I recognized Andre Braugher immediately when I saw him on a Sunday afternoon walking out of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. Dressed in a suit and topcoat, he was holding the hand of his young son, also dressed in church clothes.

Ordinarily, I would’ve greeted the two of them as we approached one another on North Charles Street and told Braugher how much I enjoyed his memorable portrayal of Baltimore Detective Frank Pembleton in the NBC drama, “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which was set in Baltimore and filmed all around the city.

It was sometime during the show’s run, and as we approached one another, I could hear him singing, and I certainly didn’t want to interrupt. So I just watched and appreciated the moment he was sharing with his son as I continued walking past them.

Then in the summer, I think during the same year, I did get to share a couple thoughts with him as he walked with his family at Baltimore’s AFRAM cultural and arts festival. His wife, Ami Brabson, was pushing one son in a stroller as his older son walked with them. Brabson had a recurring role as Pembleton’s wife on “Homicide.”

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I kept my comment brief, but I could have gone on and on about how much I enjoyed his portrayal of the intense and cerebral Pembleton. Almost every week, the audience got to see the detective go into “the box,” the interrogation room, with suspects. One moment, he would smile and put them at ease, gaining an uneasy trust. Then, he’d raise his voice and turn derisive or sarcastic. He never beat or scared a confession out of anyone. Displaying a cool self-assurance, he just outsmarted them.

In a 2016 Television Academy Foundation interview, “Homicide” executive producer Barry Levinson spoke about the power of Braugher’s performances in those interrogation scenes. Levinson said that after shooting the first episode, which included a sequence in “the box,” he found Braugher so compelling that he called for an episode dedicated entirely to Pembleton questioning a suspect there.

The character represented a clear departure from almost all other TV police detectives I’ve ever watched. And outside the interrogation room, his moral and philosophical debates with his quirky fellow detective Tim Bayliss, played by Kyle Secor, produced moments that I’d end up discussing with fellow fans the next morning.

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Braugher won an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series in 1998 and toasted Baltimore during the presentation.

He lived in the city during Homicide’s run from 1993 to 1999 and at the house he rented in Homeland, at First Unitarian, at AFRAM, at Bertha’s in Fells Point or at any of a number of other familiar destinations, it was Braugher’s Baltimore. While here, he contributed his time and talent to theater projects benefitting young people. In 1996, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival approached Braugher about a fundraising effort, and he offered instead to bring his knowledge of Shakespeare to high school students.

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“I wanted to do something that was actually going to be of tangible benefit to the very kids we want to help,” Braugher told The Baltimore Sun.

That year, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s educational outreach programs presented “Romeo and Juliet” to 15,000 students. Dozens of students auditioned, and 18 Baltimore-area students were chosen to work with Braugher and have him go over scenes with them. He encouraged them to find their own voices and own identities while working on their roles.

Braugher began performing Shakespeare in college productions. At the time, he was studying to become an engineer and was on a four-year scholarship at Stanford University. Braugher said he didn’t consider an acting career until a friend persuaded him to audition for a production of “Hamlet” after the actor playing Claudius pulled out just a few days before the opening performance.

He went on to perform Shakespeare throughout his career. He appeared with the New York Shakespeare Festival in “Measure for Measure” and “Twelfth Night” and most recently, in the title role of “Henry V,” which earned him an Obie Award. At the Public Theater, Braugher preformed in “Richard II” and “Coriolanus.” He played Iago in the Folger Shakespeare Festival production of “Othello” and performed the title role in “Macbeth” for the Philadelphia Drama Guild.

Fans of the hit comedy series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” know him as Capt. Raymond Holt, starring alongside Andy Samberg for the past eight seasons. He received four Emmy Award nominations for the role.

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I first became aware of Braugher when I saw him in his first film role, as Thomas Searles, in the 1989 film, “Glory.” His was the role of a free man who volunteered for an all-Black Union Army regiment. He served alongside formerly enslaved men and experienced some of the indignities and brutality he hadn’t previously encountered in the North.

Denzel Washington and Andre Braugher in “Glory” (1989). (TriStar Pictures)

In the film, he was acting alongside two of this country’s most acclaimed and accomplished actors, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. Washington won one of the film’s three Academy Awards.

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Braugher, Freeman and Washington all gave stellar performances. But I can recall film critic Roger Ebert pointing out that Braugher’s performance was underappreciated because his character called for displaying weakness at times. Ebert argued that such portrayals of such characters are more challenging than the strong, forceful roles Freeman and Washington played.

That appraisal forever changed the way I perceive male film performances. It helped me understand the brilliance and power of Braugher’s acting. It’s talent that we are fortunate to have witnessed, and we are fortunate to have had him share that talent, and himself, with Baltimore.

Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s opinion editor.

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The Baltimore Banner welcomes opinion pieces and letters to the editor. Please send submissions to communityvoices@thebaltimorebanner.com or letters@thebaltimorebanner.com.

Mark Williams is Opinion Editor at the Baltimore Banner. He is responsible for selecting and editing opinion articles, essays, and letters to the editor. He also contributes essays that explore the culture and history of the Baltimore region and the people who live here. 

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