For many African American actors, the goal has long been to get roles in which skin color has no bearing on casting, as well as to get parts that illustrate the diversity, richness and heritage of their race. But that has rarely been the case. Three actors--whose powerful performances in dramatic series are changing the landscape of TV--talk about what those roles mean to them as they return to three of the most popular and acclaimed ensemble shows on TV.
When Andre Braugher was approached three years ago to audition for the role of the moral, mercurial and brilliant Frank Pembleton on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” he was thrilled when he couldn’t discern the Baltimore police detective’s race from the script.
“I said, ‘This must be a real person,’ because when writers in television today write for African American characters they are really two-dimensional,” Braugher says. “They are rarely more than foils, shadows of people. They are cartoons . I picked up this script and said, ‘I could take a chance on this. I am going ahead with this because I can make anything out of a person, but I can’t make anything of a cipher, really.’ ”
On this hot, smoggy Friday morning, Braugher is sitting in a huge conference room at NBC Studios in Burbank. Articulate and funny, Braugher is a pussycat compared to Pembleton. The biggest shock is that Braugher has a full head of hair, having let it grow out for his role as a private investigator in the Paramount feature “Primal Fear,” due out this fall. Taking off the jacket of his stylish blue suit, he politely but firmly tells the startled NBC publicist that there’s no need for him to sit in on the conversation.
Braugher, who, shockingly, was not nominated this year for an Emmy for his critically praised work as Pembleton, says that his main aim as an African American actor is just to be able to play a human being.
“If [Pembleton] had been some jive-talking or hyper-righteous sort of character, I think I would have turned it down because there is no fun in it,” says Braugher. “There’s a whole life that goes on for Pembleton which is not written there [in the script]. There’s a whole moral issue of him that is working for Pembleton and no one is writing it. I don’t need to write it, but it’s extremely important to me.”
Pembleton’s mission in life, Braugher says, is one of avenger. “Life is extremely precious to him,” Braugher explains. “If there’s a murder down on Earth, I’m in essence a messenger of God to ferret out evil and bring it to justice if I possibly can. Of course, we don’t know very many people like this who envision themselves as instruments of God on Earth, but that’s where he’s coming from. I get my man sooner or later.”
Braugher is pleased that Pembleton is a completely different man at home with his wife Mary (played by Braugher’s real-life wife Ami Brabson). In fact, in the final episode last season, Pembleton and Mary were trying to conceive.
“That’s extremely important to me because I know people who go to work and put on their game faces,” Braugher says. When Pembleton goes home he doesn’t tell his wife, “ ‘I am having a moral crisis, sweetie.’ I go home and I wash the dishes. If we had children [Braugher and Brabson have a young son], I would be changing some diapers and taking out the garbage.”
It was imperative to Braugher that “I don’t go home and be the mercurial and brilliantly, deeply frustrated husband. When I go home, as an African American character, I want to do what’s true to all people. I don’t want it to be about sex. I don’t want it to be about Pembleton’s demons. I want to see a husband and wife communicate together.”
That wasn’t the case in 1989, when Braugher played Det. Winston Blake on the short-lived revival of “Kojak.”
“The producers wanted to bring a little sexiness to the show,” Braugher recalls, laughing. “They had a scene where I was supposed to be in bed making love with a woman. The phone rings and it’s Kojak.”
An irate Braugher went to the producers to discuss the scene. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be that person because, No. 1, I don’t have a relationship with this woman on camera and, No. 2, I wouldn’t pick up the phone [while making love], I don’t care for any reason in the world. It just seems like I am hopping in and out of bed. I am not interested in [showing that]. I know I live a pretty normal life and what I do most other people do within a range of things. So this idea that I’m hopping in and out of bed with 1,000 women is ridiculous.”
A graduate of Stanford University and Juilliard, Braugher received rave reviews for his performance as a rebellious slave in the hit 1989 film “Glory.” In 1991, the New York-based actor was told to come to Los Angeles because he was “hot.” Braugher waited and waited for the phone to ring. It didn’t. So by year’s end, he moved back to New York and soon got “Homicide” and the chance to work alongside Yaphet Kotto, Clark Johnson, Ned Beatty and Richard Belzer.
Braugher learned a lot from his L.A. experience. “This business is not going to keep me warm,” Braugher says. “This business is not a priority. My priority is being a husband, a father, a son, a brother and a citizen. The lesson I learned back in 1991 was that I am not an actor. I am a man who acts. So consequently, everything that I need, everything important to me is about being a man.”
As a result, Braugher is very careful about the acting projects he picks. “You have to choose very carefully projects that interest you and make you happy,” Braugher says. “Things you can look back on with pride. I want to look back on things with pride. I especially want to make sure I make films which I will not be ashamed of if my mother or father are watching. I want to make the kinds of films I can show my son in 10 years and he won’t be ashamed of me. You know what I mean?”
“Homicide: Life on the Street” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC.