Twenty-one Super Sundays ago, Andre Braugher kicked off his episodic-TV career as hard-charging Baltimore Det. Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street. The role would earn him his first of seven Emmy nominations — he has won twice, for Homicide and the FX miniseries Thief — and lead to gigs playing doctors (Gideon's Crossing, House), military men (Last Resort) and even a car salesman (Men of a Certain Age).
Now he's come full circle, again embodying a police officer, albeit a very different one: Capt. Ray Holt, the deadpan commanding officer on Andy Samberg's rookie comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which recently took home two Golden Globes (including best TV comedy) and will air a special episode following the Super Bowl.
"I've been a very fortunate man and had quite a wonderful career," says Braugher, 51, over a late lunch near his suburban New Jersey home, where he lives with his wife, Ami Brabson (who played his spouse on Homicide) and their three sons. "I've been all over the world, acted with some of the most interesting people I know and raised three children. So it's been a really good ride."
And it's far from over. Braugher is relieved to be on a show that's primed for a healthy run. "It's been a long time since I've been on a hit," he says. "I've typically been on critically acclaimed flops, so it's gratifying to be on a show that people talk about favorably."
He's also exhilarated by the challenge of doing his first sitcom. "I'm a babe in the woods," he says. "I feel like I'm going to school every day. One of these days — Season 4 or 5 — I'll be confident it's comedy gold, but right now I'm just watching and learning."
Not surprisingly, he's a quick study. "Andre is such a smart guy and such a good actor that he's figured out how to play comedy for himself," says executive producer Dan Goor. "And that is, he doesn't play the comedy — he just plays the character. A lot of times when serious actors do comedy, they try too hard, and in no way is Andre doing that."
You'd be hard-pressed to find actors with more polar-opposite techniques than Juilliard-trained Braugher and former Saturday Night Live goofball Samberg. But that contrast makes their chemistry an even more delightful surprise. "Andy's whole theory is to do it a million ways because you never know what's going to be funny," explains Braugher. "My whole theory is to figure out what's funny and do it a million times until you get it right."
"That creative tension is great for the show," Goor says. "Their acting methods are a perfect mirror of their methods as police officers and inform how they play their parts and the comedy that comes from their relationship."
Holt's sexuality is not played for laughs, however. "The most important part is that it not be a caricature," Braugher says of his character, who is gay. "We won't be singing 'YMCA' in pink hot pants anytime soon. Holt is a police captain who happens to be gay, as opposed to 'the gay police captain.' That distinction is a powerful one to me."
In one sense, Braugher is Brooklyn's straight man. "Andy prides himself on breaking me up," he reports. "He's only done it twice. I just have to look at him and hear him and refuse to laugh. It's pure willpower."
Besides, Braugher's megawatt grin is a powerful weapon — one that Brooklyn's producers want to use judiciously. "That smile is insane," Goor says. "It melts your heart and shatters the windows it's so great."
Braugher has a lot to smile about lately — especially compared with his experience on 2012's submarine drama Last Resort, which sank after 13 weeks. "The pilot was about a nuclear standoff, and the series was about a tropical paradise with hot girls," he says. "The tone was so uneven and the world was so sketchy, it just couldn't hold together."
Shooting the show in Hawaii was far from a dream vacation. "I saw my family twice in six months — that's tough on a marriage," he admits. "Your family begins to be able to live without you."
Brooklyn films in Los Angeles, but Braugher's schedule enables him to fly home for one week every month. The show has also introduced him to a new generation of fans. "Kids are discovering me for the first time," he says. "Some kids who weren't born when I left Homicide in 1998 are finding it on YouTube."
Braugher flashes that Cheshire Cat smile. "This is the first time in a long time I've had something to really sink my teeth into," he says, knocking on the restaurant's wooden table. "It's a good thing."
Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Sunday, Feb. 2 at 11/10c on Fox.