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RIP For Box And Biggie Smalls As Two Icons Of Black Cinema Pass

UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT is an important film in terms of black cinema in the ‘70s. It’s kind of amazing how many big names of the moment are in the movie. Sidney Poitier. Bill Cosby. Harry Belafonte. Flip Wilson. Richard Pryor. And in two of the supporting roles, playing Silky Slim and Congressman Lincoln, are character actors Calvin Lockhart and Roscoe Lee Browne, familiar faces to anyone who watched a lot of television and movies in that era. I reviewed UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT back in July of 2004 as part of my DVD column, and I’m a big fan of it. It’s a great con game movie that gives all of these actors fun roles to play. Calvin Lockhart also appeared in the follow-up releasd the following year, LET’S DO IT AGAIN, where he played “Biggie Smalls,” a character name that became a lot more famous thanks to it being appropriated by the rap star many years later. Lockhart appeared in a number of other memorable “blaxploitation” films in those days, like HALLS OF ANGER, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and THE BEAST MUST DIE. Towards the end of his career, Lockhart worked with David Lynch a few times, appearing in both WILD AT HEART and TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. He was born in the Bahamas, but moved to New York to study with legendary acting coach Uta Hagen. He started his career onstage in New York, but soon left for Europe and England, where he found it easier to get roles that he enjoyed. By the time he finally came back to the United States, he was able to command better roles, and he had a fairly high profile for a few years. He also worked in England as part of the Royal Shakespearean Company. Stage remained a major passion of his until the very end of his life, even after film and TV work dried up for him. When he died at the age of 77, he was living with his family in the Bahamas, working to encourage young local actors. Roscoe Lee Browne took a circuitous route to acting, spending time as a teacher, an award-winning competitive runner, and even a wine salesman. In the mid-1950s, though, he dedicated himself to acting, and like Lockhart, he spent time in a Shakespearean company, this one a New York-based group founded by Joseph Papp. Browne’s voice was one of the best in the business, and it’s hard not to compare him to James Earl Jones. They were very similar types, both of them famous for voice-over work and narration. Probably his most iconic voice work was as the narrator for BABE and BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, but for hardcore genre freaks, he’ll always be remembered as Box in the 1970s SF classic LOGAN’S RUN. The first place I really remember him was on SOAP, where he replaced Robert Guillaume when he left to appear on the spin-off BENSON. Browne brought a whole different kind of disdain to the way he dealt with the Tates and the Campbells, and considering how irreplaceable Guillaume seemed to be, Browne did one hell of a job. In the end, the reason Lockhart and Browne were significant is something more than just the roles they played; it’s more about the roles they wouldn’t play. They were part of the first generation of black performers who really took a stand in regards to how they were willing to let themselves and their community be portrayed on film. They took control. They set an example, and they did it by simply doing great work consistently. The landscape of film and television has changed considerably since the early ‘50s, and it’s due in no small part to actors like Calvin Lockhart and Roscoe Lee Browne. They will be missed, but their influence will thankfully always be felt. Our condolences go out to their friends and families.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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