Andre Braugher is a compactly built man, but when he lets loose his stentorian voice as the fiercely intelligent Det. Frank Pembleton on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street (Fridays, 10-11 p.m.), he towers over every other actor in prime time. So it comes as a surprise that the Juilliard graduate thought he blew his first audition for the role. ''It just sucked. I stiffened up on camera,'' says Braugher, 32, puffing on a Marlboro Light in the back room of the Daily Grind, a neo-boho coffeehouse across the street from the Homicide set in Baltimore. ''I threw the (script pages) in the trash can and said, 'Well, I didn't get that gig.' But I guess they saw something magical.''
Braugher first worked his magic on film with his stirring portrayal of a Harvard-educated Civil War soldier in 1989's Glory. He's since carved out a career mixing Shakespeare productions with such socially relevant TV movies as PBS' civil rights drama Simple Justice and TNT's The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, in which he starred as the baseball groundbreaker. Braugher swore off second-fiddle parts after appearing with Telly Savalas in ABC's 1989-90 Kojak revival. ''It put food on the table and a roof over my head, but it was a sidekick role,'' he says. ''What appeals to me about Homicide is it's an autonomous character. I'm nobody's sidekick.''
Even so, Braugher still isn't a household name and doesn't care to be one. ''The danger for me is I'll forget who I am and where I came from,'' explains the actor, who grew up in Chicago as a heavyset, introspective kid and now lives in Maryland with his wife, actress-writer Ami Brabson, and their son, Michael, 2. ''I might begin to believe my own hype.'' Not that he's trying to generate any. ''I don't have a manager. I don't have a publicist. I don't want to go on The Tonight Show and be all palsy-walsy with the host,'' he says. ''I think I want to be rich, but I don't want to be famous.''