Good lord, did Andre Braugher have a voice.
That voice was rich and resonant. It was a luxury sports car, capable of lulling you with its leathery comfort, then executing thrilling white-knuckle twists. He could convey the turning of a character’s thoughts with every syllable. When he spoke, you could hear the vibration of his brain waves. You could feel it in your bones.
Actors like Braugher, who died on Monday, are often said to have “gravitas.” This is meant with respect and appreciation for the stature a certain performer can convey. But it feels inadequate for him, almost an insult. Gravitas can suggest a kind of superior, stony Olympian intonation, the way a marble statue might speak if it came to life.
But Braugher’s presence and authority were always human — flesh and blood and sweat.
He showed us this in his first great TV role, as Detective Frank Pembleton in the NBC drama “Homicide: Life on the Street.” A cerebral, exacting, quietly dedicated and questioning Catholic, Pembleton is a far cry from the brash, mouthy cops of many crime shows.
Of course Braugher, with a list of Shakespearean roles to his credit, could pull off a memorable interrogation scene. But many of the finest moments of the show played out between Pembleton and his partner and foil, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), after solving a case, or before or during or instead.
In one episode, the normally frosty Pembleton invites Bayliss to his home for dinner and reveals that his wife has left him. He’s left rudderless and full of doubt. Where he once saw himself as an infallible detective — “In. Fallible,” Braugher renders the term — he now questions his very identity. “Who exactly is this Frank Pembleton?” he asks. It is the great unsolved case of his career.
It was natural that Braugher, with his ability to command the screen, would often be cast as authority figures, from a hospital’s head of experimental medicine in the too-brief-lived ABC drama “Gideon’s Crossing” to a former executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, in the movie “She Said.” But he showed his breadth and capability in roles that subverted and stretched the idea of authority.
Maybe my favorite performance of his came in the two-season TNT dramedy “Men of a Certain Age,” in which he played Owen Thoreau Jr., a soft-spoken car salesman and family man at midlife, trying to find his confidence in the shadow of a domineering father. In the one-season antihero drama “Thief,” he played a professional criminal in post-Katrina New Orleans.
In its final season, “The Good Fight” ingeniously cast him as Ri’Chard Lane, a flamboyant, wily operator who shakes up the historically Black firm at the heart of the political-legal drama. Here, Braugher showed that he could carry off a morally complicated leader, as well as some fantastic pairs of glasses.
His casting as Raymond Holt, the stern police captain in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” was a masterstroke, pitting someone of Braugher’s dramatic standing in a sitcom opposite cut-ups like Andy Samberg, who played the reckless Detective Jake Peralta.
Braugher was no mere straight man in the series. He had comedic flair, whether delivering withering remarks to his professional nemesis, Kyra Sedgwick’s Madeline Wuntch (“If you’re here, who’s guarding Hades?”), or enunciating his code name — “Vel-vet Thunderrrr!” — for a police operation.
Holt’s stoicism, however, was no joke. It was the necessary armor of a Black gay police officer who rose to a post of command in the face of institutional and individual bigotry. The moments when he allowed himself to relax — connecting with his husband, Kevin (Marc Evan Jackson), or doting on his beloved dog, Cheddar — underscored the effort and the meaning behind maintaining his rigidity.
It is often said that the best comic performers understand that their characters believe they are living in a drama. Braugher’s Holt did that and more: The performance showed that drama and comedy are not opposites, just different tools to get at the same human truths.
Andre Braugher saw this humanity in his characters, and he helped us see it by lending them that magnificent voice. It was a pleasure to listen.