Andre Braugher played the best Catholic character on TV
When I think of Andre Braugher, I think of Detective Frank Pembleton. The prolific actor, who passed away this week at the age of 61, played many men in uniform over the years—most recently the erudite and eminently meme-able Captain Raymond Holt on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” But Pembleton, whom Braugher portrayed across six seasons of NBC’s long-running “Homicide: Life on the Street,” wasn’t just a cop. He was the best Catholic character in television history.
“Homicide” ran from 1993 to 1999 and redefined the police procedural with its dark humor, complex characters and thoughtful writing. Created by Paul Attanasio, Tom Fontana and James Yoshimura, and based on David Simon’s nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, it followed Baltimore homicide detectives, using their investigations of death to explore the mysteries of life. The series boasted an all-time great ensemble, including Yaphet Kotto, Melissa Leo and Richard Belzer (who also passed away earlier this year) in his first turn as Detective John Munch.
Frank Pembleton, Andre Braugher’s character on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” embodied the struggle to reconcile faith and intellect. Of course, he was educated by the Jesuits.
But Pembleton was the breakout character, earning acclaim as one of the most complicated and dynamic characters ever written for a Black actor on network TV (an achievement that doubles as an indictment of the industry). Braugher won an Emmy and an NAACP Image Award for his performance, along with other accolades. They’re all deserved: Frank Pembleton belongs in the pantheon of the most compelling characters to ever grace television screens, right alongside Tony Soprano and Don Draper and Omar Little. He was a brilliant and prickly detective, methodical and tireless, driven by an unshakeable desire for the truth. In “the box”—the interrogation room—he unleashed his agile intellect to elicit confessions where other detectives met stone walls. Most fascinating of all, he was a highly intelligent and deeply cynical man who, nevertheless, believed in a good and loving God.
As a Catholic, Pembleton embodied the struggle to reconcile faith and intellect. Of course, he was educated by Jesuits (at “St. Ignatius,” a fictional New York Jesuit high school named after Braugher’s real-life alma mater, St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago). The critical thinking skills they taught him were both his super power and the source of his deepest existential anxieties. “The Jesuits taught me to think,” he says. “I haven’t felt safe since.”
There was always tension between Pembleton’s faith and his job, which required him to stare unblinking into the abyss of human violence. Over the course of the series, it takes a toll. A third-season case—involving Catholic victims and a Catholic perpetrator—seems to finally break him. “I don’t pray anymore,” he says. “Nothing in this world changes because of what I do. The hurt goes on and on. God has given up on us.” Later, he says that he and God are “not on speaking terms.”
Pembleton was brilliantly written (including by Fontana, another product of Jesuit education, whose complicated relationship with faith informed the character), but it was Braugher who brought Frank’s faith struggle to life with power and honesty. He could convey a spark of inspiration or a softening of heart with the slightest adjustment of his facial muscles. In a New York Times interview in 2014, Fontana noted: “He could say so much with his eyes. We’d write these incredibly glorious speeches for him, and then you would see him just look at someone, and we’d sometimes go: ‘Drop the monologue. He’s already sold it.’” As a believer who had struggled with my faith, I was well-acquainted with the competing rage, hope and heartbreak you feel when God seems distant. Braugher took those feelings and manifested them on screen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do it better.
What made Pembleton so compelling was that he felt like a real Catholic, who wrestled with faith in an authentic way. In fiction it’s often black and white: Characters either believe or they don’t. But in the real lives of believers, we know that our relationship with God can ebb and flow. Even when he struggled—especially when he struggled—Pembleton was never able to fully escape Catholicism. At one point he describes himself as a “fallen Catholic” to his partner Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), only to become outraged when Bayliss, a self-described religious “mutt,” admits to taking Communion at a Catholic wedding (“If my God wins, you’re screwed”). Even in later seasons, with his faith in crisis, Pembleton wrestles more like a believer than an agnostic. His anger at God is palpable, but—as many of us know—that’s also a form of prayer. Frank says he’s lost his faith, failing to realize that only someone who believes in God would engage in a years-long feud with Him.
We only hear Pembleton speak to God once in the series, during his final episode. He begs God to save Bayliss, who took a bullet for him. The prayer is shot as a tight close-up on Braugher’s face. Barely speaking above a whisper, he allows six years of confidence and stubbornness to fall away as Pembleton submits himself, desperate, before God with his greatest need. Afterward, realizing that he’s lost his faith in the criminal justice system that he’s upheld all of these years, Pembleton quits. His final line in the series proper echoes Christ on the cross: “I’m finished.”
But perhaps he’s regained something, too. The next time we see Frank—in “Homicide: The Movie” (2000), which served as a capstone for the series—he’s a professor at Loyola Maryland (my alma mater), lecturing undergrads on ethics. The boss who appears at his door with news of a case that needs his expertise isn’t a police lieutenant, but a timid Jesuit. Frank Pembleton, the man of reason and faith, seems to have found his way home.
Andre Braugher wasn’t Catholic (although obituaries tell me he was a man of faith, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition); to me, that makes his performance as Pembleton even more extraordinary. He took the time and care to get inside this man’s head and soul—the same dedication he brought to every role, on stage and screen—and crafted a performance that was both personal and relatable. That was his gift. As we mourn his loss let’s also be grateful that, over the course of his extraordinary career, he shared it with us.