Brad William Henke, N.F.L. Player Who Turned to Acting, Dies at 56

Brad William Henke, a former N.F.L. player who later turned to acting and became known for his role as a prison guard on “Orange Is the New Black” among other appearances across a 25-year career in film and television, died on Tuesday. He was 56.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Matt DelPiano, who did not give the location or an exact cause but said the actor died in his sleep. In May 2021, Mr. Henke shared on Instagram that he had a 90 percent blockage in an artery, and the next month he said he had received two stents in his heart, among other ailments.

Mr. Henke played Desi Piscatella, a gay corrections officer at Litchfield Federal Penitentiary, in more than two dozen episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix from 2016 to 2018. His character was an integral part of the drama in its fourth and fifth seasons, and in 2017, he shared in the cast’s Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series.

Although “Orange” could be considered Mr. Henke’s breakout role, his acting career began in 1996 with “Mr. Wrong,” a film starring Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Pullman and Joan Cusack. He also appeared in dozens of other movies and television shows, including “Space Jam,” “ER,” “Judging Amy,” “Dexter,” “October Road” and “Lost.”

Brad William Henke was born on April 10, 1966, in Columbus, Neb. He was raised in Littleton, Colo., and played football for the University of Arizona in the late 1980s. He was drafted by the New York Giants in 1989 as a 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive lineman but was cut, according to a 1998 interview with The Tucson Citizen, and he went on to play for the Denver Broncos and played on the team when it lost the 1990 Super Bowl to the San Francisco 49ers.

His football career ended in the early 1990s after several injuries and he took up a number of jobs, including assistant football coach at a community college in California. However, an unexpected encounter with the former Oakland Raiders player Rod Martin set him on a new path.

“Rod mentioned there was a need for actors to play football players for commercials, so I tried out for it and got one for Pizza Hut,” Mr. Henke told The Tucson Citizen. “While I was there, a guy invited me to attend an acting class. I went and it hit me that this is what I wanted to do.”

Mr. Henke’s acting career progressed with each credit and so did the depth and types of roles he landed. In a 2021 interview with CGMagazine, Mr. Henke said that at the start of his career he was learning the business and was taking jobs to earn money. “Lately, I’ve just tried to do it for the love of it,” he said. “Just cause I love creating the characters — figuring out how they talk, how they stand, all the physical things and all the emotional things.”

Mr. Henke told Tell-Tale TV in 2020 that his role as Tom Cullen in the television mini-series “The Stand,” the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same title, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Alexander Skarsgard, was challenging yet rewarding.

“It was the best experience I’ve had in acting so far in my whole career,” he said. “I haven’t had very many opportunities in my career where I have been offered this job three months before it starts. So many times, it’s just right before it starts. So I had so much more time to work on it and prepare and just think about it, dream about it.”

A full list of survivors was not immediately available.

Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.

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