Scene stealer

After a few setbacks, 'Homicide' cop Andre Braugher returns to series TV as a criminal in his intense 'Thief'

March 23, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Andre Braugher is returning to series television, and once upon a time, that would have been very big news. In the 1990s, he was widely considered as good as it gets when it comes to TV acting.

The Stanford University and Juilliard School graduate was nominated three times for the Emmy for Best Male Actor in a drama series, and, in 1998, he won for his performance as Detective Frank Pembleton in the NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street. That year, Entertainment Weekly labeled him "Andre the giant: the best actor on TV." The year before, People had picked him as one of the 50 "most beautiful people in the world" - extolling his "regal" presence and "aristocratic intensity" in roles that ranged from an Obie-Award-winning Henry V at the New York Shakespeare Festival to Jackie Robinson in the TNT film The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson.

But television in recent years has been less kind to Braugher, who starred in 2000 as Dr. Ben Gideon in the quickly canceled ABC medical drama, Gideon's Crossing, and then struggled as sidekick to a cabdriver vigilante played by David Morse on the CBS drama Hack in 2002.

"I have been involved with several short-lived series - to say the least," Braugher acknowledged in a telephone interview this week to talk about his new crime drama, Thief, that premieres Tuesday night on cable channel FX.

He infused the pause between "series" and "to say the least" with more meaning than most actors playing Hamlet manage in the break between "To be - or not to be. ... "

Canceled series aside, Braugher's new show is grand news for those who enjoy quality adult drama and the chance to see outstanding actors work at the top of their talents.

Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Thief centers on the character of Nick Atwater - vintage automobile dealer, leader of a crew of international thieves and a recently married stepfather to a troubled teenage daughter. Braugher's performance as Atwater is intense, scary, seductive and astonishing in its range of emotions. It leaves little doubt that he is still among the best actors ever to grace the medium - just ask those writers and producers who have witnessed the care and precision that he brings to their words.

"Working with Andre is a writer's dream come true," says Norman Morrill, creator and executive producer of Thief. "It is a pleasure to constantly witness the surprises he brings to his craft. His silences speak as clearly as his words. His inner life plays out visibly on his face. He makes us all look good."

From 1993 to 1998 Braugher lived part-time in Baltimore where Homicide was filmed. David Simon, who would go on to create HBO's The Wire, was then working on the NBC cop drama based on his nonfiction book.

Simon recalls writing a line for Pembleton - to which Braugher took exception. In the script, the self-consciously formal detective used the word "mama" to refer to a suspect's mother. When Braugher pointed out that Pembleton would say "mother" rather than "mama," Simon said he "sheepishly" offered to make the change.

"No, no, no," Simon recalls Braugher saying. He would make the line - as written - work for Pembleton.

"On the first take, with a twinkle in his eye, I heard Andre say the line, pronouncing it ma-MA, in the most Francophile way," says Simon. "It was beautiful; I barely felt the knife in my ribs. I was more careful with my Pembleton-speak afterward. ... I want to work with him again. What writer wouldn't? It's that simple."

The 43-year-old actor brings that same intense preparation and precise knowledge of the character to Nick Atwater in Thief. Before the pilot was shot, Braugher read several books written by former thieves - as well as a couple on parenting and families. Only then did he burrow into the psyche of Atwater, asking the writers for backstory and creating subtext within subtext.

"Nick is a man who keeps separate parts of his world in different places - he compartmentalizes quite well," Braugher says. "Nick's quite adept as a leader of men, and quite an accomplished thief and liar who's trying to be a better man - an accomplished husband and father. But these things don't mix well, as a matter of fact."

Indeed, they don't - the swiftly paced pilot finds the emotionally sustaining home life Atwater has established - with a new wife (Dina Meyer) and stepdaughter (Mae Whitman) - torn apart in one tragic moment. He's left alone to care for a white teenage daughter who desperately misses her mother and seems to hate him.

Meanwhile, he and his crew - which involves characters played by Yancey Arias and Malik Yoba - suddenly find themselves short of cash, at each other's throats and being hunted by another group of gangsters. From the opening images of storm devastated neighborhoods and graffiti messages ("looters will be shot") in post-Katrina New Orleans, to Atwater's gang of thieves coming to be composed exclusively by persons of color at the end of the pilot, the series is steeped in an awareness of class and race.

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