Andre Braugher was seriously good

Andre Braugher was seriously good

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You didn’t want to end up in the box with Andre Braugher.

That is to say, you wouldn’t want to be interrogated by Detective Frank Pembleton, or Capt. Raymond Holt, or any of the other lawmen and soldiers Braugher — who died Monday at 61 after what his publicist described as “a brief illness” — inhabited in his career. The interrogation room was his greatest stage. As Pembleton, his fiercely religious and religiously fierce detective from NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” he described how a person might end up there.

“You are a citizen of a free nation. Having lived your adult life in the land of guaranteed civil liberties, you commit a crime of violence, whereupon you are jacked up, dragged down to police headquarters and deposited in a claustrophobic anteroom containing three chairs, a table and cold brick walls,” he intoned.

“Have a seat, please.”

Braugher tackled serious roles with an almost frightening intensity. Trained at Juilliard, his career began in 1989 as Kojak’s partner, Detective Winston Blake, on the small screen and as a free man who joins the Union Army in the film “Glory.” A few years later, he became Pembleton, the resolute, self-righteous Baltimore detective on “Homicide,” a role that earned him his first of two Emmys. (The second was for “Thief.”) “I’ve worked with a lot of wonderful actors,” David Simon, who worked on that show and who wrote the book on which it was based, posted on X. “I’ll never work with one better” than Braugher.

If Pembleton is one pillar of his TV-acting legacy, Holt — the no-nonsense leader of a band of clownish (but still competent) detectives in the sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — is the other.

The show finds Holt consistently exasperated by his people, even when he’s impressed by their work. Playing opposite Andy Samberg and a bunch of other goofballs, Braugher used his gravitas to elevate the comedy, allowing us to imagine what would happen if one of his aging hard-bitten cops had been plucked off the set of a gritty drama and dropped into a sitcom universe.

No episode exemplified this better than Season 5’s “The Box” (of course), which finds a tuxedo-clad Holt en route to the theater. But Detective Jake Peralta (Samberg) has a dentist (Sterling K. Brown) suspected of murdering his business partner in the interrogation room. They don’t have enough evidence to put him away, so they need a confession. “An interrogation with a ticking clock and everything on the line,” Holt says. “I better call Kevin and tell him I won’t be attending the opera. There’s someone else I’d rather hear sing.”

He then calls his husband and reminds him the tickets are under his name. He spells it out: “H. O. L. T.”

End of carousel

What follows is an homage to “Homicide,” which also featured an episode-length interrogation, only this time it’s played for laughs. Holt and Peralta spend the night trying to break the dentist. At one point, Holt loses his temper during an argument about the validity of a dentist considering himself a doctor.

“Most people want to become actual doctors,” he says.

“That’s ridiculous,” replies Brown’s character. “It’s not like we’re college professors calling ourselves doctors. … When someone has a heart attack on a plane, do they yell out, ‘Yo, does anybody here have an art history PhD?’”

Holt flies off the handle, a white-hot temper taking over — the full-on Pembleton. But instead of screaming something Pembletonian, such as, “Son, you are ignorance personified!” he says this: “A PhD is a doctor-ate. It’s literally describing a doctor. … The problem here is that medical practitioners have co-opted the word ‘doctor.’ I know we live in a world where ANYTHING CAN MEAN ANYTHING AND NOBODY EVEN CARES ABOUT ETYMOLOGY!”

Braugher was always in complete control of his instrument: a baritone that could fluctuate between plush velvet and serrated blade. His intensity could be a warm embrace or a deadly chokehold.

Consider another line from that same “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” episode:

“I imagine a bear mistook the rotting corpse for a female of its species and had intercourse with it,” Holt says, remarking on a victim’s body that was found by hikers in a desecrated state. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.”

Those are grisly sentences, the stuff of true crime, twisted thrillers and terrifying horrors. Braugher gets the laugh by stating it matter-of-factly, almost as if he’s put off by having to explain something so obvious.

Some people say the role of Holt ruined Braugher’s career. These people are wrong.

Whether he was playing the title role in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” or investigator Tommy Goodman in “Primal Fear,” or the thief in “Thief,” Braugher practiced total and absolute dedication to understanding the characters. Just because one was in a 22-minute network sitcom didn’t mean it required less conscientiousness, less commitment. So when an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” revolved around Holt’s knowledge of “Sex and the City,” Braugher began studying.

“It deeply bothered Andre that he didn’t know the show so we spent days getting him up to speed. He was quizzing his wife at night too. He cared so deeply and was so so funny,” wrote Ryan Case, a director and editor who worked on the show, on X. “My ‘challenge’ editing him in the Brooklyn pilot was finding takes where he wasn’t smiling. We wanted to save that for the end. He was like a giddy school child doing his first comedy and it was so wonderful.”

But the most impressive thing about Braugher, as many have noted since his death, might be the opportunities he didn’t take, because his family, his wife and fellow “Homicide” actress Ami Brabson and their three sons, came first — a fact many tributes to the actor are quick to point out. Critic Alan Sepinwall wrote in Rolling Stone about his time interviewing the actor: “The part that stayed with me wasn’t about Andre Braugher, world-class thespian, but rather when he talked about how he had worked out to a science how to maximize time with Brabson and the kids, despite working 3,000 miles away from them.”

In a 2020 interview with Variety, Braugher talked about how he hadn’t done as much as he might have, if his priorities had been different. “I think it could have been larger,” he said of his career. “I think it could have spanned more disciplines: directing, producing, all these other different things. But it would have been at the expense of my own life.”

“I haven’t been in Australia. I haven’t been in Prague. I haven’t been shooting in San Paolo or whatever,” he said. “I’ve got three boys, and I want them to know me as someone other than the guy who takes them to the circus every once in a while. I wanted to be there through the course of their life because I know how important fathers are.”

The rest of us were lucky for the time we got to spend watching Braugher in the box, grateful we weren’t the ones in there with him.

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