Braugher Power What 'it' is: There's no defining what makes 'Homicide' star Andre Braugher such a force of nature on the screen.

October 15, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

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.

Family first

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.

Braugher sightings

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.

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