Roscoe Lee Browne (May 2, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American actor and director known for his rich voice and dignified bearing. He resisted playing stereotypically black roles, instead performing in several productions with New York City's Shakespeare Festival Theater, Leland Hayward’s satirical NBC series That Was the Week That Was, and a poetry performance tour of the United States in addition to his work in television and film.
In 1976, Browne was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Series for his work on ABC's Barney Miller. In 1986, he won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Performer in a Comedy Series for his work on NBC's The Cosby Show. In 1992, he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as "Holloway" in August Wilson's Two Trains Running.
In 1995, he received a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program for his performance as "The Kingpin" in Spider-Man.
Browne was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977 and posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2008.
Early life and education
Born in Woodbury, New Jersey, Browne was the fourth son of Baptist minister Sylvanus S. Browne and his wife Lovie (née Lovie Lee Usher). He attended historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While there, he became a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1946.
During World War II, he served in Italy with the United States Army's 92nd Infantry Division and organised the Division's track and field team. After the war, he undertook postgraduate work at Middlebury College, Columbia University, and the University of Florence. A middle-distance runner, he won two Amateur Athletic Union 1,000-yard national indoor championships.
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 left 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 offscreen part as camera operator J.J. Burden in The Connection (1961), his first movie role was in Hitchcock's Topaz (1969) as Phillipe Dubois, a French-Haitian spy with a substantial role, his second movie role. In The Cowboys (1972) in a role as a camp cook, he led a group of young cowhands avenging the death of John Wayne's character in the movie.
Browne was much in demand for narration and voice-over parts in film and on commercial sound recordings. In 1968-69, he was heard as a late-night disc jockey on WNEW-FM in New York reciting poetry and passages from the Bible and assorted literary works. In 1977, Browne narrated a record album, The Story of Star Wars, which presented an abridged version of the events depicted in the first released film utilizing the dialogue and sound effects. The recording was produced by George Lucas and Alan Livingston.
Browne was determined not to accept stereotypical roles which had routinely been offered to African-American 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 “more effective on stage with metaphor...than in the streets with an editorial”.
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 1979–81. Browne later guest-starred on Benson with Robert Guillaume, who had himself previously been in the cast of Soap. Browne's 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's directorial credits include a piece called An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music at the Delacorte Theatre and the Public Theatre in New York City in 1966. It was also produced as A Hand Is on the Gate at the Longacre Theatre in New York City in 1966. The production was also revived at the Afro-American Studio in New York City from 1976 to 1977.
Some year-of-birth records, including the Social Security Death Index, report Browne born on May 2, 1922, while other sources claim that Browne's date of birth was three years later, on May 2, 1925. Those sources include The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Variety, the Associated Press and several others, including a Congressional Resolution.
In an undated videotaped interview with Camille O. Cosby for the National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP), Browne said: "I was born, Camille, so they say, May 2, 1922, in Woodbury, New Jersey."
Browne died of stomach cancer in Los Angeles on April 11, 2007, aged 84. He never married and had no children.
He was remembered for his contributions in a New York Times encomium by Frank Crohn 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
- Native villager, The Endless Road, CBS Radio Workshop, CBS, 1956.
- Performer of Shakespearean roles for CBC Radio.
- An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music (readings), Delacorte Theatre, Public Theatre, 1966, produced as A Hand Is on the Gate, Longacre Theatre, New York City, 1966, revived at Afro-American Studio, New York City, 1976–77.
- Behind the Broken Words (poetry reading), Washington Theatre Club, Washington, DC, 1974, revived at American Place Theatre, New York City, 1981, and Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 2002.