Frank Pembleton, former alpha dog of the "Homicide" squad room, is so shattered by a stroke that he can't handle one of his new duties, placing the office lunch order, because he can't remember how to spell pizza.
"Pizza. P-e-t-e-s-a, petes-ahhhh," he says, becoming more and more confused as he opens the yellow pages and picks up the telephone and then slams it down in frustration and rage.
Of the many remarkable moments Andre Braugher and the writers of "Homicide: Life on the Street" have given us these past six years with the fascinating creation known as Francis Xavier Pembleton, the pizza scene from the first episode of the 1996-1997 season is the one I suspect I will never forget.
If anyone didn't already know that we were in the presence of a rare and special television character, they should have after Pembleton's stroke.
Heroes are not supposed to be laid this shuffle-step-stammer-talk low on American television. In Greek tragedy, sure, after you sleep with mom and anger the gods. Shakespeare, too, if you are fool enough to listen to the jealous trash Iago talks or the murderous whisperings of the Missus MacBeth. But not in prime time television, where you're competing for tenths of ratings points with pretty-boy Don Johnson and Barbara "We're in touch, so you stay in touch" Walters. Pembleton, as a humbled hero struggling with and against a Jesuit God and his own inner demons, took "Homicide" into the realm of myth and art.
Tomorrow night will be the last time we enjoy the privilege of walking the streets of Baltimore and exploring the human condition with Pembleton. Braugher is leaving the series as it marks its 100th episode and ends its sixth season; Pembleton is handing in his badge.
I have been lost these last few days in a kind of Frank Pembleton film festival -- watching old episodes of "Homicide: Life on the Street" late into the night until images of Pembleton have started to grace and haunt my dreams.
There's Pembleton in the 1994 episode titled "Crosetti" -- about the suicide of the short, bald detective, Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) -- standing at attention on the steps of the precinct house in dress blues saluting as the hearse passes on Thames Street.
The department had denied Crosetti a formal ceremony because he was a suicide and police brass thought it would be bad public relations. Pembleton, the loner who had refused to attend the funeral Mass because of his latest existential bout with God, provided his own honor guard in defiance of management. The episode ended on a freeze-frame of Pembleton's salute.
And there's Pembleton in the box with his partner, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), as well as a low-life punk named Ian MacGregor and MacGregor's lawyer, who looks like a bloated toad in a cheap suit and a really bad haircut.
Pembleton is just about to make the kid crack and give up his partner in crime -- an even lower form of life named Elwah Pfieffer, who is responsible for two deaths -- when the detective's body starts to heave and convulse as if being hit with massive jolts of electricity. The camera moves in tighter and tighter, shooting from the ground up as Pembleton lurches from wave of pain to wave of pain, finally collapsing into the arms of a horrified MacGregor and the lawyer.
The image leaves me wondering who exactly Pembleton is or was to have burrowed so deeply into my brain. And, while I know that I will miss him tremendously, in more dispassionate moments, I also wonder if he made any real difference in terms of television and the larger collective memory.
"Frank Pembleton is a brilliant, angry, morally charged law enforcement officer who truly feels that he speaks for the dead," said Emmy-award-winning writer and executive producer Tom Fontana.
"Frank Pembleton is definitely not someone you would want to have dinner with," said Braugher, referring to Pembleton's intensity, his type A-plus personality.
"Frank Pembleton was heroic, yet painful to watch as he dealt with his issues -- a character created with a number of apparent flaws," said David Simon, who helped breathe life into Pembleton as author of the book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" and is now writer-producer for the television series based on it.
Simon said any appreciation of Pembleton has to start with the fact that the detective was a "communal creation" of the writers and Braugher.
"I don't feel as if the voice of that character completely belongs to the writers, because anything we put on that page, Andre tended to bring it to levels that even we hadn't anticipated when we were writing," Simon said. "And one of the things that made the character so fascinating to me is that, although he was a powerhouse of intellectual energy and a very sharp detective, Andre created that character with serious flaws."
Chief among the flaws, according to Simon: "Pembleton had an incredible intellectual vanity that blinded him to certain things about himself and that made him view others in a distinctly patronizing way at times."
That sense of superiority made Pembleton's humbling after the stroke all the more "dramatic and resonant," according to Simon.
Doing wrong so right
"Pembleton was more often right than wrong, but one of the things we loved to do, particularly in later years, was play him at moments when he was wrong," Simon said. "And Andre would play it beautifully. For less conflicted characters, being wrong would not be such a big deal. But for Pembleton, it was epic."
Simon cited the three-episode story arc that opened this season classic Pembleton-in-the-wrong. The episodes starred James Earl Jones as a wealthy Baltimore businessman whose maid turns up dead. Pembleton refuses to follow the trail of mounting evidence that leads to the businessman and his spoiled son. The episode is all about bias and race, with Pembleton resisting the obvious because of his admiration for the businessman as a black success story.
In the end, you can't talk about Pembleton without talking about race. Pembleton is a landmark character in that respect -- the most complex, multi-dimensional African-American character in the history of weekly television drama.
Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP and host of the "The Bottom Line" talk show on WBAL-TV, called Pembleton a "complex, intense, deeply spiritual, groundbreaking character," and compared him to Alexander Scott, the Rhodes scholar played by Bill Cosby in "I Spy." Scott was the first black leading character in a regular dramatic series on American television when he debuted in 1965.
"I think Pembleton really did break some ground in that respect," said Simon, "but it's sort of embarrassing that it breaks ground at the end of the 20th century."
Braugher said race is important to understanding Pembleton, but it's not as important as his humanity.
"When I auditioned for 'Homicide,' I never had a whole script," Braugher said. "I never knew where my character was going or what he was going to be doing or his relationships with anybody else. But I looked at this character and I could not ascertain his race by looking at his lines. And I said to myself: 'This must be a man and not a caricature of a man. And, so, I want to play him.' "
He's most proud of being able to explore human relationships on the show.
"Pembleton and Bayliss love each other," Braugher said. "It is never spoken of, and it's not a sexual love, but these two men have been through so much that they can actually love each other in a brotherly way. And that's rare, going all the way back to Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in 'I Spy.'
"And what I will be proud of for many years to come is that we have in a certain way put our hands across this chasm that exists between people of different races. My job really is to bring the African as human being to the fore. That's what I tried to do with Pembleton."
Simon offered a glimpse of how diligently Braugher went about the business of balancing ethnicity and humanity to create a specific and memorable character.
Don't talk 'street'
"We were always very careful not to write 'street' for Frank Pembleton," Simon said. "If you wanted to write street, you wrote for Meldrick Lewis [Clark Johnson]. When Frank Pembleton talked, it was Jesuit education talking.
"So I wrote a line in some script with Pembleton saying, 'We're going to get a warrant for his mama's house.' He was talking about a young suspect.
"Well, they're shooting the scene, and Andre is staying on the page, and I think it was like his little quiet protest, his way of saying, 'Remember who you're writing for.' Because I was standing on the set, and, when he read the line, he read it as ma-MAH, like a European pronunciation, 'We're going to get a warrant for ma-MAH's house.'
"And I thought, 'Well, OK, I still don't think "mama" is street, but from now on when I write for Pembleton, it's going to be "mother." ' "
David Mills, former "ER" producer and award-winning screenwriter for his work on "NYPD Blue," said Pembleton's legacy is a more enlightened image of African-American characters.
"Most other shows are still stuck in a kind of tokenistic mode when it comes to black characters," he said. "But 'Homicide' and now 'ER' are similarly modern and contemporary in their view of black characters as characters first and not as representatives of race."
Ultimately, Fontana said, it's hard to know how Pembleton will be remembered by the 12 million or so of us who tuned in each Friday to follow his journey.
Beyond the images and words already noted, I'll remember Pembleton kneeling over the lifeless body of little Adena Watson in an alley in 1993 and, later, on his knees on a subway platform trying to hold back despair and death for a man trapped by one of the cars. I'll remember those wonderful, sometimes loopy conversations between Pembleton and Bayliss in the Chevy Cavalier. And, of course, I'll remember Pembleton in the box -- tight, sweaty, grand moments of ballet, opera, slam-dancing and soul-searching, all played out in this mosh pit of confrontation, coercion and confession.
In a mythic sense, I saw Pembleton as a kind of angry archangel battling the forces of darkness that threaten our tenuous hold on civilization. In a personal sense, I think I simply came to care deeply about him because Braugher and the writers made him so compelling with all that determination, energy, intellect, baggage and flaws. I even came to love Pembleton and feel enriched by the relationship.
"My hope is that he will be remembered as a man first, a black man second and cop third, Fontana said. "And that in all those three parts of him, he was a good role model for us."
Pub Date: 5/07/98