He passed away yesterday, and he slipped below the horizon too quietly for his talents, lost in a media frenzy over a pointless kerfuffle. The fellow made me smile, and marvel at his talent. He made James Earl Jones sound like Lou Christie. Voices like that, in performance, are rare and wonderful.
What else would Sylvanus and Lovie Browne call their son, but Roscoe Lee? Roscoe was educated in literature and languages, and began his adult life as college professor. He was a little bit of a salesman after that, and then decided when he was in his thirties that he wanted to be an actor. He was always in demand.
Look at his imdb file. He has way over a hundred entries. He was a fixture on TV in the seventies and eighties, a voice over artist of the first rank, a Shakespearean actor. He won awards. He worked.
You can tell that there was a enormous backstop of cultivated talent there. The talent part only gets you so far. People who are really good performers work hard when no one is looking so it will look effortless when the lights hit them. It’s the reason why so many people think they’d make a good entertainer if they just got the chance; really good performers make it look easy. You wouldn’t. It isn’t.
Roscoe Lee Browne could jape with Carroll O’Connor, hit his mark, and deliver his line in the French accent he didn’t have to learn because it was catalogued in his head already. He knew from instinct and experience how long to pause before he delivered that final punchline for its full effect. It’s a trifle, and I’m sure he knew it, like so many trifles he participated in. But he took trifles seriously. That is the true measure of the entertainer. It’s easy to be serious about serious things.
Certain actors can walk to the edge of a stage, and stand there and hold your attention. They are often not beautiful. Roscoe was not a leading man type. He could weave a little story in the air better than most any actor I could name, really.
I remember him always as Mr. Nightlinger, the cook on a cattle drive, in one of the few John Wayne movies that is a real good movie. The Cowboys. He must share a bunkhouse with the pack of young boys that are all that John Wayne can find to drive his cattle to market.
Browne has many impish and serious moments in the movie, but the little vignette when the man, an exotic man, goes in among the boys and tells a wild tale of his heritage, –the boys spellbound, but no more than the audience– is the best example of his craft I can think of. A man that knew Shakespeare and the Bible as he did knew how to say those lines. You cannot take your eyes from him, and yet you could close your eyes and let his rich, deep voice bring the tale just as convincingly. He was like Babe Ruth was; pitching or batting, doesn’t matter.
He got kinda lost in the shuffle yesterday. Someone needs to wish him well. Someone needs to tell him that they watched him in a darkened movie house all those years ago and sat up bolt upright when he boomed in that mellifluous, stentorian voice; “Children, I feel your eyes on me!”
Yes, they were.