Roscoe Lee Browne
With his commanding, mellifluous voice, actor of stage, film and television, Roscoe Lee Browne could easily have made a living as a dignified announcer and narrator. An entire generation of audiences would remember his touching narration of the feature film, "Babe," but his sly comic timing brought him a wealth of comedic roles as well, including the acerbic butler Saunders on the edgy sitcom, "Soap" and the sly Professor Foster on the seminal eighties sitcom, "The Cosby Show." Browne was also recognized for advancing the presence of African-Americans on the stage, with roles in the New York Shakespeare Festival as early as 1956. A well-rounded man, he was also an instructor of literature and French, as well as a gifted athlete, winning the 1951 world championship in the 800-yard run. An inspiration to countless actors over the decades, this true Renaissance man elevated all projects he was involved in, whether big and small.
Born on May 2, 1925, this son of a Baptist minister was raised in Woodbury, NJ, where he was a voracious reader and a promising athlete. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Browne graduated in 1946 from the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he ran track. He would go on to do his post-graduate studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, at Columbia University in New York City, and at the University of Florence in Italy, before returning to his alma mater to instruct courses in comparative literature and French. Browne also continued to pursue athletics, where he excelled at track and field. He placed first in the Amateur Athletics Union 1000-yard run in 1949, as well as won the 880-yard run in the 1952 Millrose Games.
His athletic achievements won him wide exposure via news coverage - enough so, that he was offered a sales representative position by a wine seller. Browne took the job, but was disappointed when he came to the realization that he was selling alcohol to bars in Harlem. A short time later, in 1956, he made the abrupt decision at age 45 to leave his job and pursue a full-time career as an actor. He landed his first role soon thereafter, in a production of "Julius Caesar" in the first season of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Only a few years later, Browne went on to play the lead in an off-Broadway production of playwright Jean Genet's play "The Blacks," a scathing commentary on the devastating effects of colonialism.
Browne's talents and accomplishments did not go unnoticed by observers of African-Americans in theater. In 1963, Browne was the narrator for the Edward Albee play, "The Ballad of the Sad Café," with The New York Times dropping the provocative morsel that Browne's understudy happened to be Caucasian. In 1966, he directed his first stage production of "A Hand is on the Other Gate: An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music," which starred Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, among others.
After conquering the stage, Browne made his silver screen debut with a small role in "The Connection" (1961), a drama about a group of jazz musicians anxiously awaiting their heroine connection. After parts in such films as "Terror in the City" (1964) and "The Comedians" (1967), he played a spy posing as a flower shop owner in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Topaz" (1969), as well as a cook to John Wayne and his men in the western, "The Cowboys" (1972).
Thanks to his rich voice and an overall dignified, sometimes imperious presence, Browne was in demand for guest-starring roles on television in both dramas and comedies. He landed his first regular stint on "That Was the Week That Was," (NBC, 1964-65), and throughout the 1960s, appeared on such shows as "Mannix," (CBS, 1967-1975) "The Invaders" (ABC, 1967-68), "The Outcasts" (ABC, 1968-69) and "The Name of the Game" (NBC, 1968-1971).
In the 1970s, Browne made the requisite appearances in blaxploitation movies such as "Superfly" (1972) and "Superfly TNT" (1973). But it was on television during that decade, that the multi-faceted actor made his first real mark, guesting on dramas such as 'The Streets of San Francisco" (ABC, 1972-77) and sitcoms such as "Sanford & Son" (NBC, 1972-77), "Good Times" (CBS, 1974-79) and "Barney Miller" (ABC, 1975-1982) - the latter of which, was where he earned his first Emmy nomination. In a highly memorable role on "All in the Family," (CBS, 1971-79), he played an arrogant black lawyer who gets the better of bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) while the two are trapped in an elevator. In a later episode he played the similar role of an educated black man - basically, Bunker's worst nightmare - who again shows him up. Browne had made such an impression going toe-to-toe with O'Connor - as well as with all his other television roles - that when actor Robert Guillaume's character of Benson was spun off the quirky series, "Soap" (ABC, 1977-1981) into his own self-titled show, Browne replaced him as the character of Saunders, an equally acerbic butler to the wacky Tate family on the controversial sitcom.
Browne continued to be sought out for voice-over work throughout his career, narrating the 1977 record album, The Story of Star Wars and recording a number of poetry readings and books on tape. In fact, Browne and actor Anthony Zerbe spent decades traveling the country in the poetry show, "Behind the Broken Words." But it was his television work that paid the bills. After numerous guest appearances on such shows as "Hart to Hart" (ABC, 1979-1984) and "Magnum P.I." (CBS, 1980-88) - and a regular role on "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-90) - Browne made yet another memorable performance on "The Cosby Show," (NBC, 1984-92), starring as Dr. Barnabus Foster, the college professor of Cosby's Dr. Cliff Huxtable. Most memorable was the 1986 episode, "The Card Game," during which he is called in as a last-minute replacement for a game of hysterically corrupt game of pinochle. Not surprisingly, the game descends into an embarrassment of cheating and signals between the regulars. Browne was so effective sparring with Cosby, that he won an Emmy for the role, reprising it on another "Cosby" episode as well as several episodes of the "Cosby" spin-off, "A Different World" (NBC, 1987-93).
Browne's inimitable baritone voice led to more voiceover work, especially in animation, where he voiced characters on "Batman: The Animated Series" (Fox, 1992-95) and "Spider-Man" (Fox Kids, 1994-98). But it was when he lent his vocal talents to a certain film starring a little pink piggy, cinematic magic happened. As the narrator of the hit family film, "Babe" (1995), his line readings ventured from gentle to firm, bringing a sense of grand elegance to the now-classic tale of an orphaned pig struggling to take the place of a sheep dog on a farm. So effective were his readings, that Browne returned for the disappointing sequel, "Babe: Pig in the City" (1998).
Even in his twilight years, Browne was as busy as ever, never showing signs of slowing down. He continued to make his presence known with guest parts on "ER," (NBC, 1994- ), "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990- ) and "The Shield" (FX, 2002- ). His last works before he passed away were, fittingly, narrations for the films, "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties," (2006) and "Epic Movie" (2007). To the surprise of many who may not have known his name, but surely knew his face and that magnificent voice, Browne passed away in Los Angeles after succumbing to cancer on April 11, 2007.