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Andre Braugher was a pioneer in playing smart, driven, flawed Black characters

Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton of <em>Homicide: Life on the Street</em>
Chris Haston
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton of Homicide: Life on the Street

Updated December 13, 2023 at 5:31 PM ET

It is a serious shame that there does not seem to be an official streaming homefor episodes of NBC's groundbreaking police drama, Homicide: Life on the Street.

Because that makes it less likely that a wide swath of younger TV fans have seen one of Andre Braugher's signature roles – as Baltimore homicide Det. Frank Pembleton.

Braugher died Monday at the surprising age of 61. But I remember how compelling he was back in 1993, in Homicide's pilot episode, when Braugher took command of the screen in a way I had rarely seen before.

A new kind of cop hero

Pembleton was the homicide department's star detective — smart, forceful, passionate and driven.

He was also a Black man well aware of how his loner arrogance and talent for closing cases might anger his white co-workers. Which I — as a Black man trying to make his way doing good, challenging work in the wild, white-dominated world of journalism — really loved.

Clark Johnson as Det. Meldrick Lewis and Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton.
Eric Lieboeitz / NBCU Photo Bank
NBCU Photo Bank
Clark Johnson as Det. Meldrick Lewis and Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton.

His debut as Pembleton was a bracing announcement of a new, captivating talent on the scene. This was a cop who figured out most murders quickly, and then relentlessly pursued the killers, often getting them to admit their guilt through electric confrontations in the squad's interrogation room, known as "The Box." Pembelton brashly told Kyle Secor's rookie detective Tim Bayliss that his job in that room was to be a salesman – getting the customer to buy a product, through a guilty confession, that he had no reason to want.

Braugher's charisma and smarts turned Pembleton into a breakout star in a cast that had better-known performers like Yaphet Kotto, Ned Beatty and Richard Belzer. He was also a bit of an antihero – unlikeable, with a willingness to obliterate the rules to close cases.

Here was a talented Black actor who played characters so smart, you could practically see their brains at work in some scenes, providing a new template for a different kind of acting and a different kind of hero. And while a storyline on Homicide which featured Pembelton surviving and recovering from a stroke gave Braugher even more challenging material to play, I also wondered at the time if that turn signaled the show was running out of special things to do with such a singular character.

Turning steely authority to comedy

Trained at Juilliard and adept at stage work, Braugher had a steely authority that undergirded most of his roles, especially as a star physician on the medical drama Gideon's Crossing in 2000 and the leader of a heist crew on FX's 2006 series Thief – both short-lived dramas that nevertheless showcased his commanding presence.

Eventually, Braugher managed another evolution that surprised this fan, revealing his chops as a comedy stylist with roles as a floundering, everyman car salesman on 2009's Men of a Certain Age and in the role many younger TV fans know and love, as Capt. Ray Holt on NBC's police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

I visited the show's set with a gang of TV critics back in 2014, interviewing Braugher in the space painstakingly decked out as Holt's office. The set designers had outdone themselves, with fake photos of the character in an Afro and moustache meant to look like images from his early days on the force and a special, framed photo of Holt's beloved corgi, Cheddar.

Braugher on the set of <em>Brooklyn Nine-Nin</em>e in 2014.
Eric Deggans / NPR
Braugher on the set of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in 2014.

Back then, Braugher seemed modest and a little nonplussed by how much critics liked the show and loved Holt. He was careful not to take too much credit for the show's comedy, though it was obvious that, as the show progressed, writers were more comfortable putting absurd and hilarious lines in the mouth of a stoic character tailor-made for deadpan humor.

As a longtime fan, I was just glad to see a performer I had always admired back to playing a character worthy of his smarts and talent. It was thrilling and wonderful to see a new generation of viewers discover what I had learned 30 years ago – that Andre Braugher had a unique ability to bring smarts and soul to every character he played.

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Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.