Roscoe Lee Browne – died at 81

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Roscoe Lee Browne, the Emmy-winning actor with the mellifluous baritone that he used to give voice to roles in everything from Shakespeare’s plays to the popular animal film “Babe,” died at 81 Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

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

A classically trained actor with a commanding presence, Mr. Browne worked for some of the leading directors in film, including Alfred Hitchcock in “Topaz,” Jules Dassin in “Uptight” and William Wyler in his last film, “The Liberation of L.B. Jones.” Gifted in comedy as well as drama, Mr. Browne won his Emmy in 1986 for a guest appearance as Professor Foster in an episode of “The Cosby Show.”

On Broadway, he appeared 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 in the 1960s. He 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 Mr. Browne in the 1974 comedy “Uptown Saturday Night” and knew him for about 40 years, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

One of Mr. Browne’s great 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, 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.

The son of a Baptist minister, Mr. 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, he was a national amateur champion in 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.”

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

When Robert Guillaume’s character Benson left to star in his own series, Mr. 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 Mr. Browne played a snobbish attorney who got stuck in an elevator with Archie Bunker and a pregnant woman.

Film roles ranged widely from the story of a Harlem drug dealer in “Superfly T.N.T.” to the John Wayne film “The Cowboys.” Mr. 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 made steady work as a narrator of documentaries in “The Ra Expeditions,” live action family fare in “Babe” and “Babe: Pig in the City,” and in the animated “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.”

His authoritative voice kept him busy in audiobooks, with readings of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, the complete sonnets of William Shakespeare and the Old Testament of the Bible.

– San Francisco Chronicle

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