Roscoe Lee Browne (May 2, 1922 â" April 11, 2007) was an American actor and director, known for his rich voice and dignified bearing.
Browne was the fourth son of a Baptist minister, Sylvanus S. Browne, and his wife Lovie (nÃ©e Lovie Lee Usher). Born in Woodbury, New Jersey, Browne first attended historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he became a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1946.
During World War II, he served in Italy with the Negro 92nd Infantry Division and organised the Division's track and field team.
After the war Browne undertook postgraduate work at Middlebury College, Columbia University and at the University of Florence. A middle-distance runner, he won the Amateur Athletic Union 1,000-yard national indoor championship in 1949. He occasionally returned to Lincoln University between 1946-52 to teach English, French and comparative literature. Upon leaving academia he earned a living for several years selling wine for Schenley Import Corporation. In 1956, he quit his job with Schenley to become a full-time professional actor.
Despite the apprehensions of his friends, Browne managed to land the roles of soothsayer and Pindarus in Julius Caesar, directed by Joseph Papp for New York City's first Shakespeare Festival Theater. More work with the Shakespeare Festival Theater followed, and he voiced an off-screen part as camera operator, J.J. Burden, in The Connection (1961), his first movie role. In The Cowboys (1972), in a role as a camp cook, he leads a group of young cowhands avenging the death of John Wayne's character in the movie.
Browne was determined not to accept stereotyped and demeaning roles that had routinely been offered to black actors. He also wanted to do more than act and narrate. In 1966, he wrote and made his directorial stage debut with A Hand Is On The Gate starring Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, and Moses Gunn. A lifelong bachelor who coveted his privacy, in the turbulent decades of the civil rights revolution Browne avoided participation in public protests preferring instead to be âmore effective on stage with metaphor...than in the streets with an editorialâ.
His stage success brought him to the attention of producer Leland Hayward, and in 1964 he began a regular stint as a cast member on Hayward's satirical NBC-TV series That Was the Week That Was. Starting in the late 1960s, Browne increasingly became a guest star on TV on both comedy and dramatic shows like Mannix, All in the Family, Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, A Different World, and dozens of other shows. He also was a regular on Soap where he played Saunders, the erudite butler from 1979â"81, replacing Robert Guillaume who went on to his own show Benson. Browne later guest-starred on Benson with Guillaume. His appearances on The Cosby Show won him an Emmy Award in 1986 for his guest role as Professor Foster.
He and fellow actor Anthony Zerbe toured the United States with their poetry performance piece, Behind the Broken Words, which included readings of poetry, some of it written by Browne, as well as performances of comedy and dramatic works.
Browne found additional success performing in the plays of August Wilson, both on Broadway and the Pittsburgh Public Theater. He was described as having "a baritone voice like a sable coat", speaking the King's English with a strong mid-Atlantic accent. To someone who once said Browne sounded "too white", he replied, "I'm sorry, I once had a white maid." Four years before his death, Browne narrated a series of WPA slave narratives in the HBO film, Unchained Memories (2003).
Browne died of stomach cancer in Los Angeles on April 11, 2007, aged 84.
He was remembered for his contributions in a New York Times encomium by Frank Crohn, President of The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society:
We mourn the loss of our long-time Trustee and faithful friend. He was always to be counted upon to be supportive of the aims and purposes of the Society. He filled our lives with the soft sound of poetry as only he could recite it. Now the stage is empty and the lights are low.
Awards and recognition
- Obie Award (1965) â" Best Performance for his role as Babu in the Robert Lowell play The Old Glory
- Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards â" Best Actor Award for his roles as Makak in Derek Walcott's The Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970) and Bynum Walker in Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1989)
- Inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977
- Inducted posthumously into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2009
Select television roles
- Roscoe Lee Browne on Disney Wiki
- Roscoe Lee Browne at the Internet Broadway Database
- Roscoe Lee Browne at AllMovie
- Roscoe Lee Browne profile, at the University of Wisconsin's Actors Studio audio collection; accessed March 19, 2015.
- Roscoe Lee Browne's oral history video excerpts, visionaryproject.com; accessed March 19, 2015.
- Roscoe Lee Browne biography, TheHistoryMakers.com; accessed March 19, 2015.
- Profile, blackpast.org; accessed March 19, 2015.
- Roscoe Lee Browne reading Donald Barthelme's "At the End of the Mechanical Age"