Andre Braugher’s performance as Detective Frank Pembleton on David Simon’s critically acclaimed police drama Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999) was nuanced and electric. It was almost shocking, therefore, to see him bring such sharp comedy chops 14 years later to Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-2021).
Braugher’s impressive range as an actor was absolutely akin to what Bryan Cranston accomplished in reverse, with Cranston also proving he was just as proficient in comedy roles (Malcolm in the Middle) as drama (Breaking Bad).
Sorrowful then to lose the Chicago-born actor at a relatively young age. Braugher passed away Monday, Dec. 11 after a brief illness. He was 61.
The 1997 “Subway” episode of Homicide remains on of the most extraordinary hours of broadcast network drama ever produced. It featured another terrific actor, Vincent D’Onofrio, as a man sliced and pinned between a Baltimore subway train and the station platform. Braugher’s character, Pembleton, knowing the severely injured man will die as soon as he is extracted, tries to bring comfort to his final moments.
The episode was based on a true story — related by a passenger on an episode of HBO’s Taxicab Confessions — of a man trapped between a subway train and a platform.
On hearing the news of his passing, writer/producer Simon saluted Braugher this way on Twitter: “I’ve worked with a lot of wonderful actors. I’ll never work with one better.”
The Julliard-trained Braugher received 11 Emmy nominations in his career, winning once for Homicide (for that episode) and later for another dramatic role. He picked up four Best Supporting Comedy Emmy nominations as Captain Raymond Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He won two consecutive Television Critics Association awards for his role on Homicide.
In between there was the should-have-lasted-longer mid-life comedy on TNT with Ray Romano and Scott Bakula, Men of a Certain Age. An early role was in the 1989 feature film “Glory.” He also made memorable appearances in The Good Fight, Bojack Horseman, House (as Dr. House’s shrink) and New Girl.
At a 2013 press conference I attended, Braugher was asked about keeping a straight face while playing opposite so many comedy actors — specifically, Andy Samberg — on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
“There’s a different spirit with a comedy,” Braugher said. “But I’m watching these guys like hawks. So I feel like I’m getting on board with the right spirit of the comedy and learning a lot and exploring a new way that works.”
He was a quick study. Braugher went on to appear in several very funny commercial ad campaigns, including a recent national spot for Virgin Mobile.
He put his straight man status among his Brooklyn Nine-Nine colleagues another way to NBC’s The Today Show a few years ago. “I feel like all of these incredible comedians are the kites and and I’m the string.”
Aside from the press conference appearances, I only had one short encounter with Braugher. It was a decade ago at a Fox Network Television Critics Association party in Los Angeles. I was standing with a colleague who was writing for a dot-com at the time. Braugher was introduced to us both by a Fox publicist. Expecting us to be with the New York Times or whatever, and never hearing of something called, “The A.V. Club,” he took a giant step back and went on his way.
To this day I’m not sure if that was a purely comical gesture, or a very real dramatic moment. That’s just how skilled an actor was Andre Braugher.