Thursday, April 12, 2007


Roscoe Lee Browne (1925-2007)

That voice. Once you heard it, you never forgot it. You might not recognize the name or even remember specific roles, but when you heard the voice, you knew exactly who someone was talking about. Roscoe Lee Browne has succumbed to cancer at the age of 81. His credits were extensive across stage, screen and television. He worked with Hitchcock in one of the master of suspense's misfires, Topaz. His deep, smooth vocal abilities served as the narrator of both Babe and Babe: Pig in the City. He also appeared in films as varied as The Cowboys with John Wayne, The World's Greatest Athlete, Logan's Run, Uptown Saturday Night and Legal Eagles.

His Broadway appearances included a stint as the narrator of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in 1963 and in Tommy Tune's 1983 musical My One and Only. He earned a Tony nomination for his final Broadway appearance in August Wilson's Two Trains Running in 1992. For most people though, like me, I imagine he will be most recognizable from his television work.

He won an Emmy for a guest appearance on The Cosby Show and earned a nomination for another guest appearance on Barney Miller. He even got a chance to play a rare African-American villain on the nighttime soaper Falcon Crest.

Three television roles stick out for me. He appeared twice as two different characters on two classic episodes of All in the Family. He was one of the passengers trapped with Archie and a pregnant woman on an elevator in 1972's "The Elevator Story" and he got to experience Archie's bigotry first-hand as he shared a room with him in "Archie in the Hospital" in 1973.

Above all of Browne's fine work though, he always will be Saunders to me. Browne faced the unenviable task of following Robert Guillaume's Benson as the Tates' butler on Soap, but he did it by creating a character that was as refined as the original Benson was rough, though he could still fire off great zingers and eventually revealed a secret commando past that helped the hapless loons lead a raid on a fortress to rescue Jodie and his kidnapped baby, Wendy.

RIP Roscoe Lee Browne.

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For those of us who were fortunate enough to know him, to hear his voice, to listen to his stories enveloped in that singularly unique baritone voice and to relish his wicked sense of humor, there will never be another like him.

Last year, after a concert, he was asked to read aloud a translation of a piece he didn't particularly like and he found the translation woefully, instead of reading what was on the program, he pulled the following out of his pocket and read it aloud, unforgettably, to a hushed audience:

"Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Edna St. Vincent Millay"

Godspeed, dear Roscoe.
Wow. I read that with Browne's voice in my head, and I envy you for being there to hear it for real.

I'll always remember Browne's Cosby Show appearance--it was actually on Nick at Nite right before he died--but my tie to Roscoe Lee Browne will forever be that he was the star of the movie my Mom went to see the night she went into labor with me.
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