After two helpings of Bertha's mussels with garlic butter, Andre Braugher wants a smoke. He steps outside the landmark Fells Point restaurant and commands a park bench, where he frees a Marlboro from the pack.
A panhandler appears with a fresh black eye and a stale story. Mr. Braugher measures the man. Obviously, the guy is drunk and was just kicked out of a bar , says Mr. Braugher, who keeps his money in his pocket. "I wish I could give away skills."
Andre Braugher's skill is acting. He plays "Homicide's" Detective Frank Pembleton -- the bald one in the big cast. "I'm thinking of legally changing my name to that bald-headed black guy," Mr. Braugher says. You know him when you see him. Try to take your eyes off him. As Frank Pembleton, Mr. Braugher gets in your face with his coiled temper, killer smile and existential rap. And Columbo's raincoat has nothing on Frank's.
The media has described Mr. Braugher as prime-time's "best actor" or "best unheralded actor" or "most interesting African-American character." But labels run the risk of limiting and pigeonholing an artist. What does "the best" mean, anyway? It's meaningless, Mr. Braugher says. It's the work, the work!
Another panhandler appears in this waterfront square. The woman tells her story of sickness and desperation. This also could be an act. "A case-by-case basis," Mr. Braugher says, giving the woman a buck. She was believably needy.
Everybody is an actor, but some are better than others.
Dinner with Andre involves many mussels, a little knuckle-cracking on his part, and some wordplay for our dining pleasure.
L "I am not an actor. I am a man who acts," Mr. Braugher says.
That sounds like Frank Pembleton: talking in Shakespeare-speak, twisting something on its head, examining and analyzing until a distinction is made and a truth exacted. "I am not an actor. I am a man who acts." That is Andre Braugher, and he means his priority is his family.
A newspaper article on "Homicide," which begins its fourth season Oct. 20 (10 p.m., WBAL, Channel 11), displayed a photo of the cast, featuring Frank Pembleton carrying a gun. At his rented house in Homeland, Mr. Braugher showed the article to his 3-year-old son, Michael. But first he folded the newspaper to cover the gun. There will be no guns in the Braugher house.
Andre is guarded by something else. He inspires respect and affection from people who know him and work with him. People call him their friend, but privately they wonder whether they are his friend. He is charming, magnetic and ultra-professional, but the man can also be distant.
"So, what it is you really want to know? You're beating around the bush about something," says Mr. Braugher, playfully interrogating.
Mr. Braugher says reporters try to get inside his head and discover what it is that makes him express himself so passionately and intensely on the stage and screen. Mr. Braugher's acting has never been called "wacky" or "zany." "Passionate" and "intense" are his shadow descriptions.
"People want to put their hands on it, but I have no idea what it is," he says. "It lives in the imagination. It is what God gave me."
Many actors are passionate, says his wife, actress Amy Brabson. Brau, as she calls him, exudes passion, but he also knows what it is he is feeling and what we are feeling. "Watching him is like holding up a mirror," she says. Ms. Brabson plays Pembleton's wife on the show; their sweet chemistry isn't staged.
They met in New York City, where they were in acting school in the '80s. Met at a bar. Great legs, Mr. Braugher thought. She thought, here is this engaging man introducing himself. Her friends found his presence intimidating. Her friends wondered about this serious man in her life. "This sounds terrible, but I did have a good friend ask me, 'Amy, is he good to you?' "
They've been married four years and tend to two careers, while raising Michael -- who comes first. (This month they decided to adopt another child.) Andre, Amy and Michael frequent the playground or go to the Al Pacino Cafe for that Egyptian pizza. Backed by their steady baby sitter, Amy and Andre duck out each Saturday to eat at a French restaurant or go to the theater.
"You have to be very special to get me to give up a Saturday night," Mr. Braugher says.
Here in Fells Point, the City Pier masquerades as the Baltimore City Police Department. The blue paint is chipping off the lamplights at the front entrance of "Homicide's" main set on Thames Street. A fortune cookie's message is taped to the staff door: "Now is the time to try something different."
Filming for the show's new season began in Baltimore in late July. Cast newcomer Reed Diamond (who plays Mike Kellerman) had found an apartment in Fells Point and was seen on break at the Daily Grind. Melissa Leo (Kay Howard) was spotted biking through Fells Point on her 10-speed. And everyone's favorite "Homicide" habit returned -- street closings during filming.
Under stainless-steel skies, the actors and producers were officially welcomed back by Gov. Parris Glendening and Mayor Kurt Schmoke at a media-laced reception outside Baltimore's Hollywood Diner July 21. "Homicide" cakes featured red droplets of frosting posing as blood in the outlines of murder victims. It was hard to stomach, considering it was one day after a mother and four children were killed while waiting at a bus stop on Woodlawn Drive.
"It is kind of morbid, what we do," said Mr. Braugher -- pondering the show, the cake and the Woodlawn tragedy. "It feels like we're a fictionalized version of 'Hard Copy.' " It feels, well, distasteful.
Other "Homicide" actors met the press. "I was excited to see the skyline and stadium again," said Kyle Secor (Detective Tim Bayliss) driving in from New York City. "I walk to work. I feel like a cop walking the beat," said Clark Johnson of Fells Point, the man playing Detective Meldrick Lewis. "Everybody here is so cooperative and friendly, and people in Baltimore aren't jaded," said Richard Belzer, who plays Detective John Munch.
"I belong to this city," said Andre Braugher.
The "stay-at-home kind of guy" doesn't hit the "Homicide" hang-outs, such as the Thames Street Tavern, that hold parties for the gang. Fans won't find him at Baltimore's Downtown Athletic Club, where cast members Johnson and Secor play hoops. Mr. Braugher doesn't play basketball. He's an NFL fan, and you won't see him at Camden Yards, either.
"Andre's only exercise is coffee and cigarettes," says Mr. Johnson, who does not come to bury his friend but to rib him.
While the hip watch is "Belzer sightings," there have been Braugher sightings at the Daily Grind, across the street from the City Pier. The actor prefers a booth in the back to drink his decaf and smoke Marlboros until he is due back on the set.
It's a private booth for a private man working in the most public of professions.
The evolution of Frank
"Homicide: Life on the Street" debuted after the Super Bowl in January 1993. Critics fell for it, and all nine viewers loved its smart, jump-cutting, scruffy qualities. Produced by Baltimore filmmaker Barry Levinson, "Homicide" is filmed almost entirely in the city. We can catch glimpses of Highlandtown taverns, Pulaski Highway motels, West Baltimore alleys, Memorial Stadium and rowhouse after rowhouse. The show is even filmed in some of our homes, and watch the furniture, please.
But the show became a network orphan. It was shown on Wednesday, then Thursday, then Friday nights. Cast and crew members never knew if the show would survive. But this season is secure; NBC ordered 22 episodes, which promise to feature more on-camera violence -- and more Frank Pembleton.
In the first season, Detective Pembleton had hair (not much) and a kid (pictured on his desk). He got his man at any cost. As the series stumbled on, Mr. Braugher's character lost the hair and kid but gained an identity. Jesuit-trained Frank struggles with his Catholic faith, speaks of existentialism and personal redemption, and works to save the souls of everyone else. Frank Pembleton is a messenger sent from God to ferret out evil, Mr. Braugher says.
Beginning with last season, Mr. Braugher's reputation started to spread like news of a pay raise. His pow, in-your-face, is-this-legal? interrogation scenes in "the box" made memorable television.
"Andre is a great actor, and we all know that, and he knows that without tooting a horn about it," says Mr. Johnson. "I call him a cheap Sidney Poitier."
Tom Fontana is one of the show's executive producers and writers. As producer of another highly acclaimed drama, "St. Elsewhere," Mr. Fontana felt blessed to work with the likes of Denzel Washington, Alfre Woodard and now Andre Braugher.
"They make my work sing," he says. "I admire Andre for his fearlessness and his complete indifference in terms of the audience feeling sympathetic toward his character. He has the courage to play the scene exactly the way he should." Damn any negative fan mail.
This season could be Mr. Braugher's break-out year in prime-time television. Who knows, but the strength of the show is and should remain the ensemble cast, he says.
"I don't think Frank's character can carry it," Mr. Braugher says. "And I'm not fond of this wishy-washy moralizing. I started out playing a cynical cop -- with a sense of humor and all these different things. Now I'm sort of the conscience of the show. . . . I got to care about everybody.
"There's a whole bunch of cases where I just can see my character saying, 'I don't care. If you want to moralize about it, you can. I'm moving on to the next dead body.' "
Engineering to acting
When moralizing, Joe Mannix used a combination of right uppercuts with body punches. The 1960s TV detective seemed to care only about his TV secretary, Peggy Fair. Peggy was smart, pretty, black and under-used on the show. A shy, bookish and overweight kid named Andre Braugher watched her on Saturday nights at 10 at his home in Chicago.
Andre would become the only actor in his family. His father was a heavy equipment operator for the state of Illinois, and his mother was a postal worker. Andre was the baby in the family of four kids. He found a boy his own age on television. Corey Baker was on every Tuesday night on NBC. Corey was Julia's boy, and "Julia" was the first comedy series to star a black female, Diahann Carroll.
In 1970, Mr. Braugher saw James Earl Jones -- bald, black and with the voice of Vader -- star in "The Great White Hope." My god. Mr. Jones became heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. What a role, what a role model. Yet, Mr. Braugher had no immediate plans to step on stage and express himself. It's a safer and tidier world inside books and inside libraries. At Stanford University (after attending Catholic prep school), Mr. Braugher was playing the role of a mechanical engineering major.
"I was spending too many hours in the library," he says. "I didn't know how to dance, and I had never dated."
A college friend urged him to audition as Claudius in "Hamlet." With no acting experience, the mechanical engineer got the part. And after each performance, people applauded. "Wow, this ain't bad," he thought. Actors speak of their motivations, and Mr. Braugher's original motivation was to get a date. Then he caught the acting bug and realized what it could do for him.
"I could get out and get in the middle of life," he says. "I don't want to spend all my time on the sidelines, watching people play this game called life."
The Juilliard School in New York City auditions roughly 800 people a year for the drama school, which emphasizes classical training. Only 22 of them gain admission. In 1984, Mr. Braugher came to Juilliard. Passion, meet technique.
"I think he was highly individual in the way he attacked his work. There was a lot of stuff he wanted to get out, especially a lot of anger," says John Stix, Mr. Braugher's first-year acting teacher and a former artistic director at Center Stage. "Andre has a grasp of the world and a maturity that goes well beyond any cultural boundaries.
"His dream was to be outstanding."
At Juilliard, Mr. Braugher learned to dance. At Juilliard, Mr. Braugher starred in "Othello" ("It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul") and in "Hamlet" ("He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again"). He "got" Shakespeare and has never let go. He impressed his teachers with his technique, and challenged them with his opinions.
"Andre does not suffer anything easily; he questioned everything," said Juilliard director Michael Kahn. Mr. Kahn later produced "Othello" at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington and his Iago was Andre Braugher, who remains devoted to the play: "Othello was the model of the broken-hearted guy."
Mr. Braugher quotes the Bard at work. "Constantly. Without fail," Clark Johnson says. "I had to smack him one time with the back of my hand. He thanked me for that."
Mr. Braugher quotes the Bard at home. He was leaving for work the other day and quoting from Shakespeare's "King Richard II." Andre began, "We are amazed . . ." His 3-year-old picked up the line on cue, ". . . and thus long have we stood . . ."
". . .to watch the fearful bending of thy knee," Mr. Braugher finished.
After Juilliard, Mr. Braugher made the transition from theater to film when he played Thomas Searles in the 1989 film "Glory" -- the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black fighting regiment in the East during the Civil War. He earned dazzling reviews and proudly sat by his phone in Los Angeles for three months. "They" were going to call -- it was just a matter of time.
The phone was mute.
"I'm never going to put my life on hold like that again," he says.
He auditioned in 1992 for the role of Detective Frank Pembleton, having fallen for the script mainly because he couldn't tell whether the guy was supposed to be white or black. He was interesting and challenging and intense. Frank was a man. "And I can do a man."
He gets advance tapes of "Homicide" and watches each performance, dissecting his role. "Did they use the earnest take or the cynical one?" Mr. Braugher spots glitches in his acting that are lost on the rest of us.
"He can be a pain, but the truth is, nine times out of 10, the thing bothering him is wanting to make the work better," says Mr. Fontana. "And nine times out of 10, he is right. I always listen when Andre speaks to me."
Mr. Braugher recently finished filming a courtroom thriller with Richard Gere called "Primal Fear." He has appeared in the films "The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson," "Murder in Mississippi" and HBO's "The Tuskegee Airmen." He'd like to play a romantic lead or try comedy. Try anything. He has time, after all. The man is only 33.
When the Emmy nominations were announced earlier this year, the name Andre Braugher was absent. Among many others, "Homicide" producers were baffled and miffed. Mr. Braugher was even a little baffled. The kid from Chicago has always wondered how funny he could be in one of those rushed acceptance speeches.
The Emmy thing bugged Mr. Braugher for about a day. His L.A. experience had made a powerful impression. The phone might ring or not, he might be nominated this season or not -- heck, he could be out of television by next March when they're done filming the new season. He's an actor; he's used to unemployment.
When he's finished with "Homicide," Mr. Braugher will move the family to New York City, where his wife's stage career is and where he would do just fine back with the theater, back with Shakespeare.
"He must have told you about his dream, right?" Ms. Brabson says. "He dreams of going to law school."
Imagine an Andre Braugher closing argument.
Maybe it's magic
After last season, Mr. Braugher called Mr. Fontana. Is there anything I could be doing better, and if so, please let me know, the actor asked. "The God's honest truth is I really couldn't think of anything," Mr. Fontana says.
He doesn't really know what it is either. The it that lives in the imagination. The it that makes Andre Braugher do what he does. Yes, he trains hard and drives himself hard and drives people around him hard. But something about it is easy, too.
"I think there is a pocket of magic inside him," Mr. Fontana says.
/# That's it -- a pocket of magic.