NEW YORK If not for a twist of fate many years ago, Andre Braugher would likely be an engineer right now.
A very intense engineer but an engineer nonetheless.
It didn't happen only due to a chance encounter he had with Shakespeare while as an undergraduate at Stanford University.
The director of a student production of "Hamlet" begged Braugher to fill in for the role of Claudius when the original actor bowed out just before the debut.
Braugher, perhaps best know for his role of a Baltimore police detective in the acclaimed 1990s TV show "Homicide: Life on the Street," had just three days to learn his lines. When he finally hit the stage, he was ready to abandon his old life.
"I had a midlife crisis at 19. I just had to do this," says Braugher, now 45. "I found an emotional immediacy and resonance and joy in being on stage."
Braugher, the product of an all-boys Jesuit high school in Chicago, found there were some added benefits to a life as an actor that engineering couldn't match.
"People clap and they go out and have parties afterward and it's full of vivacious young women," he says, laughing. "Otherwise, it's just you and your slide rule and your T-1 calculator in the library."
His career trajectory forever changed. Braugher became a drama major and later got a master's from The Juilliard School. He then embarked on an Emmy- and Obie-winning career that has led him back this summer to where it all began: As Claudius in "Hamlet."
He co-stars in the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park series, opposite Michael Stuhlbarg in the title role, Sam Waterston of "Law & Order" fame, Lauren Ambrose of "Six Feet Under" and Margaret Colin, currently on TV's "Gossip Girl."
It's Braugher's first time on stage in a dozen years and his sixth Shakespeare in Central Park, following appearances in "King John," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Measure for Measure," "Twelfth Night" and "Henry V," for which he won a 1997 Obie in the title role.
"Shakespeare has always been a great love of mine," he says during an interview on a bench in, appropriately enough, the park's Shakespeare Garden. He is dressed in jeans and an untucked, button-down shirt, his hair going slightly gray.
"It's like that fantasy we always have of going back to meet up with your old lover and it's all still the same," he says. "Well, I've met up with my old lover and it's just as delicious as it always was."
Since his film debut in "Glory," Braugher has had a varied career, appearing on screen in films such as "City of Angels," "Duets," "Primal Fear," the recent remake of "Poseidon" and Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus." He just was in "The Mist" and portrayed Gen. Hager in "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer."
On the small screen, he's been in the doctor saga "Gideon's Crossing" and two short-lived series "Hack," opposite David Morse, and "Thief," which earned him an Emmy in 2006. He just appeared in the A&E miniseries "The Andromeda Strain."
"He is one of the most gracious and brilliant actors I've ever worked with," says Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's artistic director who is helming "Hamlet."
"He analyzes the text like nobody's business. He is generous, he is commanding. I mean he's just the cat's pajamas, that's who Andre Braugher is."
Perhaps Braugher's best work was as Baltimore detective Frank Pembleton in the cult show "Homicide." His searing portrayal of a cop was as breathtaking as Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey on "The Shield." Over six seasons, Pembleton was a brooder, a philosopher and a master interrogator, one who could make even innocent men confess. When Braugher wanted to spice up his character, he persuaded the producers to let him suffer a debilitating stroke.
Braugher left the show in 1998 it struggled on without him just one more season with an Emmy and high hopes. Since then, the work hasn't always seemed commensurate with his talent.
"You have to live in the world that you're in. You have to play with the hand that you're dealt," he says. "I think I'd be willing to do almost anything I'd be willing to pursue any great role but then again, I do want to put food on the table."
The offer to return to Central Park this summer to rekindle his love of "Hamlet" was easy to accept. Braugher makes his home nearby in South Orange, N.J., with his actress wife Ami Brabson they met at Juilliard and she played his spouse on "Homicide" and their three boys.
"It's one of the greatest texts in the English language. Period," Braugher says. "When you think about how much commentary has been written about characters in the history of the world, it's Jesus followed by Hamlet."
His Claudius is a tortured man, a king with a chestful of clanking medals who has usurped both his brother's throne and wife, yet seems genuinely horrified to see things spiral so out of control that bodies pile up on the stage at the end like chord wood.
"This wouldn't be one of the greatest pieces in English literature if he was simply a goon," he says. "Shakespeare is wonderful in that way. You can't just put you finger on anybody and say, 'Oh, he's evil, he's good.' You have to make up your own mind."
Up next for Braugher is a role in "Passengers" with Anne Hathaway and a TNT comedy series with Ray Romano he hopes will be picked up. He also hopes to produce a film based on Ron McLarty's book "The Memory of Running," in which he will star. "I want to start creating opportunities for myself that haven't been readily available," Braugher says.
Asked to recall that first fumbling "Hamlet" at Stanford, Braugher says he has no regrets about the way his life changed, even if his father was a bit miffed that their engineering son returned a drama student.
"It turned out well," he says. "I'm one of the most fortunate men on Earth because of that. I'd rather be here than any other place else in the world right now."