I woke up this morning wondering if Frank Pembleton and Ray Holt would like each other.
After all, they’re both heralded urban law enforcement professionals, with a singular intensity and sometimes unapproachable air. They’re both men molded by intellect, identity and an understanding of how those things make them excellent while simultaneously sometimes forming a firm wall between them and the people they work with, lead and love. They even look a lot alike.
In the end, the things that make these iconic fictional men similar are also what set them apart. Det. Pembleton, the stoic, rocky heart of the Baltimore-set “Homicide: Life On The Street,” was not a funny guy — he rarely smiled — while Captain Holt, head of the ridiculous, hilarious crew of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” could crack you up even when he was dead serious. The balance between them is a testament to the otherwordly talent of Andre Braugher, the soulfully complex actor who breathed life into them both.
As honored as I am to have a platform to talk about Braugher, one of my favorite actors, I really wish I didn’t have to be doing it for this occasion; the death of the 61-year-old genius was announced Tuesday. With the deaths this year of his “Homicide” castmate Richard Belzer and “The Wire’s” Lance Reddick, the loss of Baltimore-related talent is devastating and I’m absolutely not OK.
The internet is full of well-earned, weeping praise for Braugher — about his melodically deep voice and his ability to play everything from Shakespearean characters to forlorn angels to karaoke singers. From all accounts, he was a friendly man who was quick with a smile and a joke while in full command of his talents. What transfixed me about him, in what I consider his best roles, was his ability to undercut that command with his characters’ self-doubt, sometimes covered in fear or blistering overconfidence. Each of them was complex as he made his way through the world trying to balance what was expected of him, and what he expected of himself.
I first fell in love with Braugher in 1989′s “Glory” as Thomas Searles, an educated Black man who willingly joins the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all-Black Civil War regiment. I immediately recognized him as a kindred spirit — young, awkward and Black, to paraphrase Nina Simone. He is praised in white circles for his diction and command of language but finds himself called “Snowflake” by fellow soldier Trip (Denzel Washington), who has escaped enslavement and sees Thomas as weak. He is racially between worlds, and he has to decide the kind of man he wants to be in the face of gunfire with the freedom of his people on the line. Braugher shows you Thomas’ fear and also his resolve. I’ve never gotten over it.
A few years later in 1993, the world met Det. Pembleton. Though he was superb in his investigating skills, he remained a man at constant war with himself. He was prickly and sometimes unkind but still earned the respect of his co-workers, including his young, green partner Tim Bayless (Kyle Secor).
I think a lot of people were confused by Pembleton, a man raised by the Jesuits who suffered no fools, because so many other shows before had simply one Black cop who was everything to everyone. But, being Baltimore, “Homicide” had several officers of color, including sternly warm father figure Capt. Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), smooth, slick Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Pembleton. I saw them in my uncles and dad and the guys at church. I saw the delicate dance they had to do in an organization that traditionally excluded them and in some cases resented them for their success, as they policed a city that largely looked like them.
“Homicide” came on when I had just left Maryland to move to Florida after graduating from journalism school in College Park. A lot of my neighbors in my new city of Miami couldn’t have found Baltimore on a map and would ask, “Is it like New York? Is it like D.C.?” No, I told them, it is its own thing, jagged and raw and funny and wild and historic and dangerous and achingly beautiful. It is very Black, and also Irish and German and Jewish, often viciously fighting that plurality. The show was my city in a pavement-burnished nutshell — it wore our dignity and our foibles on its sleeve, and it didn’t shy away from how closely true love and abject heartbreak exist.
Frank Pembleton could be aloof, but it was, I think, a way to make sure that he was solid enough in his own thoughts and discernment. You could see that in how hard he went at perps in the interrogation room, nicknamed “The Box.” He went so hard he literally had a stroke in there. He was a serious cat, and he couldn’t afford to be seen slipping, both as a Black man and as someone who’d fought so hard to get to his position and felt pushed to be excellent, particularly by himself. Let everyone else be friendly. Comfort was for lesser men.
In a way, Ray Holt is the comedy bizarro world version of Frank Pembleton. He is no-nonsense, unflinchingly straightforward and, in the beginning, greatly disapproves of the motley gang of pranksters, weirdos and proud procrastinators he has inherited. Even when he’s joking, it’s hard to tell. But as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which aired from 2013 to 2021, progressed, we learned more about the man, his husband, Kevin Cozner, and his beloved dog, Cheddar.
Holt’s silliness is brought out the more comfortable he gets, and his respect for his crew grows as they’re all silly together. It’s a gloriously brave performance. Comedy is hard and being the straight man in the midst of chaos is harder, especially for a man who is not actually straight. The times when Holt quietly but forcefully reminds chief merrymaker Jake (Andy Samberg) of the sacrifices that a gay, Black man had to make in the NYPD and how he knows it’s held him back, were sobering — a punch of reality. And then everyone could go be goofy again. Braugher was so good in those moments. So honest, but never a killjoy. He trod the balance, as ever, beautifully.
I wonder if Pembleton, as he aged, would have been as loose in his own skin and comforts enough to participate in a goofy, time-wasting heist like Holt. I kind of don’t think he would. But he might have mellowed just enough to wave at Holt from across the hall, nodding in acknowledgment that they’d both made it.