Roscoe Lee Browne, Dignified Stage Actor, Dies at 81

Obituaries   Roscoe Lee Browne, Dignified Stage Actor, Dies at 81
Roscoe Lee Browne, a multi-talented actor of dignified bearing and stentorian voice, died April 11 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, The New York Times reported. He was 81 and lived in Los Angeles. The cause was cancer.

Mr. Browne had a reserved, commanding presence and a rich, velvety baritone voice that demanded attention. (It comes as no surprise that he was once a teacher.) He often used these attributes for powerful dramatic effect, as in August Wilson's Two Trains Running, in which he played the philosophizing, yarn-spinning retiree Holloway. He was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Play in 1992 for the portrayal—his last great stage work.

However, he just as frequently used his statesmanlike manner for comic effect, as when he played the haughty, disapproving butler Saunders on the madcap sitcom "Soap."

Born in Woodbury, NJ, on May 2, 1925, to a Baptist preacher, Mr. Browne was a man of many talents. His first taste of fame came not in the theatre, but on the track field. While employed at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he became an international track star, winning the world championship in the 800-yard dash in 1951. Once established in the theatre, he conceived and directed the 1966 Broadway revue of African-American verse and prose, The Hand Is on the Gate.

Mr. Browne did not make his New York stage debut until 1956, when he played the Soothsayer in a staging of Julius Caesar at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Earlier that year, he had stunned friends by announcing at a party that he intended to give up teaching to become an actor, despite minimal experience on the stage. Nonetheless, he became a regular at the Festival, acting in Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Othello, King Lear, The Winter's Tale and Troilus and Cressida.

He was in the thick of things as the Off-Broadway movement was getting underway in the early '60s. He was one of many soon-to-be-famous black actors who performed in the New York premiere of Jean Genet's The Blacks. And he won critical praise and an Obie Award for his 1964 performance as a mutinous slave in Benito Cereno, a one-act that was part of Robert Lowell's trilogy "The Old Glory." Robert Brustein wrote that Mr. Browne, "alternating between Calypso sunninvess and sinster threat...[is] giving the performance of his career. In 1970 and 1971, he played the lead role in Derek Wolcott's The Dream on Monkey Mountain in Los Angeles and New York.

He made his Broadway debut in the short-lived A Cool World in 1960. (The cast also included James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Billy Dee Williams, Calvin Lockhart and Harold Scott.) General Seeger, directed by and starring George C. Scott, and Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, directed by Joshua Logan, followed.

In Edward Albee's adaptation of Carson McCuller's "Ballad of the Sad Cafe" in 1963, he played the Narrator. And he was part of the cast of Danton's Death at the newly born Lincoln Center in 1965.

Late in his stage career, Mr. Browne starred in a Broadway musical, singin "Kicking the Clouds Away" as Rt. Rev. J.D. Montgomery opposite Tommy Tune and Twiggy in the hit show My One and Only.

His film roles included "The Connection," "The Comedians," "Cisco Pike," "Uptown Saturday Night," "The Mambo Kings" and "Babe." In 2000, he played Polonius in a film version of Hamlet starring Campbell Scott. He won an Emmy Award in 1986 for a turn on "The Cosby Show." His final film job was voicing the very serious narrator of the various un-serious spoof "Epic Movie."

Mr. Browne never married.

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