 25 films they would like to include in the next round of "The Essentials." Osborne whittles it down and presents Baldwin with the final proposals.
"I almost always agree with him," Baldwin said, his laser-like eyes smiling.
Last season, Baldwin lobbied for two films that weren't typical TCM fare — "Serpico" and "Saturday Night Fever" — which aired as special late-night programming.
This year's Baldwin pick is "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (July 23), as well as more traditional choices "Splendor in the Grass" (April 9), "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (May 28) and "City Lights" (July 2).
Osborne's contributions include "Bringing Up Baby" (June 18) and "All Quiet on the Western Front" (July 30).
While Baldwin adores movies — watching them on DVD on his laptop while traveling is common — he doesn't consider himself a student of cinema.
"That takes time I don't have," said the Emmy-winning star of "30 Rock," NBC's crackerjack sitcom. "Before the TV show, I had a lot of free time because movie-making is a slow process with a lot of downtime. TV is the opposite. We don't have time to luxuriate in our rooms to read books and watch movies, so that time is now in binges."
When he's ready to indulge, Baldwin retreats to the screening room in his Long Island home. As a board member for the Hamptons International Film Festival, he helps program a summer documentary season, which requires intense viewings.
"I watch a lot of documentaries," he said.
But lately, the critically esteemed star of "Prelude to a Kiss," "The Hunt for Red October," "Glengarry Glen Ross," "The Cooler" and "It's Complicated" is approaching his film future cautiously, even suggesting he will take a prolonged screen break after "30 Rock," which is renewed through the 2012 season. "There are still good films being made — the best acting I saw (last year) was 'Blue Valentine' — but they're harder to find. They're there in a haystack of other films that are formulaic or forgettable. I find that TCM is the source of probably half the films I watch," Baldwin said.
"I'll probably take a year off to do some other things I've had offers to do, like radio shows. I still love doing theater. The funny thing is, doing '30 Rock' was really a blessing because there weren't a lot of great parts, smarter parts like this, for people my age.
"I never thought of myself as doing a TV series, but it's been the best experience I've had. It was so fulfilling, everything else would be a downer after that."
"The Essentials" with Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin. airs tt 6 p.m. MT Saturdays on TCM. For a complete schedule, visit www.tcm.com.