‘Ironside’ reimagined “I’m excited to talk to you because I was born at Fort Lewis.”
There’s no mistaking the voice at the other end of the phone. It’s given life to dozens of characters on TV, film and the stage. It’s deep, resonant and fitting for a man once named by People magazine as one of its “Sexiest Men Alive.”
While actor Blair Underwood may be a native son of Pierce County, he admits he has no memories of his time here. Fort Lewis was just a stop on his colonel father’s 27-year-long military career.
“I spent the first three months of my life in Tacoma. That was my jumping off point to the world,” Underwood, 49, says on a lunch break while filming his new NBC crime drama, “Ironside.” The series premiers Wednesday.
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A typical Army kid, Underwood moved a lot with his family (destinations included Colorado, Kansas, Germany, Michigan, Georgia) before finally settling down in Virginia where he attended high school. So, how did a colonel’s son end up as an actor?
“Honestly, it looked like something fun to do. I had watched a lot of TV and movies and I thought, ‘I’d like to try that.’ Fortunately, my parents believed in me and they said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, we’ll help you make that a reality,’” Underwood says. His parents were his original managers.
Underwood first rose to stardom when he played a lawyer on the 1980s drama “LA Law.” Since then, he’s played a doctor on “Sex and the City,” a billionaire on “Dirty Sexy Money,” a teacher in “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” a patient on “In Treatment” and the president of the United States in “The Event.” Though most of his career has centered on television, he’s also acted in movies and on the stage.
“Ironside” is a reboot of that “Ironside,” the drama that starred Raymond Burr as paraplegic Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside. The series ran from 1967 to 1975.
Underwood resists calling his “Ironside” a remake. He says the original cannot be improved upon.
“It was done. It was made – brilliantly so with the amazing actor Raymond Burr,” Underwood says.
“It’s really a reimagining. It’s taking the foundational core elements: His name is Robert T. Ironside, he is a detective and he happens to be in a wheelchair. That’s the jumping off point. All the characters are different. Different city — New York. But the spirit is the same. He always fought to make things right,” Underwood says.
Underwood’s Ironside often bends and breaks regulations to bring criminals to justice. “His interpretation of right, morally and ethically, sometimes can be debatable. But he’s going to fight for what’s right,” Underwood says. The character also wrestles with inner demons.
The show also reflects how life has changed for the disabled since the 1960s. In Burr’s show, he was always pushed by an assistant. Underwood does the pushing in his show. His Ironside is combative, tough and doesn’t take lip from anyone.
Underwood has an adviser on set, David Bryant, who has used a wheelchair since a skiing accident as a teenager.
“Everything you see in terms of the Ironside character’s disability, the physically of that, was informed by David,” Underwood says. On screen Underwood appears to be at home in the chair, leaning to one side as if he had been in it for years. To prepare for the role, the actor said he would take the chair out around his neighborhood, to dinner, and get in and out of his car.
Underwood’s mother has used a wheelchair for about 12 years because of complications from multiple sclerosis. “That’s another point of reference,” he says.
While using the chair allowed Underwood to understand the physicality of the character, the most surprising aspect for him was the way people in public places treated him.
“Most people don’t want to stare. They’re not sure if they should interact with you. They’re not sure if they should help you or get out of the way. There’s this sense of being ignored or this sense of being stared at. You internalize that in different ways depending on who you are,” Underwood says.
He’s used those encounters to inform his character. “We shot a scene the other night in the East Village. (Ironside) looks into a crowd and says, ‘If you’re going to stare, at least get out of the way.’”
Underwood also uses a technical adviser to get the nuances of his detective character correct. “Even if it’s just as simple as holding a gun in the right way,” he says.
The current incarnation of “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS is proof that a classic police series can be rebooted successfully. But there are dozens of police procedurals on TV these days. Underwood insists “Ironside” will stand out from the pack.
“The showrunner, Ken Sanzel, never uses the word ‘procedural.’ He’s adamant about it. Ken was a cop in New York City for 10 years. He has a wealth of stories, ideas and experiences,” Underwood says. “It’s a crime drama that’s wrapped in a character study. It’s just not solving the crime. We get inside this guy’s head.”
The show uses flashbacks to Ironside’s life before he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. Those segments, Underwood says, are used to show “something he did in the past that informs who he is today and what he’s dealing with in the moment.”
Before beginning production of “Ironside,” Underwood came off a Broadway run in “A Streetcar Named Desire” where he played Stanley Kowalski, the role made famous on film by Marlon Brando. As with Burr, Underwood was following in the footsteps of another famous actor. “One of the most famous actors,” Underwood says with a laugh.
Underwood says stage work is his first love. And while he’s done many New York productions, it was his first time on Broadway.
“I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: It was the highlight of my career. To do Broadway was always a dream of mine. I loved every minute of it.”
Underwood will turn 50 next summer, but he calls it just a number. Then he reconsiders, “That number itself is kind of ominous, isn’t it?” But he plans to savor the last year of his 40s, he says.
“I’ll start freaking out the closer I get to Aug. 25 – my birthday.”