Andre Braugher: How his deadpan delivery made Captain Holt Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s beating heart

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE -- "The Last Day, Part 2" Episode 810 -- Pictured: Andre Braugher as Ray Holt

By Steven McIntosh

Entertainment reporter

Actor Andre Braugher, who has died at the age of 61, was responsible for some of the funniest moments across Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s eight seasons.

The US sitcom thrived thanks in large part to the police chief at the centre of it – Captain Raymond Holt provided the show’s beating heart.

Braugher portrayed all the different facets of Holt’s personality with great skill, resulting in one of the most fully-formed and well-rounded characters on television.

While the actor brought heart and humour, it was arguably his tough exterior and deadpan delivery which most endeared him to the show’s legions of loyal fans.

“For me, Captain Holt was the best aspect of that show, bar none,” says Amon Warmann, contributing editor and columnist at Empire magazine. “Yes, he could be goofy, like a lot of the characters, but more than anyone else on the show, he brought the gravitas.

“So when it came time for a moment to hit as seriously as it needed to, and there were many moments in Brooklyn Nine-Nine where that was the case, you could always count on Andre Braugher to deliver that and make it connect with audiences.”

Braugher’s ability to keep a totally straight face as he was delivering some of the snappiest lines of dialogue was widely praised – but the rare occasions where Captain Holt sprang into life will be some of the best remembered.

One breakout moment came in season four when Holt spends all day making a balloon arch for another character’s wedding. After being derided by some of his colleagues who say it isn’t a good idea, Holt feels deflated and begins popping the balloons.

But when Rosa, the character getting married, accidentally comes across the arch in his office, she declares it “magnificent”. As a look of relief and delight spreads across Holt’s face, he yells: “VIN-DI-CA-TION!”

After Braugher’s death was announced, this was the scene many viewers shared on social media to remember him.

ROOKLYN NINE-NINE -- "Dillman" Episode 709 -- Pictured: (l-r) Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Diaz, Andre Braugher as Ray Holt, Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta, Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago, Joe Lo Truglio as Charles Boyle
Image caption,Left to right: Actors Stephanie Beatriz, Andre Braugher, Andy Samberg, Melissa Fumero and Joe Lo Truglio in Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Captain Holt’s often inexpressive face concealed a character of depth and warmth who viewers came to adore.

“Holt was a man without expression but never without feeling”, wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Lester Fabiasteven Brathwaite.

“And he was a wonderfully complicated character, a man full of contradictions.”

He added: “Braugher’s deliciously deadpan delivery as Holt often provided some of the funniest moments throughout the show’s eight seasons, particularly when juxtaposed with the more cartoonish exploits of his cadre of kooky cops.”

Braugher delivered his lines with precise pronunciation at all times and impeccable grammar. Rather than the term “whodunnit”, he insisted such a mystery should be referred to as a “who has done this?”.

In another episode, his team were able to tell he had been kidnapped because he used a contraction when speaking on the phone.

His dry tone was often precisely what made a line funny. His use of the word “bitch” in the Halloween heist episode was only in the literal sense – referring to a female dog.

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE -- "The Jimmy Jab Games II" Episode 704 -- Pictured: (l-r) Andre Braugher as Ray Holt, Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Diaz

Surrounded by a terrific ensemble cast which riffed off each other brilliantly, the straight-faced Holt regularly found ways to indirectly show his friends and colleagues he cared.

In the show’s second season, when Terry is considering leaving the precinct, Captain Holt forces him to stay up all night digitising files – hardly the kind of thing that would change an employee’s outlook on their job.

But in fact, Holt’s motivation for forcing him to do that was so Terry would, in the process, be forced to look back on memories from the job with his colleagues, making him feel nostalgic and ultimately prompting him to stay.

Although he might not always make his feelings and emotions explicit on the surface, Braugher baked comedy, intellect and heart into the delivery of his lines.

“Andre Braugher had a way of speaking like he loved every weird little clause of a sentence,” said Vulture’s Kathryn Van Arendonk after the actor’s death was announced.

“Like somehow his voice and his gravity could hold onto more separate thoughts and rhythms and linguistic turns than most people could ever hold at once. It was such a pleasure to hear him.”

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE -- "Valloweaster" Episode 711 -- Pictured: (l-r) Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta, Andre Braugher as Ray Holt
Image caption,Braugher had an ability to glide, seemingly effortlessly, between solemnity and levity

But categorising him solely as a comedy actor arguably does him a disservice. He could, Warmann notes, also bring seriousness and authority – notably in moments such as in the final season where Captain Holt is suspending Jake.

“The way that conversation comes across, it’s so interesting,” Warmann says, “because Brooklyn Nine-Nine at its heart is a comedy show, but because of performers like Andre Braugher, who had a Shakespearean background, any time there’s a big speech that needs to be made with gravitas, it could go from comedy and cut right through that and be like ‘Oh, this is a moment’.

“It connected, and that’s because you’ve got a performer like Andre Braugher.”

In the scene, Holt delivers a rousing speech as he explains why Jake Peralta must be suspended for five months for witness intimidation.

“Do you know what happens when you refuse to punish cops for their mistakes? When police are treated as a separate class of citizen above the law?” he asks.

“It breeds a lack of trust in the community, and that lack of trust means people won’t help us with our investigations, or testify, or even call us when they’re in danger. It makes them more scared of us than of criminals or gangsters. It makes people see us as the enemy, which leads to more confrontation, more distrust.”

Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Image caption,Braugher would remain resolutely straight faced regardless of what was going on around him

The fact that Holt’s race and sexuality were always present without ever being his whole personality was what many viewers most loved about him.

Being an older, black, gay police officer would have been enough in itself to make Captain Holt a groundbreaking character in the television landscape.

But the fact that he didn’t play up to the stereotypes of any of those characteristics made him stand out.

There are several pitfalls when it comes to playing a gay character on TV or film. Play up to stereotypes, and you’ll be written off as a caricature. But play down those personality traits and you could be criticised for squandering an opportunity for representation.

But in Braugher’s hands, Captain Holt, the minorities he represented, and of course Brooklyn Nine Nine’s viewers, were all in safe hands. The actor knew better than anyone how to strike what was a very delicate balance.

“As long as there’s no hot pants and singing YMCA then everything’s OK,” Braugher said in a 2018 interview.

“My teenage son said, ‘you’re playing a gay police captain?’ I said ‘No, I’m playing a police captain who’s gay’. So we have to sit down and understand what that distinction is.

“Typically, when you see gay characters on shows, they’re goofballs or caricatures. But this is one more facet of Holt as opposed to being Holt’s defining characteristic, so that’s what’s important to me.”

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE -- "Renewal" Episode 807 -- Pictured in this screen grab: (l-r) Marc Evan Jackson as Kevin, Andre Braugher as Ray Holt
Image caption,Captain Holt and his husband Kevin were seen renewing their vows in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s eighth season

It’s worth noting, however, that Holt would occasionally lean into gay stereotypes, partly in jest or to make a point.

One episode sees him trying to convince Terry to ride a motorcycle, but Terry doesn’t want to risk it because motorcycles are “death machines”. He suggests Holt does so instead.

“Are you saying my life maters less because I don’t conform to society’s heteronormative, child-centric ideals,” asks the self-aware police captain.

“Are you really playing the gay card right now?” Terry responds. “Yas, queen,” says Captain Holt. Rare moments such this showed Holt could have humour and sass where necessary.

Few would dispute that the character was innovative and influential in equal measure. “Andre himself was a big factor in that,” says Warmann, “playing Captain Holt as a person first, with real ambitions, real desires, a real sort of want to make change for the better, and that’s the sort of thing that comes across long before they start talking about the gayness or blackness in any explicit manner.

“And they do ultimately do that in various episodes, because that’s absolutely a part of who Captain Holt is, but it doesn’t define him the way that it might do with how that’s been characterised in other shows and other media.”

He concludes: “That’s partly why Captain Holt doesn’t just resonate with the black man, or the gay man, but resonates with everybody on some level, because he’s a person first. He’s played that way and he’s written that way, so groundbreaking is the appropriate word.

“I wish more media would study that and take its cue from that, because then I think we’d get better art.”

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