From award-winning Shakespearean roles to changing the face of TV in gritty dramas, the actor was astonishing. And his turn as Raymond Holt was laser-focused comedic excellence

By Stuart Heritage

Andre Braugher, who has died age 61, was a man blessed with incredible gravitas. Born in Chicago’s West Side to a blue collar family, his early talent was promising enough to earn him a scholarship to study theatre at Stanford, after which he trained at Juilliard.

Although he performed Shakespeare on stage, winning an Obie award for his Henry V in the mid-90s, Braugher quickly found his niche onscreen, using the weight of his charisma to play figures of authority. His first role was on TV, as a detective in five separate Kojak television movies, setting a pattern that would last the rest of his career.

Braugher specialised in playing people whose character names came with a rank: Detective Winston Blake on Kojak; Corporal Thomas Searles in Glory; General George W Mancheck; Captain Marcus Chaplin; Sergeant Carlos Diaz. He played doctors and district attorneys; in the 2010 Angelina Jolie movie Salt, he had the role of secretary of defence.

It’s a beat that served him well. Homicide: Life on the Street was one of the rare shows that changed television as we know it; a nakedly gritty, exceptionally ambitious police drama that helped to forge a blueprint for the golden age of TV to follow. And, as Detective Frank Pembleton – the show’s fiery centre of gravity – Braugher was front and centre throughout. The show offered the actor some impressively meaty plots during its run. He was involved in coverups, he had a stroke, he lost his faith in God. For his portrayal, Braugher was showered in silver. He won an Emmy, a Satellite award, two NAACP awards and a pair of Television Critics Association awards.

It was a career-defining role, the kind that can stymy the rest of a performer’s career. The fact that Frank Pembleton probably isn’t the first character you think of when you think of Andre Braugher, then, is down to a wonderful combination of factors.

As Captain Raymond Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Braugher got the rare opportunity to play against type while remaining exactly in his sweet spot. An ensemble police comedy by Dan Goor and Michael Schur, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s tone was unrepentantly silly. Conceived as a post-SNL vehicle for Andy Samberg, whose stock in trade was knowing stupidity, it was the sort of sitcom where a police line-up could blossom into a chorus of Backstreet Boys harmonies. But without a believable authority figure, it could threaten to drift off into weightless absurdity.

Braugher was that authority figure. In the early episodes, he was deployed infrequently, primarily as a glowering wall of resistance to Samberg’s endless man-child pranks. But the joy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine was seeing the writers’ slow realisation of exactly what they had on their hands. In Braugher, they had a performer who could deliver any line – no matter how ridiculous – like he was in the world’s heaviest prestige drama. All the gravitas he had built up over the course of his career was now laser-focused on deadpanning gags. And it was wonderful.

It’s hard to think of any other sitcom in history that has had a character like Holt. Perhaps, in his fussy sophistication, he strayed close to Frasier; or in his lack of emotional response, Ron Swanson. But Frasier was a show about the first world problems of a wealthy neurotic, and Parks and Recreation was too eager to show Swanson’s caring side. Holt, meanwhile, felt as if he had been airdropped into this wildness from a completely different show. The fact that the character was a black, gay authority figure also helped Holt to stand out.

Over time, the show relaxed enough to let Braugher show off his comedy chops. By season two, out of nowhere, Holt was screaming “Hot damn!” with such intensity that you’ll still see it online in Gif form a couple of times a week.

If you watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine carefully enough, you’ll notice the moment where it could no longer resist the irresistible and basically became the Raymond Holt show. More and more, it centred on Braugher’s astonishing performance, and we got to see Holt’s home life and career struggles. For a show so full of comedy heavy-hitters, this was a remarkable achievement.

There’s no denying that Andre Braugher died too young: 61 is no age at all. But for decades to come, he will be the screen police officer that other actors measure themselves against, both in comedy and drama. What a legacy. –

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