Andre Braugher Reexamines His Cop Roles and Urges ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ to Rise to the Moment
After a career in drama, the actor's turn to comedy took him to some unexpected places — and back to the Emmys.
Andre Braugher cops to being “pretty freaked out” the first season he played the sophisticated but stern Capt. Raymond Holt on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Braugher was a Juilliard-trained actor who had already won two Emmys (including one for landmark drama “Homicide: Life on the Street”) and an Obie Award for performing Shakespeare in the Park — but doing a comedy nonetheless scared him.
“Everything’s new. I’d never done it before. Am I any good?” Braugher recalls asking himself. “I remember turning to my wife and asking her, ‘Is this funny?’ And she said, ‘Yes, of course, you’re not being deceived.’ But I kept looking at it, saying to myself, is this good? I couldn’t really judge.”
To fans of the show, it’s immediately apparent how Braugher provides a key ingredient to the balance that makes the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” cast of characters work, from the silly to the sublime. “Andre brings incredible gravitas and intelligence to Captain Holt, which serves to ground the character and also makes it that much funnier when we write silly, goofy, ridiculous things for him to say and do,” says “Nine-Nine” co-creator Dan Goor.
As a gay Black man in the NYPD who still managed to climb the ranks to captain, Holt has a rich backstory but maintains a steady demeanor that only occasionally reveals vulnerability (particularly for his dog, Cheddar). He’s also the perfect foil for Andy Samberg’s Det. Jake Peralta, a goof who has matured through the seasons, just as Holt has learned to sporadically cut loose.
For viewers used to seeing Braugher on weighty dramas, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” may have been an unexpected career choice. But the actor is known for bringing a command to whatever role he plays — and a thoughtfulness that will come in handy this season as the show tackles new topical ground.
“Holt is a really, really wonderful character, but I think in anybody else’s hands, it might have been something foolish, something silly,” says Braugher, who liked that the character happened to be gay — but it wasn’t a defining, stereotypical distinction.
Seven seasons later, he has mastered the ability to elicit laughs, and it has paid off with four Emmy nominations in the comedy supporting actor category, including this year. In December, Braugher took another step into the sitcom realm when he appeared in the Emmy-nominated Norman Lear special “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” playing “Good Times” patriarch James Evans.
“He would have you believe he had [no comedic skills] before the show started, but we all know that’s not true,” says Samberg. “That said, he has gotten even better as the seasons have gone on … and very often when he’s concerned that a joke is sacrificing the greater good, his instincts are correct.”
Part of what makes Andre Braugher so effective in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” of course, is that it’s so unexpected. After years of mostly appearing in heavy-duty dramas (with a few exceptions), Braugher says the comedy is akin to “a second act. I feel as though new life has been breathed into my career.”
His roles over the years have been dominated by characters of authority: He’s been a chief of medicine (“Gideon’s Crossing”), a Navy captain (“Last Resort”), a judge (“The Jury”), a doctor again (“House”), another ship captain (“Poseidon”), the secretary of defense (“Salt”), a defense attorney (“Law & Order: SVU”) and even the governor of California (OK, it’s the voice of a woodchuck on “BoJack Horseman”).
But Braugher is perhaps best known for a string of roles that have come with a badge. Before “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” he had a six-season turn as Det. Frank Pembleton on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
Cop roles are prevalent for actors, given how often law enforcement is the story engine in film and television. But now, in the wake of a nationwide conversation about systemic racism and police brutality — following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others — the creative community is starting to reflect on its role in perpetuating the “heroic cop” narrative without any nuance. Braugher, among the preeminent Black actors known for these kinds of roles, admits he’s taking a look at his past projects with a new lens.
“I look up after all these decades of playing these characters, and I say to myself, it’s been so pervasive that I’ve been inside this storytelling, and I, too, have fallen prey to the mythology that’s been built up,” he says. “It’s almost like the air you breathe or the water that you swim in. It’s hard to see. But because there are so many cop shows on television, that’s where the public gets its information about the state of policing. Cops breaking the law to quote, ‘defend the law,’ is a real terrible slippery slope. It has given license to the breaking of law everywhere, justified it and excused it. That’s something that we’re going to have to collectively address — all cop shows.”
In particular, Braugher says TV shows and films need to acknowledge the silence that has often surrounded police misconduct, as well as the lack of civilian control over police departments. And beyond that, “the myth that the outcomes of the criminal justice system are not dependent upon your race has to be confronted.”
Braugher is skeptical that police dramas that rely heavily on the hero-worship mythology of cops will be able or willing to take on such subjects, and wonders if instead “this revelation about police departments and their interaction with Black people in general will be a ‘B-story’ in Episode 16.”
Meanwhile, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” may be a comedy, but it’s also a show that doesn’t shy away from subjects such as harassment, identity and representation. The Season 4 episode “Moo Moo” tackled police racial profiling, when Terry (Terry Crews) is nearly arrested after another cop stops him because he’s Black. “It took them many seasons before they felt like they had the right approach that was both respectful of the issue but also consistent with the tone of ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine,’” says Universal Studio Group chairman Pearlena Igbokwe. “I’m sure they will give this current issue the same thought and consideration.”
Goor confirms that the “Nine-Nine” writers are crafting a storyline about police brutality for the coming season and that, as always, they’ll be thorough: “We want to make sure we get it right,” he says.
Braugher says it’s imperative that the show addresses the subject. “‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ has to commit itself, as a comedy, to telling the story of how these things happen, and what’s possible to deal with them. I don’t have any easy answers, nor do I have a window into the mind bank of this writing staff,” he says. “Can you tell the same story? Can anyone in America maintain any kind of innocence about what police departments are capable of?”
Braugher is curious how his character — who advised Terry not to file a police report in “Moo Moo” — might handle a new situation. “It might mean that Holt is a staunch defender of the NYPD, or that he tries to burn the whole thing down. I know that he is a pragmatic man; I do know that he’s a loving, [if] robotic person. I’m anxious to see what that’s all about, and I have no idea what Season 8 of ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ is going to be, because everything’s changed.
“Can a comedy sustain the things that we’re trying to talk about? I don’t know. It could be a really groundbreaking season that we’re all going to be very, very proud of, or we’re going to fall flat on our face. … But I think this is a staff, a cast and a crew that’s willing to take it on and give it our best. I think we have a damn good chance to tell the kinds of stories that heretofore have only been seen on grittier shows.”
For now, Braugher is back at home in New Jersey with his family, awaiting word on when “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” might safely return to production on the Universal Studios lot. The COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted a year in which the actor was about to check off another item on his bucket list: Broadway.
In February, Braugher was rehearsing with Debra Messing for the new Noah Haidle play “Birthday Candles,” which would have marked his first time on a Broadway stage. But as concerns over the spread of the coronavirus grew, he consulted with his wife, actor Ami Brabson, and they decided he shouldn’t continue.
“It was clear by that time that guys like me have bull’s-eyes on our back,” he says. “I’m 58, I’m overweight, I have high blood pressure, so it was just time to bow out. Which is unfortunate, but the wisdom of that became pretty apparent a couple of weeks later, when all of New York officially shut down.” (“Birthday Candles,” which had been scheduled to run this past spring, has been pushed to next year.)
By now, you’ve probably noticed a common thread for Braugher: Family, including the counsel of his wife, is paramount. “We’re like-minded; we grew up in similar neighborhoods; we share the same values,” he says of Brabson. “She knows me like the back of her hand, and I’m grateful for that.”
Together, Braugher and Brabson raised three sons, now grown (two of them are aiming to enter acting as well), from their New Jersey base. Even though “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” shoots in Los Angeles, Braugher flew home every weekend to see them.
“I made a choice along the way that Ami and those boys were too important to not spend quantity time with,” he says. “Both the health crisis and the democracy crisis that we’re going through demonstrate to me that there’s no substance in the bling. The focus on celebrity-ness — it’s not real. So I just chose, in my own way, to sort of drop out.”
Hailed pretty much immediately as a gifted actor, Braugher never broke out as the lead in a big, commercially successful project. But he says he’s fine knowing that his decision to stick close to home and family may have limited some opportunities along the way. “It’s been an interesting career, but I think it could have been larger,” he says. “I think it could have spanned more disciplines: directing, producing, all these other different things. But it would have been at the expense of my own life.”
That’s why Braugher takes pride in the fact that he’s instead been home and available to his wife and family during times of crisis. “I haven’t been in Australia. I haven’t been in Prague. I haven’t been shooting in San Paolo or whatever,” he says. “I’ve got three boys, and I want them to know me as someone other than the guy who takes them to the circus every once in a while. I wanted to be there through the course of their life because I know how important fathers are.”
Braugher, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, was close to his dad, a sensible man who didn’t quite understand why his son would give up engineering to pursue an acting career. “He just said, ‘What is it that actors do? Do they travel around the country? Do they juggle? What is it? Like, how do people make a living?’” Braugher recalls. This was the late 1970s, and when pressed to name a young Black actor who had pulled off a successful career, Braugher was stumped. “My father was just simply scared for me. He was watching me, in his eyes, throw away a perfectly good career to experiment with the arts.”
But compared with the solitary life of an engineering major (“It was just me and my calculator”), Braugher was taken by how much fun it was to be an actor, after a buddy asked him to try out for a part. “It invited you to delve into, to explore, the whole host of forbidden emotions,” he says. “And get compensated for it. People stood up and clapped. I began to realize that my fun, my enjoyment, my love life and my emotional freedom were founded in the theater.”
Despite his father’s trepidation, Braugher changed his major at Stanford University, and after graduating went on to The Juilliard School for more training. “When I think back to the early part of my career, it’s some of the most exciting stuff that I’ve been a part of, because I felt liberated and I felt really free,” he says. “When I graduated from school, I felt like I had the tiger by the tail; I could do almost anything.”
Early on, Braugher did a lot of work in The Public Theater, starting with “Coriolanus,” opposite Christopher Walken, Irene Worth and Keith David. He was cast in 1989’s “Glory,” about the first Black regiment in the Civil War, and around the same time started playing Telly Savalas’ sidekick in a series of “Kojak” TV movie revivals. In 1993 came “Homicide,” which wasn’t originally an Andre Braugher vehicle — but soon became one.
“We had a lot of great, incredibly talented actors on that show, but we could see that he would be the quarterback of the team,” says “Homicide” executive producer Tom Fontana. “He has great nobility about him.”
“Homicide” was never a hit, but the critics loved it, and it kept winning awards like the Peabody and Braugher’s 1998 Emmy for lead drama actor, which convinced NBC to keep it on the air.
“‘Homicide’ really launched my career forward,” Braugher says. “In those well-written episodes that Tom and Jim Yoshimura laid out for us, I had the opportunity to create a really interesting, compelling character who was not necessarily friendly, but he was very, very good at what he was doing.” Along the way, Fontana also cast Brabson to play Pembleton’s wife.
“She’s remarkably easy to work with,” Braugher quips.
He left “Homicide” after six seasons to pursue a movie career, with roles like the archangel Cassiel in “City of Angels” — but a breakthrough gig never materialized the way it did in TV.
“I’ve always been frustrated with the roles that are available,” Braugher says. “I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to book these jobs, but it’s not as though I had a lot of auditions. It’s not as though there’s been a platter laid out for me to feast at in terms of roles.”
Comedian Ray Romano helped broaden Braugher’s horizons. While the actor had resumed playing his string of authoritative characters in shows like “Gideon’s Crossing” and “Thief” (which earned him another Emmy), Romano and Mike Royce approached him with something completely different: the TNT dramedy “Men of a Certain Age.”
After Wendell Pierce dropped out of the project to star in “Treme,” Romano and Royce were looking for a replacement to play Owen Thoreau Jr., a middle-aged man working at his overbearing dad’s automobile dealership. The show, about three guys in the midst of similar midlife crises (played by Romano, Braugher and Scott Bakula), was an hourlong with dramatic beats. But Romano and Royce were comedy writers, and “Men” contained many more laughs than Braugher was used to.
“We Googled ‘Andre Braugher comedy,’ and Google said, ‘You win — we have nothing,’” Romano jokes. “We really couldn’t find anything [in his credits]. We just thought, you know what, this comedy is going to come from a real place. The best actor in the room is who we want. It was a little bit of a gamble, but then he blew it out of the park.”
Braugher embraced the show for what he didn’t have to portray: another power player. “Those roles aren’t nearly as fun as playing the guy in the midst of this crazy family just trying to find his way,” he says. “Mike and Ray really told that story, step by step, in a very interesting, humane way, in which the character developed these strengths through many trials — as opposed to it simply arising out of him.”
He also remembers watching Romano craft the jokes and the characters in “Men of a Certain Age.” “I just marveled sometimes at the intimate knowledge he had of these characters and what their world perspectives were in order to be able to tell these stories,” Braugher says. “Both as a writer and as a performer, I found him to be just a wellspring of knowledge. He’s aces, period.”
Romano returns the compliment, recalling the moment in the pilot when Braugher’s character cries — which wasn’t in the script. “It seemed like a little too much, but then we watched it, and we were like, ‘Oh, we’re leaving this in!’ That’s an example of him bringing this side that was so vulnerable and so open and bare.”
Though it ran only two seasons, “Men of a Certain Age” was a turning point for both actors, as Romano gravitated to more serious roles and Braugher inched toward lighter ones. “It’s a thin line between drama and comedy,” Romano notes. “But I’m not doing Shakespeare in the Park; he doesn’t have to worry about that.”
Romano still laments the show’s cancellation, while for his co-star it was just the latest in a list of critically acclaimed but low-rated projects. Yet the experience ultimately opened another door for Braugher: Goor and Mike Schur, having seen the actor showcase his funny bone on “Men,” knew he had the goods to join the “Nine-Nine” ensemble.
“He adds so much and takes so little — it’s really inspiring,” Samberg says. “And I think his approach and who he is as a person in real life is what makes him the perfect person to play Holt. He is earnest in that same way Holt is. And a perfectionist in that same way. He expects the best of people morally and performance-wise, without ever being condescending.”
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”struck a chord with viewers, who embraced the show’s storytelling, diverse cast and inclusive message — as well as its offbeat humor. “I’ve been surprised by the youth of the audience, and how sharp and how emotionally engaged they are to the storytelling,” Braugher says. “It makes me proud of the work that we’ve done collectively to tell these stories and to elicit these feelings.”
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” has survived a cancellation by Fox, and now is a cornerstone of NBC’s lineup. Braugher is eager to use the momentum to tackle another item on his to-do list: indie film. “I want to work with interesting storytellers and filmmakers, and find some compelling characters,” he says of getting back into the movie game.
Coincidentally, Romano says he’s eager to find something for Braugher as well: “I was about to direct and produce and star in a movie that I wrote when COVID crashed everything,” Romano says. “If that ever gets going again, Andre’s been on my mind. I’ve got to find a role for him in this somehow.”
More immediate for Braugher is Emmy Sunday.
The actor is content to watch this year’s virtual ceremony from his New Jersey home and, if he should win, pay tributeto the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” team that got him there — from those first-season jitters to right now. “It’s not so much a personal affirmation as really an affirmation that I’m working with some wonderful people,” he says, “and we’ve managed to pull off something really, really great.”