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Huggable He's Not

Whether he's playing 'Homicide's' cerebral Det. Frank Pembleton, Shakespeare's regal Henry V or just being himself, Andre Braugher doesn't care about being liked. Sorry, Emmy.

July 14, 1996|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — About a year ago, Andre Braugher, who plays Det. Frank Pembleton on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," went to Tom Fontana, the show's executive producer, to express his dissatisfaction with the role. After three seasons on the critically acclaimed police series, which had inched its way to ratings success, the Chicago-born actor had had it with the mercurial and prickly Pembleton.

"Tom, something has got to be done," the intense 33-year-old performer says he told the producer, his brooding, handsome face etched with frustration. "I'm no longer satisfied or challenged with where my character is going. Pembleton has grown more righteous, more brilliant, more insistent. I walk into the box and all barriers yield to Frank. I need a change."

Fontana, recalling the episode, says that shortly after the confrontation, he came up with what he thought was a workable solution. He called the actor and said, "Andre, I want to give your character a stroke, simply so you can recover from it." There was silence on the other end of the line. Then the actor responded, "This is a fabulous thing, Tom. It really hits me where I live."

Indeed, there's nothing more challenging one could present to the penetratingly intelligent, Jesuitical Francis Xavier Pembleton--or the cerebral actor who plays him--than to shatter his mental capacities with a massive stroke. After all, the detective brandishes his steel-trap mind, rather than his magnum, to corner his quarry in the interrogation room--"the box" as it is referred to in the series. That's exactly what Pembleton was in the act of doing to a suspect in a double murder case when he flew into paroxysms in the season's stunning finale. When the show returns this fall, the detective's most formidable weapon will have been drastically reconfigured--and Braugher couldn't be happier.

"Now I have the challenge of creating a fascinating character born from the ashes of Frank Pembleton but who is going to be different from him," the actor says with relish. "We won't be showing the physical recovery--the lifting leg weights, attempts to brush his teeth--but we're bringing him back to where he has to struggle with the diminishment of his mental abilities. I can no longer depend on my memory for investigation, yet I have to show that I am competent in court. My recovery is going to change my character forever. It's not something an actor typically does."

But then, Braugher is no ordinary actor, as anyone who has worked with him will eagerly volunteer. Richard Belzer, who co-stars with him in "Homicide," has called him "one of the most intelligent actors I've ever worked with." By all reports, he is also one of the most underrated. If he is not nominated, yet again, for an Emmy when the nominations are announced Thursday, there will be a lot of head-scratching.

"It's fairly shocking, appalling really, that he hasn't been recognized," says Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning director ("Rain Man") who co-produces the series about a Baltimore detective unit with Fontana. "As brilliant as he is, I think Andre remains unknown for two reasons: One, he's not the definitive leading man, which is always hard for any actor, but more so for an African American. And two, he plays a middle-class African American with an edge about him--some might see it as an arrogance. It's a complex, volatile character. It's not flashy, and flashy is what everyone responds to most quickly."

Says Fontana: "My secret hope is that Andre gets nominated for both 'Homicide' and 'Law & Order' [a dual episode crossing the two shows was a joint project last season] and wins both. But the Emmy traditionally has gone to actors who are flawed or ultimately huggable, and Frank Pembleton is, if anything, not huggable."

"I'm not interested in playing characters who are worried about being liked," says the actor who plays him. "We don't go through life being liked. . . . Frank has more important things on his mind than winning popularity contests."

So too, apparently, does Braugher. Like Pembleton, the actor is neither flashy nor huggable in person. He is as basic and crisp as the white shirt and black pants he wears as he sits for an interview in an NBC conference room 12 stories above Manhattan. With athletic grace, he swings his lithe frame into a chair after pouring himself a cup of herbal tea and swooping down on a towering platter of bagels.

"I don't drink coffee and I don't smoke anymore, I'm the purest man I know," he says with the deep laugh that once led a critic to describe him as being from "that James Earl Jones school of acting."

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