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Andre Braugher steals the show on ‘Thief’

It’s not hard to see why Andre Braugher was drawn to the new FX series “Thief.”

Braugher is an actor with powerful presence and impressive range, as “Homicide: Life on the Street” established years ago. On that acclaimed 1990s drama he played Frank Pembleton, who was a cocky, calculating police detective, then the victim of a stroke struggling to regain basic functions.

Now on “Thief” (which premieres 10 p.m. ET Tuesday), Braugher gets to show his stuff as Nick Atwater, criminal and family man.

On the job, Nick is a coolly methodical pro who masterminds high-risk, high-yield heists across the country.

Meanwhile, he maintains a separate domestic life in New Orleans with the wife he adores and a 14-year-old stepdaughter he tolerates.

Then, all too soon, Nick’s carefully managed world is upended.

From that moment, it’s any viewer’s guess where the story will go. And Braugher is pleased to take viewers there.

Nick — under siege, in mourning, protective of his family yet defiant as he pulls together one more heist — is a full-bodied role that was guaranteed to get Braugher pumped.

“I liked the man,” says Braugher flat-out when asked why he signed to do the series. “Nick doesn’t stick guns in people’s faces, he doesn’t violate their privacy or their safety. He steals from insurance companies and banks, which can afford it. At least, these are the rationalizations that allow him to do what he does. He’s a better man than he might be. But he is a beast.

“I also liked the fact that his worlds are in collision: the straight life and his other existence as a thief. He has a fantasy that it’s possible to live them both. But you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

“I wanted to be a part of all that,” Braugher says, “because so often TV dramas are formulaic — and this one is as wacky and dangerous as life itself.”

‘A character piece set in a crime world’Not to be confused with “Heist,” NBC’s rip-roaring new L.A.-based drama, “Thief” takes a cue from its balmy, brooding New Orleans locale. (The pilot was shot there in summer 2004. Then, with the season’s five additional episodes scheduled to start production last September, just days after Katrina struck, Shreveport became New Orleans’ stand-in.)

Costarring with Braugher are Malik Yoba, Yancey Arias and Clifton Collins, Jr., as members of Nick’s crew. Mae Whitman plays his stepdaughter, Tammi, whose conflict with Nick may or may not be explained by the fact that he is a black man wed to her white mother.

Whatever, Nick and Tammi are clearly at odds.

“We got nothing in common — except one thing, your mom,” Nick tells her, mincing no words. “What do we do?”

Soon, circumstances force an answer upon them.

“The series seems to me a character piece set in a crime world, rather than a crime drama,” says Braugher. “The greatest arc isn’t necessarily the heist that we’re gonna pull off” — a $40 million job aboard a jetliner — “but what’s going to happen with Nick and Tammi. How is their relationship going to be resolved?”

Off-camera, Braugher, 43, is a family man for real. He has been married for nearly 20 years to Ami Brabson, whom he met while they were studying drama at Juilliard and he now describes as “the best thing to happen to me — period.” The parents of three boys ages 13, 8 and 3, they call home a New Jersey town far removed from show-biz hustle bustle.

From there, Braugher was able to easily commute to his most recent series, “Hack” (CBS’ 2002-04 police drama shot in Philadelphia), and, somewhat more exhaustingly, to Los Angeles each week to star in ABC’s medical drama “Gideon’s Crossing” during the 2000-01 season.

“I think I’d work a little more if I lived in L.A.,” says Braugher with a grin, “but my boss says we live in Jersey, so that’s just the way it is.” This is not the only time he affectionately speaks of Brabson as the boss.

Acting is ‘an emotional release’In person, Braugher comes across not unlike he does on-screen. Though his manner is down-to-earth, he has that same commanding voice, the multipurpose smile (it can signal many moods, not just amusement), and a frost of gray hair (the sort of shaved-clean head he sported some years ago has become a cliche for a black man, Braugher says).

And during this recent interview in Manhattan, he dwells on his two passions: his family and his work.

What fuels that love for acting?

“It’s an emotional release,” he explains — an outlet that might otherwise lie beyond his reach. “Men are not usually forthcoming in the expression of their emotions.”

Growing up in a rough Chicago neighborhood, he was blessed with loving and demanding parents. “But I was socialized in a certain way. Even as a kid there’s no real suitable outlet for emotions that don’t fall within a certain small range: anger, lust, ridicule — Army emotions, I call them.”

Then, at Stanford University as an engineering major, he helped out a friend by filling a vacant role in a campus play. He liked it — a lot. He had found a new major, and an unexpected calling.

“As an actor, I’m allowed — encouraged! — to explore emotions that have been basically unacceptable in my life. I have a huge well of emotional stuff, and once I give myself permission as an actor, it all comes to the surface. But I’ll be damned if I can give myself permission to bring it out as a man.

“As a father,” Braugher goes on, looping back to one passion from the other, “I’ve tried to encourage my children to have a broader and deeper emotional life than I’ve had. I want my sons to be able to express their feelings about things,” he says with feeling he seems fully able to express.

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