Brad William Henke has died. A former NFL player who later transitioned into acting, Henke was best known for his two-season role on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, where he played brutal, antagonistic prison guard Desi Piscatella in the show’s fourth and fifth seasons. His other major credits include Lost, Shameless, Justified, and more, with many such shows taking advantage of both his imposing physique, and talents for projecting both cruelty and humanity. Per Variety, Henke died Tuesday, with no cause of death released. He was 56.
Born in Nebraska, Henke played football for the University Of Arizona before being drafted by the New York Giants in 1989, before eventually making his way over to the Denver Broncos. A series of injuries ended his football career in 1992, but opened the way to acting, after a chance encounter with a fellow former player led to him getting cast in a football player-focused Pizza Hut commercial. Henke swiftly caught the acting bug, and continued pursuing a career as a performer for the next 25 years. And while his early career was mostly filled with smaller, single-episode turns, they were single episodes of big shows: ER, Sports Night, and CSI all dot his early resume. (As well as a single-season starring role in Showtime’s short-lived road trip comedy Going To California.)
Henke’s career only improved as the 2000s gave way to the 2010s; in 2009, he had a multi-episode part on one of the final seasons of Lost, as one of the henchpeople of the mysterious Jacob, and later booked a role as one of the malevolent Bennett siblings during the second season of Justified. (He was also the guy who defaces Pam’s mural in The Office, setting off part of the whole “Brian the boom mic guy” subplot, but no one can really blame him for that.) Henke’s most prominent role came in 2016, though, when he was cast as Piscatella in Orange Is The New Black. As the cruel new face of the guards at Litchfield Penitentiary, Henke was integral to many of the most dramatic moments of the show’s later seasons—from the death of Samira Wiley’s Poussey, to the ensuing riots and his standoff with Danielle Brooks’ Taystee, to his own sudden death at the hands of the indifferent authorities. The part—which won Henke, along with the rest of the Netflix series’ cast, a Best Performance By An Ensemble Award from the Screen Actors Guild—allowed him to play a character who was often monstrous, but who was still occasionally allowed to show some fleeting sparks of humanity.
In 1998—way back during his “guest starring on ER” days—former college football star Henke gave an interview to a local Tucson newspaper, discussing his philosophy about the odd turns his life had taken, from sports star to actor. (With stints as a substitute teacher, assistant football coach, and jewelry salesman in between.) “I’m fortunate I’ve found something I love to do a million times more than playing football,” Henke said at the time. “I was kind of lost for a while after my football career ended, and I’m so glad I found this. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with the best of my life already behind me.”
Henke continued to work steadily up through this year, racking up nearly 100 credits across a long career. He recently appeared as Tom Cullen in the new version of The Stand, and popped up just a couple of months back in an episode of Law And Order: Special Victims Unit.