Roscoe Lee Browne (May 2, 1925 – April 11, 2007) was an American actor and director, known for his rich voice and dignified bearing.
Browne was the son of Baptist minister Sylvanus Browne and his wife Lovie (born Lovie Lee). 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. He undertook postgraduate work at Middlebury College in Vermont, Columbia University in New York City, and at the University of Florence in Italy.
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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 academe 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 the physical attractiveness of a leading man, numerous film roles established his reputation as an exceptionally versatile character actor who was also capable of performing scene-stealing cameos.
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. During the late 60s (68-69) he was heard as a late night DJ on WNEW FM (New York)...he recorded poetry readings, 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. He returned time and again to the stage to act in Shakespearean plays, and in on- and off-Broadway modern dramas and musical comedies.
With a strong sense of himself, Browne was determined not to accept stereotyped and demeaning roles that had routinely been offered to black actors, and he resisted emulating fellow actors. 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: An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music 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” (Troupe, 92).
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 and dozens of other shows. He also was a regular on the sitcom Soap where he played Saunders, the erudite butler from 1979 to 1981, replacing Robert Guillaume who went on to his own show Benson. Incidentally, Browne 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.
His most memorable film roles include Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz, the title character in William Wyler's final film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones, and as the narrator in Babe and its sequel Babe: Pig in the City. He is also known for his voice role as the Kingpin in Spider-Man: The Animated Series.
Four years before his tragic death, Browne narrated a series of WPA slave narratives in the HBO film Unchained Memories in 2003.
Browne died of cancer in Los Angeles on April 11, 2007, aged 81.