Roscoe Lee Browne
Browne in 1979
Born(1922-05-02)May 2, 1922[1]
DiedApril 11, 2007(2007-04-11) (aged 84)
Alma materLincoln University
Middlebury College
Columbia University
University of Florence
Occupation(s)Actor, stage director
Years active1956–2007

Roscoe Lee Browne (May 2, 1922[2] – April 11, 2007) was an American actor and director. He resisted playing stereotypically black roles, instead performing in several productions with New York City's Shakespeare Festival Theater, Leland Hayward's satirical NBC series That Was the Week That Was, and a poetry performance tour of the United States in addition to his work in television and film. He is perhaps best known for his role as Saunders in Soap (1980–81).

In 1976, Browne was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Series for his work on ABC's Barney Miller. In 1986, he won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Performer in a Comedy Series for his work on NBC's The Cosby Show.[3] In 1992, he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as "Holloway" in August Wilson's Two Trains Running.[4][5]

In 1995, he received a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program for his performance as The Kingpin in Spider-Man.

Browne was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977[6] and posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2008.[7]

Early life and education

Born in Woodbury, New Jersey, Browne was the fourth son of Baptist minister Sylvanus S. Browne and his wife Lovie (née Lovie Lee Usher). He graduated from Woodbury Junior-Senior High School in 1939.[8] Browne attended historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1946, his college career being interrupted by his wartime service.[9][10]

During World War II, Browne served in Italy with the United States Army's 92nd Infantry Division and organized the Division's track and field team.[11] After the war, he undertook postgraduate work under the GI Bill at Middlebury College, Columbia University, and the University of Florence. A middle-distance runner, he won two Amateur Athletic Union 1,000-yard national indoor championships.[12][13]

He occasionally returned to Lincoln University between 1946–52 to teach English, French, and comparative literature. Upon leaving academia, he earned a living for several years selling wine for Schenley Import Corporation. In 1956, he left his job with Schenley to become a full-time professional actor.[10]

In 1950 and 1951 he toured Europe (as a half-miler) with a USA Track and Field team.[14]



Despite the apprehensions of his friends, in the summer of 1956, Browne managed to land the roles of The Soothsayer and Pindarus in Julius Caesar, and one of Petruchio's servants in "The Taming of the Shrew" directed by Stuart Vaughan and produced by Joseph Papp for New York City's first Shakespeare in the Park. More work with the NY Shakespeare Festival Theater followed.[15] Browne voiced an offscreen part as camera operator J.J. Burden in The Connection (1961), his first movie role.[16] In The Cowboys (1972), in a role as a camp cook, he led a group of young cowhands avenging the death of John Wayne's character in the movie.

Browne was much in demand for narration and voice-over parts in film and on commercial sound recordings. In 1977, Browne narrated a record album, The Story of Star Wars, which presented an abridged version of the events depicted in the first released film using the dialogue and sound effects. The recording was produced by George Lucas and Alan Livingston.[17][18][19][20][21]

Browne was determined not to accept the stereotypical roles routinely offered to African-American actors. He also wanted to do more than act and narrate. In 1966, he wrote and made his directorial stage debut with A Hand Is On The Gate, starring Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, and Moses Gunn. A lifelong bachelor who coveted his privacy in the turbulent decades of the civil rights revolution, Browne avoided participation in public protests, preferring instead to be "more effective on stage with metaphor...than in the streets with an editorial".[22]

Browne with Kate Rickman, Peter Bonerz, and Sally Smaller performing a reading of the Watergate tapes on KPFK radio in Los Angeles in 1974

His stage success brought him to the attention of producer Leland Hayward, and in 1964 he began a regular stint as a cast member on Hayward's satirical NBC-TV series That Was the Week That Was. Starting in the late 1960s, Browne was a frequent guest star on TV in both comedy and dramatic shows such as Mannix, All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, Sanford and Son, A Different World and dozens of others. In 1980, he guest-starred in an episode of Benson with Robert Guillaume. Later that year, he joined the regular cast of Benson's parent show Soap[16] where he played Saunders, the erudite butler who replaces Benson. Browne appeared as Professor Foster on The Cosby Show in 1986, winning a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.

He and fellow actor Anthony Zerbe toured the United States with their poetry performance piece Behind the Broken Words. It included readings of poetry, some of it written by Browne, as well as performances of comedy and dramatic works.[15]

Browne found additional success performing in the plays of August Wilson, both on Broadway and at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. He was described as having "a baritone voice like a sable coat", speaking the King's English with a strong mid-Atlantic accent. To someone who once said Browne sounded "too white", he replied, "I'm sorry, I once had a white maid."[23] Four years before his death, Browne narrated a series of WPA slave narratives in the HBO film, Unchained Memories (2003).[24]


Browne's directorial credits include a piece called An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music at the Delacorte Theatre and the Public Theatre in New York City in 1966. It was also produced as A Hand Is on the Gate at the Longacre Theatre in New York City in 1966. The production was revived at the Afro-American Studio in New York City, running from 1976 to 1977.[25]

Birth year

Browne in 1999

Some year-of-birth records, including the Social Security Death Index,[1] report Browne born on May 2, 1922, while other sources claim that Browne's date of birth was three years later, on May 2, 1925. Those sources include The New York Times,[26] Los Angeles Times,[27] Variety,[28] the Associated Press[29] and several others,[30][31] including a Congressional Resolution.[32]

In an undated videotaped interview with Camille Cosby for the National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP), Browne said: "I was born, Camille, so they say, May 2, 1922, in Woodbury, New Jersey."[33]


Browne died of stomach cancer at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in the morning of April 11, 2007, aged 84. He never married and had no children.[16][34][35][36]

He was remembered for his contributions in a New York Times encomium by Frank Crohn of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society:

We mourn the loss of our long-time Trustee and faithful friend. He was always to be counted upon to be supportive of the aims and purposes of the Society. He filled our lives with the soft sound of poetry as only he could recite it. Now the stage is empty and the lights are low.[16]

Awards and recognition





Other work


Narrated the Nativity Story on a Christmas card and cassette tape alongside Glenda Hayes who sung "Silent Night".

Radio appearances



  1. ^ a b Roscoe L Browne. United States Social Security Death Index. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  2. ^ Browne's year of birth was cited as 1925 through much of his career and at the time of his death. Since then evidence has emerged that he was actually born three years earlier, the most notable of which would be the Social Security Death Index:
    Roscoe Lee Browne [Roscoe L Browne]
    Gender: Male
    Race: Black
    Birth Date: 2 May 1922
    Birth Place: Woodbury, New Jersey
    Father Name: Sylvanus Browne
    Mother Name: Louie [sic] L Usher
    Death Date: 11 Apr 2007
    Type of Claim: Original SSN.
    Notes: Jul 1940: Name listed as ROSCOE LEE BROWNE; 21 Apr 2007: Name listed as ROSCOE L BROWNE
    Source Information: U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index.
    Other websites and census data also confirm 1922, as well as a YouTube video in which the actor gives 1922 as his year of birth. However, obituaries in the New York Times, The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times, as well as his profile at IBDb, cite 1925.
  3. ^ a b c Roscoe Lee Browne. Awards and Nominations Television Academy. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  4. ^ Two Trains Running Internet Broadway Database, The Broadway League. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  5. ^ Roscoe Lee Browne profile, Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  6. ^ Inductees. Roscoe Lee Browne. Image 80 of 295. Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  7. ^ Theater Hall of Fame American Theatre Critics Association. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  8. ^ Nash, Margo. "Jersey Footlights", The New York Times, November 14, 2004. Accessed September 6, 2009. "Roscoe Lee Browne has acted in many movies, from Cool Hand Luke to The Matrix.... And, by the way, he 'made a good shepherd' in the French class play at Woodbury High School, according to the Woodbury High yearbook in 1939, the year Mr. Brown graduated."
  9. ^ Robertson, Campbell (April 12, 2007). "Roscoe Lee Browne, 81, Actor of Stage and Screen, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved September 7, 2023.
  10. ^ a b Bernstein, Adam (April 13, 2007). "Roscoe Lee Browne; Eloquent Actor Of Stage, Screen, TV". Washington Post. Retrieved August 7, 2023.
  11. ^ Dillard, Harrison; McIntosh, Michael (July 17, 2012). Bones: The Life and Times of Harrison Dillard. AuthorHouse. pp. 48–49. ISBN 978-1477237328.
  12. ^ Roscoe Lee Browne, Retrieved March 1, 2016.
  13. ^ "USA Track & Field - USA Indoor Track & Field Champions". Archived from the original on 2021-05-18.
  14. ^ Meet Results found on [1] Retrieved Oct 20, 2021
  15. ^ a b Roscoe Lee Browne, Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  16. ^ a b c d Robertson, Campbell (April 12, 2007). "Roscoe Lee Browne, 81, (sic) Actor of Stage and Screen, Dies". The New York Times.
  17. ^ The Story of Star Wars (Complete) Disney Audio Archive. YouTube. November 15, 2012. Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  18. ^ It's Time To Listen To The Story Of Star Wars...On 8-Track Tape! Retroist. April 27, 2014. Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  19. ^ Vinyl Movies... In Space Age Stereo! Space:1970. March 19, 2010. Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  20. ^ Roscoe Lee Browne – The Story Of Star Wars, Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  21. ^ STAR WARS Week: Happy Star Wars Day!, Sound Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  22. ^ Quincy Troupe. “Roscoe Lee Browne” profile, Essence (December 1976), p. 92, at
  23. ^ Rawson, Christopher (2009-01-28). "Lane, Hamlisch among Theater Hall of Fame inductees". Retrieved 2011-03-27.
  24. ^ Jet Magazine profile. Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  25. ^ Roscoe Lee Browne profile, Retrieved March 1, 2016.
  26. ^ "Roscoe Lee Browne, 81, Actor of Stage and Screen, Dies", The New York Times, April 12, 2007. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  27. ^ "Roscoe Lee Browne, 81; award-winning film, stage, TV actor", Los Angeles Times, April 12, 2007. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  28. ^ Roscoe Lee Browne, 81, actor, Variety, April 12, 2007. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  29. ^ "Actor Roscoe Lee Browne dies at 81", The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  30. ^ Roscoe Lee Browne obituary, The Guardian. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  31. ^ Simonson, Robert (April 12, 2007). "Roscoe Lee Browne, Dignified Stage Actor, Dies at 81". Playbill. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  32. ^ Congress of the United States. U.S. House of Representatives. Washington D.C. In Memoriam Roscoe Lee Browne Scholarship Fund website. Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  33. ^ Roscoe Lee Browne profile, Retrieved February 12, 2016.
  34. ^ "Actor Roscoe Lee Browne dies at 81 (sic) in Los Angeles". International Herald Tribune. Associated Press. April 11, 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-17.
  35. ^ Roscoe L. Browne: Death Record from the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) – GenealogyBank(subscription required)
  36. ^ Profile Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  37. ^ 1969 – 1979 Awards LA Drama Critics Circle. 2016. Retrieved February 23, 2016
  38. ^ Past Western Heritage Award Winners. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. 2016. Retrieved March 1, 2016.
  39. ^ Inductees. Roscoe Lee Browne Image 80 of 295. Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  40. ^ 1980–1989 Awards, LA Drama Critics Circle. 2016. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  41. ^ Two Trains Running Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. 2001– 2016. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  42. ^ Roscoe Lee Browne. Director, Performer. Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. 2001– 2016. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  43. ^ HHA Nominees & Recipients, Retrieved March 1, 2016.
  44. ^ Theater Hall of Fame, Retrieved February 23, 2016.