Andre Braugher blows into a midtown Manhattan café on a blustery December night. He's a half hour late for an interview, having gotten snarled in Yuletide tunnel traffic en route from his suburban New Jersey home. He flashes a Hudson River-wide grin, and all is forgiven. Suddenly, it hits you: Despite his regal bearing and well-earned reputation as one of TV's finest actors (six Emmy nominations, two wins), he's not that far removed from Owen Thoreau Jr., the slightly schlubby, regular-guy car salesman he plays on TNT's Men of a Certain Age. And that's one reason he loves the role.
"It's a real departure from the stuff I'm famous for — Homicide was about taking people down, Gideon's Crossing was about lifesaving medical techniques, Thief was about heart-stopping heists," he says, tentatively ordering a chickpea-and-avocado tartine ("Open-faced — is that a good thing?" he asks the waiter, who points out less bread is healthier). "Owen's a really sweet guy. I've played lots of generals, police chiefs and psychiatrists, and here's a guy who's not particularly brilliant at anything. I'm not a brilliant surgeon or investigator, so he's a bit closer to me."
Initially, Men's cocreator and star, Ray Romano, thought Braugher was all wrong for the role, which had been written for Wendell Pierce (who passed when the chance to reunite with The Wire's David Simon on HBO's Treme came along). "Owen is put-upon and a little beaten down by the world, and we thought of Andre from Homicide as a guy who commands this presence when he walks into a room," says Romano, who was also concerned about Braugher's ability to handle the show's comic elements. "We ultimately said, 'We're taking a gamble, but let's go with the best actor.' And it's paid off like you can't believe."
In this week's mid-season finale, Braugher plays both comedy (he joins his buddies, played by Romano and Scott Bakula, on a ridiculously luxurious "colonoscopy weekend") and drama (he discovers his dad, powerfully embodied by Richard Gant, has left the family auto dealership in deep debt). The episode also gives the actor an opportunity to show off his golf skills — or lack thereof. "That was the first time I've ever been on a golf course," he says. "My first — what's the word, stroke? — was picture-perfect. It was Zen. Every one after that was horrendous. And I received instructions from a kazillion people. That's what really messed me up."
One of Braugher's worst swings made the final cut — not that he minds. His refreshing lack of vanity extends to his weight, which is frequently addressed on the show, since Owen is diabetic and sleeps with an anti-apnea mask. "I guess it should be a big deal, and I should be Googling 'Andre Braugher gains weight,' but it's not an issue with me at all," says the 217-pound actor. "I'm just me. I've never been a lover boy or pretended to be Richard Gere or whoever is supposedly 'that dude.' I go up and down. That's the way it is."
He's equally philosophical about aging. "I'm still 26 up here," says the 48-year-old, pointing to his graying noggin. "I haven't become mellower or wiser." He's more aware of his kids getting older — he has three sons with Ami Brabson, who played his wife on Homicide, and the oldest recently left for college. "We miss the hell out of him," Braugher says, with endearing warmth. "He doesn't call, he doesn't text, and his mother's upset about that. I say, 'Well, I used to be that boy — it's nothing personal.'"
His ability to find dramatic truth in such seemingly mundane situations earned him Men's sole Emmy nod, for best supporting actor. He's realistic about his chances of snagging another trophy for this role. "It's nice to dress up and go, but we're never going to win anything because we're not really a comedy or a drama," he says. "And [winner] Aaron Paul is dynamite on Breaking Bad. Bigger things happen on that show."
Still, he's happy to sweat the small stuff on Men and work in the niche-y cable environment where everybody doesn't have to love your show. If it had been made for a broadcast network, says Romano, "everything would have to be ramped-up, paced-up and flashed-up. That's not the show we wanted to do." Agrees Braugher, "It would've been laugh-tracked or wholesomed into absolute submission. The stories are more interesting on cable. So this is a good thing."
The TNT series shoots in L.A., which keeps Braugher apart from his family for long stretches of time ("It's a bummer, but it's the price you pay," he figures). But he'll spend the next four months in NYC doing the play "The Whipping Man," about Orthodox Jewish slaves and their former owner observing Passover in 1865 Richmond in the aftermath of Lee's surrender at Appomattox. It's a long way from Men of a Certain Age. "Yeah, I like change," he says, heading out into the cold for a meeting in Brooklyn. "I like different things. I think I'm in the right place."
Men of a Certain Age airs Monday at 10/9c on TNT.