Roscoe Lee Browne, who won an Emmy in 1986 for his appearances as Dr. Barnabus Foster on “The Bill Cosby Show,” died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles of cancer. He was 81.
Browne turned to acting after winning several international track championships and working as a college literature and French instructor and a wineseller.
Known for his resonant voice honed from years of Shakespearean roles, he was often called on to narrate films, documentaries and literary works, and served as narrator for “Babe” and “Babe, Pig in the City.”
Born in Woodbury, N.J., his first film role was in “The Connection” in 1961. He bounced back and forth between the stage, film and TV work, appearing in features including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Topaz,” “The Mambo Kings,” Mark Rydell’s “The Cowboys,” “The Liberation of L.B. Jones” and “Uptown Saturday Night.”
On television, he had several memorable guest roles. He was a snobbish black lawyer trapped in an elevator with bigot Archie Bunker in an episode of the 1970s TV comedy “All in the Family” and the butler Saunders in the comedy “Soap.”
He was Emmy nommed for roles on “Barney Miller,” “Spider-Man” and “Falcon Crest,” played Frederick Douglass in Steve Allen’s “Meeting of Minds,” and appeared on “ER,” “The Shield” and “Will & Grace.”
His theater career started in “Julius Caesar” at New York’s Shakespeare Festival, and he went on to appear in plays including August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Two Trains Running,” which won a Tony for best play and for which he received a nom for supporting actor. He won an Obie for his role as the slave Babu in the Robert Lowell play “Benito Cereno.” While with the Shakespeare Festival (where he spent seven seasons), Browne created and directed “A Hand Is on the Gate: An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music” starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, which received two Tony noms.
He toured for many years in “Behind the Broken Words” with Anthony Zerbe, a show which included some of his own poetry. He also provided narration for the Oscar-nommed docu “The Ra Expeditions,” the Discovery Channels “Galapagos, Beyond Darwin” and “The Story of Star Wars” and appeared as a speaker in symphonic works for the Boston Pops, the L.A. Philharmonic, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.