Andre Braugher met race issues head-on, and transcended them, in his arresting portrayal of Frank Pembleton on 'Homicide.' Tomorrow night, he hands in his badge.

FINAL SALUTE

May 07, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

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.

Lasting impact

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."

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