Andre Braugher in The Box: How the ‘Homicide’ Star Became Frank Pembleton on a Sweltering Saturday

Andre Braugher in The Box: How the ‘Homicide’ Star Became Frank Pembleton on a Sweltering Saturday

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Andre Braugher, the two-time Emmy winner who died this week at the age of 61, was an unknown when the hardboiled NBC detective drama “Homicide: Life on the Street” debuted in the coveted post-Super Bowl time slot on Jan. 31, 1993. He left the series six years later as an in-demand after leading man who went on to star in TV series include FX’s “Thief,” TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” Fox/NBC’s “Brooklyn Nine Nine,” in addition to many other prominent roles.

But it started with his years on “Homicide.” Braugher played Detective Frank Pembleton, one of the most unforgettable characters that television has ever produced, thanks to the brilliance of executive producers Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson and Jim Finnerty and a murderers row of a writers room (James Yoshimura, Julie Martin, David Simon). The stellar supporting cast alongside included Ned Beatty, Melissa Leo and Yaphet Kotto.

Braugher made his name as an actor with his work as the ultra-intense, sharp-elbowed detective known for his investigative and interrogation skills. Pembleton held court in “The Box,” where he probed murder cases in his spider and the fly domain.

The Box had a slighty funhouse mirror quality to it, probably because the set was housed at the Fell’s Point Recreation Pier, a sunless relic of better days in Charm City. It was a perfect set for “Homicide’s” squad room and various outside and inside zones that captured the show’s gritty vibe and, of course, the Box.

During my tenure as an NBC Entertainment executive, I was on hand for one memorable “Homicide” photo shoot, led by longtime NBC photographer Chris Haston, that took place at the pier on a sweltering Saturday in August 1994. Emotions were running high after Haston received the shocking news that his mother had just died at the age of 51. As a consummate pro, Haston insisted the shoot proceed.

With nine actors and key hair, makeup and wardrobe crew surrendering their Saturday for a network photo shoot, it was a hectic day. Saving the best for last, Chris set up the final shot as if it were coming from the point of view of a suspent getting grilled by Braugher’s Pembleton. Braugher was set to be positioned across the table a few feet from the camera. Co-stars Danny Baldwin and Isabella Hofmann would flank him in the background.

Braugher walked into the room and sat down. Earlier in the day he’d been uneasy doing the cast gallery portrait shots that come with the job of working on a network TV show. But his reticence had disappeared. He became Frank Pembleton, silently mouthing dialogue as he began to grill an invisible foe, slowly at first, then rapidly, face taut, body language tightening as he slowly ratcheted up the intensity of his entire being, gesticulating with pointed fingers and clenched fists, rising out of his seat, a storm in the eye of the camera. His pantomime reached a frightening pitch as he went deep into character and the atmosphere thickened. No one on the set made a sound and when we finished, the place was pin drop still.

The other actors and crew who quietly gathered to watch Braugher at work knew they’d just seen something special, something real. It was no surprise to any of us when Braugher won his first Emmy in 1998 for his work on “Homicide.”

The shots turned out to be amazing. We’d captured a magical series of moments. Chris and I did many photo shoots together with A-listers over the years but nothing came close to the drama and the emotion of the experience of working with Braugher on that sweaty day in Baltimore. Being in the Box to watch the great Frank Pembleton bring his all — for a photo shoot, no less — was a gift from one of this generation’s greatest actors that none of us who were there will ever forget.

Entertainment veteran Paul McGuire spent 10 years at NBC Entertainment, working in communications, publicity and photo posts from 1988 to 1998.

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