Today I’d like to take a moment to note the passing earlier this week of veteran character actor Roscoe Lee Browne. He died of cancer in Los Angeles on April 11 after a long and distinguished career. If you think you don’t know him, I say that you do. As is often the case with character actors of his stature, people didn’t recognize his name as often as they recognized his face.
Not to mention his voice. His was a rich, mellifluous voice that could be both authoratative and soothing. Once you heard it, you never forgot it.
What’s he got to do with indie theater, you may ask? A lot. Like many of today’s indie theater artists, Browne toiled away at a number of survival jobs – including college professor, and wine company salesman – before turning to acting in 1956. He hit New York just in time for the original indie theater movement of the 1950s and 1960s, appearing in the original New York productions of The Blacks, Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright, and The Ballad of the Sad Café, as well as the New York Shakespeare Festival (known today as The Public Theater) productions of Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Troilus and Cressida. He appeared in Danton’s Death for the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center (now known simply as Lincoln Center Theater), and even hoofed it up with Tommy Tune and Twiggy in the Broadway musical, My One and Only.
Browne’s final New York stage appearance came in 1992, in the original Broadway production of Two Trains Running by August Wilson. My mom was fortunate enough to see his performance, and it has stayed with her to this very day.
Like most people of my generation, I was introduced to Browne through his voluminous film and television work. There were the guest spots on numerous television shows: All in the Family, Maude, Soap, Benson, and an Emmy Award-winning guest spot on The Cosby Show. He also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Topaz, and narrated both Babe movies.
I will always remember Browne most of all for his supporting turn in the 1972 film, The Cowboys, in which he played opposite none other than John Wayne. As Jedediah Nightlinger, the wise, disciplined cook who helps supervise a cattle drive full of inexperienced young school boys, Browne proved to be one of The Duke’s sturdiest and best sidekicks. We won’t see his like again.