Roscoe Lee Browne
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|Roscoe Lee Browne|
May 2, 1922|
Woodbury, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||April 11, 2007
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
|Alma mater||Lincoln University|
|Occupation||Actor; stage director|
Browne was the fourth son of a Baptist minister, Sylvanus S. Browne, and his wife Lovie (née 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.
After the war he undertook postgraduate work at Middlebury College in Vermont, Columbia University in New York City, and at the University of Florence in Italy. Also an outstanding middle-distance runner, Browne won the Amateur Athletic Union 1,000-yard national indoor championship in 1949. He occasionally returned to Lincoln University between 1946 to 1952 to instruct classes in comparative literature, French, and English. Upon leaving academia he earned a living for several years selling wine for Schenley Import Corporation. Despite his limited amateur acting experience, in 1956 he stunned guests at a party – among them opera singer Leontyne Price – when he announced his intention to quit his secure 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 in 1961 he voiced a part as an off-screen camera operator, J. J. Burden, in The Connection (1961), his first movie role. Despite lacking extensive experience numerous film roles established his reputation as an exceptionally versatile character actor who was also capable of performing scene-stealing cameos. Science fiction fans know Browne as the voice of the evil robot Box in the movie Logan's Run.
Endowed with a resonant, baritone voice and able to project cynicism and a haughty, patrician tone cultivated over the years from reciting lines from Shakespeare, Browne was much in demand for narration and voice-over parts in film and on vinyl albums, audio tapes and CDs. In 1977 a record album presenting an abridged version of Star Wars gave the events depicted in the film Star Wars, using dialogue and sound effects from the original film. The recording was produced by George Lucas and Alan Livingston, and was narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne. During 1968-69 he was heard as a late-night DJ on WNEW-FM in New York reciting poetry, passages from the Bible, and assorted literary works. In 1968, he recorded "Music and Gibran", which consisted of English interpretations of Khalil Gibran's poetry, mixed over Middle Eastern background music performed by John Berberian (oud), Souren Baronian (clarinet and baritone saxophone), and Robert Marashlian, among others.
Browne was determined not to accept stereotyped and demeaning roles that had routinely been offered to black actors, and he resisted emulating others. Browne also desired to do more than act and narrate, and in 1966 he wrote and made his directorial stage debut with A Hand Is On The Gate starring Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Moses Gunn, and other rising black talent.
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 “more effective on stage with metaphor...than in the streets with an editorial”.
His theatrical work 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 1979–81, 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, including a memorable episode in which he recited Shakespeare with fellow guest star Christopher Plummer, also drew acclaim as well winning 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's most notable movie role may have been in The Cowboys where, as a camp cook, he leads a group of young cowhands avenging the death of John Wayne's character in the movie. This 1972 role was particularly notable as one of the earliest portrayals in American cinema of a 19th-century black cowboy as an equal.
Browne found additional success performing in August Wilson plays, 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 in 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) – Best Performance for his role as Babu in the Robert Lowell play The Old Glory
- Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards – 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
- New York Times
- pp.48-49 Dillard, Harrison & McIntosh, Michael Bones: The Life and Times of Harrison Dillard AuthorHouse, 17 Jul 2012
- (Troupe, 92)
- Christopher Rawson (2009-01-28). "Lane, Hamlisch among Theater Hall of Fame inductees". Post-Gazette.com. Retrieved 2011-03-27.
- Jet Magazine profile
- The Associated Press (April 11, 2007). "Actor Roscoe Lee Browne dies at 81 in Los Angeles". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2007-04-17.
- New York Times
- Roscoe Lee Browne at the Internet Broadway Database
- Roscoe Lee Browne at Find a Grave
- Roscoe Lee Browne at Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Roscoe Lee Browne at the Internet Movie Database
- Roscoe Lee Browne at the University of Wisconsin's Actors Studio audio collection
- Roscoe Lee Browne at AllMovie
- Roscoe Lee Browns's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- Roscoe Lee Browne biography at the The HistoryMakers