Tuesday, April 17, 2007

RIP Roscoe Lee Browne

I first saw him when I was barely in first grade and my uncle took me to see Alfred Hitchcock's spy flick Topaz (the equalivalent of me taking my little nephew to an "R" rated film). His bearing, his voice...amazing. So much so that anytime anyone needed a black actor who DIDN'T sound like they just got out of prison or off the farm, they got him. His voice was more patrician than James Earl Jones's, more mellifluous than Ossie Davis's. He was in Oscar-winning films, he was in cartoons, on Broadway, on TV. Now we're stuck with Tyrese...

From CNN: Actor Roscoe Lee Browne, whose rich voice and dignified bearing brought him an Emmy Award and a Tony nomination, has died. He was 81. Browne died early Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after a long battle with cancer, said Alan Nierob, a spokesman for the family. Browne's career ranged from classic theater to TV cartoons. He also was a poet and a former world-class athlete. His deep, cultured voice was heard narrating the 1995 hit movie "Babe." On screen, his character often was smart, cynical and well-educated, whether a congressman, a judge or a butler.
Born to a Baptist minister in Woodbury, New Jersey, Browne graduated from historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he later returned to teach comparative literature and French. He also was a track star, winning the 880-yard run in the 1952 Millrose Games.
Browne was selling wine for an import company when he decided to become a full-time actor in 1956 and had roles that year in the inaugural season of the New York Shakespeare Festival in a production of "Julius Caesar."
In 1961, he starred in an English-language version of Jean Genet's play "The Blacks."
Two years later, he was The Narrator in a Broadway production of "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," a play by Edward Albee from a novella by Carson McCullers. In a front page article on the advances made by blacks in the theater, the New York Times noted that Browne's understudy was white.
He won an Obie Award in 1965 for his role as a rebellious slave in the off-Broadway "Benito Cereno."
In movies, he was a spy in the 1969 Alfred Hitchcock feature "Topaz" and a camp cook in 1972's "The Cowboys," which starred John Wayne.
"Some critics complained that I spoke too well to be believable" in the cook's role, Browne told The Washington Post in 1972. "When a critic makes that remark, I think, if I had said, 'Yassuh, boss' to John Wayne, then the critic would have taken a shine to me."
On television, he had several memorable guest roles. He was a snobbish black lawyer trapped in an elevator with bigot Archie Bunker in an episode of the 1970s TV comedy "All in the Family" and the butler Saunders in the comedy "Soap." He won an Emmy in 1986 for a guest role as Professor Foster on "The Cosby Show."
In 1992, Browne returned to Broadway in "Two Trains Running," one of August Wilson's acclaimed series of plays on the black experience. It won the Tony for best play and brought Browne a Tony nomination for best featured (supporting) actor.
The New York Times said he portrayed "the wry perspective of one who believes that human folly knows few bounds and certainly no racial bounds. The performance is wise and slyly life-affirming."
Browne also wrote poetry and included some of it along with works by masters such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Butler Yeats in "Behind the Broken Words," a poetry anthology stage piece that he and Anthony Zerbe performed annually for three decades.


lance williams, sr said...

"Now we're stuck with Tyrese." Classic line one day, bruh.

Chicama Vineyard said...

I had the good fortune of seeing him perform live! I also remember that episode of All in The Family where he put Archie in his place. I think that was the first time a lot of my relatives heard a black man speak like that other than Sidney Poitier.