I was in a state of shock and disbelief Wednesday morning when I heard that Andre Braugher had died. He was only 61.
We met 30 years ago; he had just moved to Baltimore to play what would become the defining role in the TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and I had just started hosting my public radio show.
Braugher was one of the most brilliant actors of his time. He was a Shakespearean actor who brought that well-honed theatrical depth to every character he portrayed, whether in a drama or a comedy. He could be the deadly serious, Jesuit-infused Det. Frank Pembleton in “Homicide” or the acerbic, comedic, gay Capt. Raymond Holt in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” or capturing the heart of the iconic Jackie Robinson facing a court-martial for refusing to move to the back of the bus.
His characters stretched the limits from the timid-intellectual-turned-brave warrior in the Civil War epic “Glory” to the everyman car salesman in the comedic buddy movie “Men of a Certain Age.” He turned himself into the legendary Gen. Benjamin O. Davis in “The Tuskegee Airmen” but then played Gov. Woodchuck Coodchuck-Berkowitz in the absurdist comedy “BoJack Horseman.”
And this is just touching the surface of his phenomenal body of work. He was nominated for 11 Emmys and won two, one for playing a masterful cop and the other for portraying a brilliant thief. Amid all that, he never gave up live theater, whether it was Shakespeare at the Public Theater in New York or the Folger in D.C. playing a multitude of roles, including Iago in “Othello.” His stage work off-Broadway brought him two Obies, one for Henry V and the other for a hip performance in “The Whipping Man.” His range and talent as an actor were incomparable. He was fearless, one of those rare actors whose riveting work crossed every theatrical genre.
The same power, beauty and intensity he brought to his work as an actor were evident in his commitment to the communities where he worked and lived. He spent countless hours with children in Baltimore, a city he came to love. I saw that passion when he came to my class at Baltimore School for the Arts, where I taught a character-development workshop. He was a masterful teacher. After “Homicide,” he returned to New York, where he was a leader and board member of Classical Theatre of Harlem, bringing theater to life for young people.
And, above all, he was a family man to the core of his being. He and his wife, Ami Brabson, were married for 32 years. She even played his wife on “Homicide.” As he joked once when we had dinner years ago, he could not get enough of her, and they had plenty of rehearsals outside the theater to prepare for their TV marriage.
For all his fame, he was just Andre, one of the nicest, most brilliant, sweetest men I ever met. We have all lost one of our greatest theatrical talents, who could make us laugh and cry or find ourselves just sitting enraptured by his performance, be it stage or screen. My heart goes out to Ami and to his sons, John, Michael and Isaiah, who lost someone who loved them deeply with all his being.
So, take time this holiday to watch “Glory,” “Duets,” “Men of a Certain Age” or some of his other work and enjoy the depth of humanity that poured from his soul into the characters he gave us. He was a gift. I will spend the next few days watching Andre on screen, watching him work, remembering him as I light a Yahrzeit candle and burn some Arapaho medicine in his honor. Thank you for what you gave to the world, Andre Braugher, one of the nicest men and one of the most brilliant actors who ever graced this life.
Marc Steiner is president and executive producer at the Center for Emerging Media and host of the “The Marc Steiner Show.” He is also a contributing editor at The Real News.