• Andre Braugher as Captain Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine (SBS VICELAND)Source: SBS VICELAND
Before he was Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Captain Holt, he was Homicide: Life on the Street’s Frank Pembleton — and he’s always been one of the best actors on television.
Sarah Ward

22 Sep 2017 - 4:10 PM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2017 - 4:10 PM

This year, for the first time in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s four-season-to-date run, Andre Braugher didn’t receive an Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series. That didn’t mean that his influence wasn’t felt at the awards ceremony. When Sterling K. Brown took to the stage to accept his trophy for starring in This Is Us, he made a point of mentioning the great actor. “19 years ago, Detective Frank Pembleton held this joint, as impeccably played by Andrew Braugher,” a proud Brown told the crowd. “It is my supreme honour to follow in your footsteps.”

2017 may have seen diversity thrust into the Emmys’ spotlight — with Atlanta’s Donald Glover becoming the first black director to win an award for directing a comedy, Master of None’s Lena Waithe the first black woman in emerge victorious in the comedy writing category, and The Night Of’s Riz Ahmed the first male actor of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy — but Brown’s recognition of Braugher and his work on Homicide: Life on the Street was important. It was a reminder that it has been almost two decades since a black actor stood on that stage clasping an award for best lead in a drama, and that only four black actors have ever done so in the awards’ 69-year history.

As Brown himself recognised, it was also a tribute from a fan, “first, last and always.” He gave a shoutout to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and John Hamm’s Dick Whitman as well; however there was no mistaking the significance behind Brown’s nod to one of his inspirations. Indeed, if there’s an actor deserving of such a gesture, it’s Braugher. It takes a formidable talent to turn serve up two of the best cops ever seen on screen — one in the police procedural that helped sparked the current golden age of premium drama, the other in a hilarious sitcom bursting with heart — and that’s before digging into the rest of his resume.

Before he was a comedic captain, he was TV’s best detective

Braugher’s first screen appearance saw him pick a side of the law-and-order divide, one that he’d get to know over the course of his three-decade career. And, he did so standing beside one of television’s most famous cops at the time: Kojak. In a series of five TV movies that revived the hit ‘70s character for the ‘90s, Braugher played Winston Blake, the famous detective’s younger sidekick. It’s not a role that he’s particularly remembered for, but it did prove a helpful stepping-stone to greatness.

For some actors, jumping from one detective character to another might’ve seemed a lazy choice, especially so early in their career. There’s nothing lazy about Homicide: Life on the Street’s Frank Pembleton, however — not in his fiery devotion to his job, his quest to uphold the law no matter what, his need not to push himself to be the best police officer he can be, and his crusade against Baltimore’s many injustices. He’s an actor’s dream of a fictional figure, a textured, complicated, passionate, eccentric and determined force to be reckoned with, and one that could instill fear into criminals during nail-biting interrogation confrontations and motivate his peers in hard-earned displays of camaraderie. That all of these complexities could ooze through Pembleton in a single scene speaks volumes about Braugher’s performance. 

Accordingly, it’s no wonder that Pembleton became Homicide’s signature character — and Braugher’s. The series was filled with memorable parts and stacked with memorable cast members, but when Braugher graced the screen as Pembleton, it went from must-see to can’t-look-away viewing. He would become the show’s only regular star to receive Emmy recognition, earning his first nomination in 1996 along with a separate nod for best supporting actor in a miniseries for The Tuskegee Airmen. When the golden statuette finally came in 1998, it was the culmination of six seasons of stellar work. Braugher would leave the show before its seventh season, returning to the character for the aptly titled 2000 TV movie Homicide: The Movie. In the series heyday, he’d also achieve the fictional lawman dream: playing Pembleton in a crossover episode of Law & Order.

Before he was a sitcom favourite, he was a TV mainstay

How do you follow up such an iconic part? How do you jump into another one? Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Captain Holt may seem like the natural next step in his TV cop evolution — first a sidekick; then a commanding leading man; then an outwardly cantankerous, inwardly kindly leader — but it’d take Braugher 13 years to get to his next standout role. Still, he was busy in the interim, sometimes even with a badge in hand. In fact, he was never far from a television screen.

In short-lived medical drama Gideon’s Crossing, he was the authoritative titular doctor. In Hack, starring opposite one-time Homicide guest actor David Morse, he toiled with a murkier side of the law as a cop helping out his ex-partner turned taxi-driving vigilante hero. In the mini-series Thief, which won him his second Emmy, he crossed the line to become a robbery mastermind planning a job, while Law & Order: SVU cast him as a defense attorney. Salem’s Lot pit Braugher against vampires, The Andromeda Strain saw him turn military man to battle an extra-terrestrial disease, and Last Resort had him captaining a ballistic missile-equipped submarine. If there’s a common theme in these roles, it’s strength; foremost among Braugher’s skills is the ability to convey a character’s inner fortitude, even when they’re placed in precarious situations.

Sandwiched among this lengthy list is Men of a Certain Age, Braugher’s first toe in the comedy-adjacent waters. With Ray Romano and Scott Baukla, he was one of a trio of forty-something men, all life-long friends, coping with the ups and downs of their middle-aged lives. That two more Emmy nominations would follow is hardly surprising, and nor is his subsequent leap into sitcom territory in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Braugher had always been able to convey powerful characters cognisant of but not defined by their inner vulnerabilities; now, he could find warm-hearted, insightful humour in them as well.

Brooklyn Nine Nine returns to SBS VICELAND on Wednesday 27 September.

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