From the Archives: Roscoe Lee Browne, 81; award-winning film, stage, TV actor

Times Staff Writer

Roscoe Lee Browne, the Emmy-award winning actor with the mellifluous baritone that he used to give voice to roles as varied as Shakespeare’s plays and the popular animal film “Babe,” died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 81.

The cause of death was cancer, said publicist Alan Nierob.

A classically trained actor with a commanding presence, Browne worked for some of the leading directors in film, including Alfred Hitchcock in “Topaz” and Jules Dassin in “Up Tight!” and starring in William Wyler’s last film, “The Liberation of L.B. Jones.”

Gifted in comedy as well as drama, Browne won his Emmy in 1986 for a guest appearance as Professor Foster in an episode of “The Cosby Show.”


On Broadway, he appeared in the 1960s as The Narrator in a Broadway production of “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” a play by Edward Albee from a novella by Carson McCullers, and was nominated for a Tony for best supporting actor in 1992 for his role as Holloway in August Wilson’s acclaimed play “Two Trains Running.”

“He was one of the most remarkable presences on stage, on film, on television,” Sidney Poitier, who directed Browne in the 1974 comedy “Uptown Saturday Night” and knew him for about 40 years, told The Times on Wednesday. “However, when he was in person, he was particularly impactful.”

One of Browne’s real loves was poetry, which he wrote as well as read.

For several years, he and fellow actor Anthony Zerbe toured the country presenting “Behind the Broken Words,” an evening of poetry and dramatic readings. The project, which began in Los Angeles in 1969 at the suggestion of Gordon Davidson, the former artistic director of the Center Theater Group at the Music Center, offered the works of such noted literary artists as e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Richard Wright and Amiri Baraka.

“This is the only person I know who could recite, without anything written in front of him, hundreds of poems,” Poitier said. “He was a connoisseur of poetry. He made his living partially visiting places where poetry is revered, and he would perform, he would read, he would discuss, he would analyze poetry. He was a remarkable person in that regard, in addition to being a consummate actor.”

The son of a Baptist minister, Browne was born in Woodbury, N.J., on May 2, 1925. After serving in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War II, he graduated from historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he later taught French and comparative literature.

A gifted runner, Browne was the national Amateur Athletic Union indoor champion at 1,000 yards in 1950 and 1951.

In the mid-1950s, he decided to give up his job selling wine for an import company and become a full-time actor. His debut was as the Soothsayer in “Julius Caesar” in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s inaugural season.

In 1965 he won an Obie Award for his role as a defiant slave in the Robert Lowell play “Benito Cereno.” In 1970, he received a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for best actor for his performance as Makak in “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” He received another L.A. Drama Critics Award in 1989 for his performance as Bynum Walker in Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

Roscoe Lee Browne as The Messenger in the "Gospel at Colonus" at Cerritos Center for Performing Arts.

Roscoe Lee Browne as The Messenger in the “Gospel at Colonus” at Cerritos Center for Performing Arts.

(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

For much of his career, television provided Browne with steady employment.

When Robert Guillaume’s character Benson left to star in his own series, Browne replaced him in 1980 as the butler to the Tate family on the ABC series “Soap.” He also appeared as Rosemont on the CBS prime-time drama “Falcon Crest.”

One of his more memorable guest appearances on television came in a 1972 episode of “All in the Family” when Browne, playing a snobbish attorney, got stuck in an elevator with Archie Bunker and a pregnant woman.

Film roles ranged widely, from the story of the Harlem drug dealer in “Superfly T.N.T.” to the John Wayne film “The Cowboys.”

Browne described working with Wayne as “delightful” and said he had “never worked with anyone who was more professional or generous of spirit.”

In 1966, he wrote and made his directorial stage debut with “A Hand Is on the Gate: An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music,” which starred Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones and Moses Gunn.

Over the years, he had steady work as a narrator of the documentaries “The Ra Expeditions”; live-action family fare “Babe” and “Babe: Pig in the City”; and the animated “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.”

And his authoritative voice kept him busy in audio books, with readings of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, the complete sonnets of Shakespeare and the Old Testament of the Bible.

In an interview with Times film writer Kevin Thomas in 1969, Browne noted in his wry manner that his voice had always been a cause for comment.

While he was on location in Tennessee in the late 1960s for “The Liberation of L.B. Jones,” a policeman came up to him and said, “You don’t sound like the others” -- to which Brown replied, “It’s my native tongue.”

He also recalled that early in his career, a director told him that his speech sounded “white.” Browne’s response was simple and to the point: “We had a white maid.”

Information on survivors was not immediately available.


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