The Good Guy
4:57 PM EST on December 15, 2023
If you go far enough back in the photos of Andre Braugher on the wire service that we use, past the photos of him holding various awards and attending premieres and sitting on stages with the casts of the television programs in which he always eventually became the star, there is a photo of him that is hard to recognize. It appears to be from a sort of group vacation at a resort in Jamaica, in 1994; other photos show Braugher goofing around there with his fellow cast members from the NBC cop show Homicide: Life On The Street, which had just completed its second season. In this one, though, Braugher is wading into a shallow pool near his wife and young son. He is wearing a teal speedo and professorial glasses and appears to be absolutely yowling, as if the water was too cold or just in the way that a goofy young dad might behave goofily while on vacation with his family. The photo description describes him as "mugging" and, on the merits, I would have to say that he is.
That's the strange part. The photos of Braugher doing a weird dance with Richard Belzer et al also fit; Braugher was famously intense, uncompromising, and disciplined in his approach to his work and his career, but in the days since he died earlier this week at the age of 61 seemingly everyone who ever worked with him has volunteered how much they loved being around him.
It fits, too, that Braugher's family is in the shot. He grew up on Chicago's West Side, earned a math degree at Stanford, and then studied acting at Julliard, but he was a born-again New Jersey person. His family put down roots in the old-growth North Jersey suburb of South Orange and stayed for decades, even as his work took him across the country. He shot eight seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in Los Angeles and flew home every weekend; in a 2002 profile in the New York Times, Braugher talks excitedly about the short-lived show he was then making in Philadelphia because he "get[s] home every night." Philadelphia is 80 miles of generally gnarly Turnpike traffic from South Orange.
In every story that I've ever read about Braugher—who was probably my first favorite actor and remained one of my favorite performers to watch throughout his career—the idea of his home and his family does not so much loom large as function as a wall, behind which he can disappear and become someone else in the company of the people he cared about most. Whoever and whatever Braugher was back there was his business; he'd talk about it a little bit, but clearly regarded that space and that identity as his own. What bits of his actual self Braugher shared over the course of his career seemed to support the sense of a penetrating, perceptive, and discerning intelligence that he gave off in every performance of his that I ever saw. In the roles that made him famous—first as the scornful, tenacious, abrasively virtuosic Det. Frank Pembleton in Homicide and then the goofy gloss on that character he played three decades later as the stern, strange Capt. Raymond Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine—the gravitational weight of Braugher's seriousness had the effect of pulling things in the scene toward him. Some of this was just a great actor's charisma, but the more potent and compelling part of it was the sense that there was simply more there where his character was concerned—more than might fit into a given scene, quite probably more than was actually written on the page, and, at any rate, something that seemed made in some fundamental way out of different and more valuable material than everything else.
Braugher was not just the most interesting actor in every scene, but also instantly identifiable as its most serious and central presence. This was funnier to observe when he would show up in smaller parts, early in his career, in roles that didn't necessarily need or deserve him. A few moments of him fixing his glare on some more obviously central character could send the scene's dials spinning. Watch him as an utterly off-the-rack district attorney character in 1993's woolly and decidedly mid Striking Distance or as a subsidiary investigator-type character in 1996's much better but equally unserious Primal Fear, and he exerts that Braugher-y force that makes the scene seem suddenly to center on him, to the point where you might sort of wish that the movie could break off, side-quest style, and simply follow his character around for a while.
One of the funnier recurring bits on Brooklyn Nine-Nine was the way that the show, which was as antic and joke-stuffed as any sitcom could be, made use of Braugher's gravitas, either by having the most high-flown nonsense imaginable come out of his character's mouth or just letting the density and heft of his presence tilt the scene back toward him, sending the other characters sliding chaotically in his direction. Homicide, a much more despairing show, used him in strangely similar ways, less as a character or presence and more like an elemental force. “He could say so much with his eyes,” Homicide executive producer Tom Fontana told the Times in 2014. “We’d write these incredibly glorious speeches for him, and then you would see him just look at someone, and we’d sometimes go: ‘Drop the monologue. He’s already sold it.’”
It feels like an understatement to describe Braugher as having had some memorable roles; Pembleton, on Homicide, was not just a landmark television character and performance but, in its totality, a sort of challenge to the idea of what television and television acting might be. It seems, now, like a challenge that the form wasn't really able to meet. There have been other brooding and virtuosic detectives, of course, and even a few other shows that seemed to have the central and most significant insight that Homicide had—which is that these police characters are motivated not by righteousness or duty but by whatever is wrong with them, whether that be their appetites or their stubbornness or, in Pembleton's case, a relentless and moralistic imperative to impose his own mastery and sense of order onto every situation.
But it feels like a waste, in a deeper sense, that Braugher spent so much of his career onscreen playing cops in shows that tweaked or satirized or just stuck to the familiar forms. The medium couldn't really keep up with him, and the movies he was in were always about someone else. He played great Shakespeare roles—Iago opposite Avery Brooks's Othello and Henry V, among others I wished I'd seen—and he made a good living and went home every night. He was discerning about the parts he took—"I’m a member of a very complex and richly valued race," Braugher told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "I just don’t buy seeing lies about my race perpetuated"—and so we got less of him on film or TV than anyone who saw him might have wanted. It's a strange but apposite part of his legacy that the greatest filmed performance he gave, in Homicide, is now virtually impossible to see because no streaming service or cable channel wants to lay out for the show's music-clearance fees. As unforgettable as his work reliably was, Braugher worked in an industry defined by its short memory and shitty taste; he brought more with him than the medium was built to contain.
As with every other great actor, you can only guess at where it all came from. There are actors who seem not just like dry wells but actual vain dunces, and some of them are nevertheless capable of embodying truths that they don't otherwise seem wired to feel. Braugher, who bristled and popped with intelligence and purpose even in small parts, was not like that. But I don't know who he was when he came home to New Jersey, to make his kids dinner or go to Seton Hall basketball games or just sleep in his own bed alongside his wife. He didn't ever really seem to want to talk about it.
It is the nature of great performers to make you wonder about this sort of thing. Yet I have been wondering in the days since he passed about all the parts he might have played, but didn't. I think of that photo of him goofing around in the pool, there, and I think of his last great performance, as one of the trickster demigod lawyer types that Robert and Michelle King like writing so much, in the last season of The Good Fight. Braugher's character is a showman and an opportunist and kind of a bully; intensely principled, intensely ambitious, and amoral around the edges; a man who made up his own name. He is both deadly serious and deliriously and even proudly full of shit. The character could be the devil, or he could be a saint, and was plainly delighted to be making it up or figuring it out as he went along. Braugher seemed like he was having the time of his life.