BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Blair Underwood has gotten under the skin of many different people during his nearly 30 year career. He’s been a troubled Navy pilot on HBO’s underrated “In Treatment,” the president of the United States on the ill-fated NBC supernatural drama “The Event,” famed barker Stanley Kowalski on Broadway in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and, of course, a slick lawyer in the role that first brought him widespread attention on “L.A. Law.”
Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC, Underwood returns to tackle the role of New York detective Robert Ironside, who is adjusting to fighting crime from a wheelchair since being shot on the job, Underwood says this update took only three elements from the late ’60s- mid-’70s series that starred Raymond Burr.
“We took his name, Robert T. Ironside, the fact that he is a detective, and the fact that he happens to be in a wheelchair. Everything else is reimagined. All new characters, a new city, new texture, new storytelling, new audience. There’s different expectations. So it is a crime drama wrapped in a character study.”
We chatted with Underwood at the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour.
Q. NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt saw you in “Streetcar” on Broadway. Was that partly responsible for you getting this role?
‘We took his name, Robert T. Ironside, the fact that he is a detective, and the fact that he happens to be in a wheelchair. Everything else is reimagined’
A. We were talking about a development/holding deal, and the objective was to find something we could all be passionate about. I didn’t know this until after the upfronts but he said that once he saw it he said, “I don’t know what, but we’ll find something.” There was no “Ironside” at that moment. . . . because of the character in “Streetcar” — the physicality, the emotionality, the intensity — I think when this came across his desk he thought “[Blair] can do that.” I don’t know if he had not seen that if he would’ve known from my other body of work that it was possible.
Q. If he had seen “In Treatment” he would’ve known.
A. Thank you. I loved doing that show. But you know how it is. Even in theater, you can do a great performance every night, but the quantity of people that see it is very different than what will see one night of even the lowest-rated show on NBC and HBO, so that show was highly regarded but not a lot of people saw it [laughs].
Q. Once people see the pilot and the flashbacks of Ironside pre-paralysis, they will understand why the producers cast an able-bodied actor. But that choice in casting is a sensitive topic. Even if you’re not representing every member of any specific community, do you feel a hefty responsibility to get it “right” to the extent that you can?
A. I feel it is a hefty responsibility. I feel it is delicate. I feel a responsibility as an actor and a producer on the show that we have great deference and respect. My mother is in a wheelchair, so it’s very close to me and it’s got to be done in the right way. That said, one of things that my technical adviser David Bryant said is, “You have to remember that every single person’s journey is unique and I can share my experience with you, but it’s going to be different for Ironside. So take what you will and then make this character your own.”
Q. And in the same vein you’re updating a character created by Raymond Burr, but you’ve mentioned you didn’t watch the original. Have you gone back and watched at all?
A. I have, just for fun.
Q. Are there things you discovered that you found useful for this modern version?
A. Yeah, wanting to find what people responded to so viscerally, what people loved about the show so much, I think what I did come away with is that he was a hero of the people. He will always fight for the underdog no matter what, and that is what I see as the spirit of the show and the spirit of the character. And that holds true with our version.