Now he’s a bad guy, but he’s still good

Times Staff Writer

Life after so much death -- the untimely kind -- has been a mixed blessing for Andre Braugher.

The veteran actor earned a permanent place on the honor roll of iconic TV detectives with his portrayal of the intense, no-nonsense Frank Pembleton on the groundbreaking series “Homicide: Life on the Street.” That role on the gritty drama, which ran from 1993 to 1999, earned him rave reviews and an Emmy Award for lead actor in a drama.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 1, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Andre Braugher: An article in Tuesday’s Calendar section about actor Andre Braugher referred to a Showtime movie in which he appeared as “A Soldier’s Girl.” The title is “Soldier’s Girl.”

He left the show to pursue other roles, earning praise for his work in “Frequency” and the Showtime movies “A Soldier’s Girl” and “10,000 Black Men Named George.” But those parts did not match the effect he had with Pembleton. Two TV series featuring Braugher -- “Gideon’s Crossing,” in which he played a doctor, and “Hack,” in which he played a supporting role -- failed to connect with viewers.


But critics and industry insiders are seeing a lot of promise in Braugher’s latest project. Ironically, the role could be called the “anti-Pembleton.” His new character is on the wrong side of the law.

Braugher is at the center of “Thief,” FX’s new drama, premiering tonight at 10, in which he plays a professional thief who is suddenly thrust into a critical crossroads in his line of work and his family life. The series premieres in the time slot vacated temporarily by “The Shield,” another FX show in which the lines between good and evil are perpetually blurred. “Thief,” which films in Shreveport, La., mixes the currently popular genre of the colorful criminal with escalating family tensions.

On a brief promotional tour last week in Los Angeles, Braugher took delight in discussing his “Thief” character, Nick Atwater, calling him one of the most challenging yet enjoyable of his career. He said there are two differing aspects of Atwater -- he’s an accomplished liar who can flash a variety of personalities at any given moment, yet he is also a man of honor.

“This is by far the most intense work I’ve done on a regular basis,” said Braugher, sitting in the lobby of a Century City hotel just hours before FX held a gala premiere of “Thief” at the Pacific Design Center. “It’s demanded more of my resources than anything has before. It’s not so much a crime drama as a character study of a man becoming authentic to himself.”

And though Nick Atwater and Frank Pembleton are on opposite sides of the law, Braugher said the two are linked by their dedication to their craft: “Nick is the flip side of Frank, but they are part of the same coin.”

The two are also bonded by their opposite situations. Pembleton established himself early in the run of “Homicide” as a cocky lone wolf who shunned his colleagues while using his considerable gifts as a tricky manipulative interrogator to break down murder suspects. Atwater, on the other hand, is surrounded by people -- he has a crew of specialists assisting him with heists and a family that includes a loving wife (Dina Meyer) and a stepdaughter (Mae Whitman) who resents him.


Before the pilot has concluded, Atwater’s world has turned upside down, his relationships with his crew and his stepdaughter are crumbling, and he winds up alone, washing off his pool deck with a garden hose, a symbolic counterpoint to the growing messiness of his world.

Braugher approached the role seriously, reading technical books on safecracking and lock picking as well as talking to technical advisors.

Braugher, a family man who lives with his wife and three kids in New Jersey, said he only takes on projects that he feels have merit or topical significance. He prefers to stay far from the glitz and superficiality of the Hollywood scene.

He added that despite his character’s moral shortcoming, he liked Atwater’s richness, noting that the role required him to communicate a range of emotions without dialogue: “I liked the spareness of expression.”

Norman Morrill, who created “Thief” and serves as an executive producer, said the series follows an immoral man making his living illegally who is forced to make moral decisions. He also wanted to explore the delusion of men who, because nobody is getting hurt, believe they are playing by the rules. Morrill based the series on a group of thieves that worked out of Montreal during the 1970s.

And although he was not visualizing Braugher when writing the pilot, Morrill said the actor is the perfect fit for the lead role.


“When I heard he had read the script and was interested, I thought, ‘Where do I sign?’ ” Morrill said. “TV has missed Andre. He has that ‘it’ factor that is so compellingly honest. He has the ability to show all these emotional colors, and anything I throw at him he can handle.”

Braugher’s focus has brought him fans among producers and actors who have worked with him. Malik Yoba, one of his “Thief” costars, said, “He may come off as a serious person, very intense, but he really is a fun-loving guy.”

Paul Attanasio, who created “Homicide,” added: “Andre is the best actor I’ve ever worked with in terms of breaking down a text. He’s highly intelligent. He has these reservoirs of deep emotions and can make some real jumps. He’s really more of a film actor. People look for coziness with their TV stars. There’s nothing cozy about Andre. And yet it works.”

Braugher said he could take on more projects if he wished. “But I have to be real jazzed about something. I really have to connect with it on a personal level; it has to mean something.”

He chuckled: “Sometimes I’m at war with my accountant about this.”

At times, Morrill said, it takes a little more effort to work with an actor so dedicated to his craft. “Andre does not suffer fools. If I come up with something that he doesn’t understand or that he thinks doesn’t hold true, I will hear about it. But that’s fine because everyone has their process. He is never less than respectful, is on time, brings his A game and is generous. I have yet to find a fault with the guy.”

Even though Braugher has been showered with accolades through the years, there have been bumps in his career. Some critics were lukewarm about his last starring TV vehicle in 2000, ABC’s short-lived “Gideon’s Crossing,” which featured Braugher as an unorthodox doctor whose exploration of the world of cutting-edge medicine connects him to the humanity of his patients, the younger doctors he’s teaching and himself. He received an Emmy nomination for the role, but some critics found his character to be too saintly.


Attanasio, who developed “Gideon’s Crossing,” said of the series: “After Frank Pembleton, we gave Andre a character that was a pillar of humanity. But we were accused of being too preachy. We were trying to do something meaningful, and it was probably a mistake.”

As for Braugher, he still has strong feelings about that drama and believes the network did not support it enough. “We were trying something novel. We really went out on a limb, and we got lost.”

He feels more secure about “Thief,” which will have a six-episode run. He doesn’t have other projects on the horizon, but that’s all right with him. There’s a lot of work to be done around the house, he said.

“It’s important for me to be there for my sons,” he said, adding with a big laugh, “I have to work on that algebra!”