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The Comedic Genius of Andre Braugher

The late actor, who made a name for himself as a dramatic heavyweight, showed off his joyful, Falstaffian side as Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Raymond Holt.
  • The late Andre Braugher as Captain Raymond Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Photo: Everett Collection)
    The late Andre Braugher as Captain Raymond Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Photo: Everett Collection)

    Andre Braugher died on December 11 after a brief illness. He was just 61 — far too young, but he leaves behind an expansive and enviable body of work.

    The Chicago-born actor was only in his mid-20s and fresh out of Julliard when he landed his first film role in 1989’s Glory. He delivered an Obie-winning performance in the 1996 Shakespeare in the Park production of Henry V. He gave life to one of the most compelling characters in TV history, Frank Pembleton, the driven, unyielding detective on NBC’s groundbreaking Homicide: Life On The Street, a predecessor to The Wire and The Sopranos. He won an Emmy for his breakout role in 1998.

    There was the fierce intensity of youth in Braugher’s early dramatic work. It continued to blaze even as he entered his 40s, when he’d receive Emmy nominations for his starring roles in Gideon’s Crossing, Men of a Certain Age, and Thief. He elevated every show or movie in which he appeared (including the second Fantastic Four movie). However, he was barely into his 50s when he slowed down, took an off-ramp from hour-long dramas, and proceeded to give audiences his best work as Captain Raymond Holt in the Fox-turned-NBC sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

    “I’ve been working on shows that are just dealing with dangerous subject matter and a lot of emotional turmoil,” Braugher told the Today show in 2015. “I felt I needed to grow as an artist, do something different and challenge myself. Men of a Certain Age was the beginning of that change and I was lucky enough to be a part of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

    Braugher was humble enough to describe himself as the lucky one, but Raymond Holt would not have worked nearly as well, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine would’ve suffered tremendously, without Braugher’s dramatic range and comedic flexibility. Holt was the no-nonsense precinct captain whose deadpan stoicism would unnerve Mr. Spock, but Braugher regularly depicted every imaginable emotion with a subtle raise of his eyebrow or a shocking belly laugh. He gave Holt no less nuance and depth than he’d provided for Frank Pembleton. He created a character, not a joke machine, and the humor soared because he kept Holt grounded. Braugher described himself as “the string” and his colleagues, more experienced in comedy, as “the kites.”

    Explaining his fidelity to the script, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t want to embarrass myself by jumping out here with professional comedians trying to catch up. They’re much too swift for me. The best I can do at this moment really is to ride the rapids and try to stay afloat.”

    Braugher treated his scripts like sheet music, and his commanding, melodious voice hit every note with perfect pitch. Fans of the show are known to imitate (often poorly, but with love) Braugher’s cadence and delivery on such lines as “Never is not just a crater on Mars. Although it is a crater on Mars.” “It’s not meant to be funny. It’s meant to be devastating.” and “You’re lying! You’ve succumbed to his groovy voodoo!”

    It’s important to note that Holt was a Black, gay police captain in New York City, and the series never shied away from Holt’s internal struggles within white-dominated law enforcement. While 30 Rock might’ve made light of the whole concept of a “Black Frasier,” Raymond Holt was an urbane, speed-reading, wine connoisseur, who was married to his own fussy version of Niles Crane, Kevin (Marc Evan Jackson). Holt’s quiet dignity and reserve felt so real, it was easy to buy his more absurd moments. In the Season 6 episode, “He Said, She Said,” Holt refuses to believe that his arch-nemesis, Ernest Zumowski aka “The Disco Strangler,” is actually dead. His obsessive behavior escalates and becomes steadily more ridiculous yet it’s never for the sake of the joke. It’s all consistent with his clearly defined character.

    Braugher’s castmates consistently attest to his kindness and generosity. He was the rock in a tough scene who could polish the roughest, silliest dialogue. Christopher Miller, who directed and produced the show's pilot with Phil Lord, remarked on social media, “The way [Braugher] and [series star Andy Samberg’s] opposite approaches to acting baffled and then slowly influenced each other was a magical dynamic that was the heart of the show.”

    The awards and critical praise never kept Braugher from wanting to learn more from his castmates and express even more of himself for his audience. “I feel as though my mind is expanding,” he said during his Today show interview. “My capabilities as an actor, my ability to mine the comedy is really rising up for the first time in my life. I’m really happy about this stage.”

    Joe Lo Truglio, who played Det. Charles Boyle, lovingly recalled Braugher’s habit of singing on set. That joyful, Falstaffian side of Braugher doesn’t surprise anyone who watched him as Raymond Holt for eight years. The utterly human goofiness didn’t remain hidden within Frank Pembleton’s ferocity. Even after his tragic, untimely passing, Braugher’s fans can continue to laugh and sing with him.

    Stephen Robinson is a political columnist, arts writer, and theatre maker.

    TOPICS: Andre Braugher, FOX, NBC, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Gideon's Crossing, Homicide: Life on the Street, Men of a Certain Age