Saying that NBC's Ironside is merely a remake of the popular series that starred Raymond Burr as a wheelchair-bound detective is selling the drama way short.
Part crime procedural, part character drama, the 21st century Ironside is anything but static - and this Detective Ironside is fighting demons, taking down bad guys and finding time for the ladies. Of course, it also helps that the character is played by Blair Underwood, who we've loved in dramas like LA Law and The Event, along with comedies such as Sex and the City and The New Adventures of Old Christine. The series also stars Pablo Schreiber, Neal Bledsoe, Spencer Grammer, Kenneth Choi and Brent Sexton.
I sat down with Underwood recently to talk over the role and how his Broadway gig helped him land back on TV in this role.
TV Fanatic: During the TCA panel for the show, you mentioned how [NBC President] Bob Greenblatt saw you in Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, so I want to know if a role like Stanley changes you as an actor?
Blair Underwood: Oh, my god. I think so. Nicole Ari Parker, she played Blanche, and I remember in the midst of doing it she said, 'What are we going to do after this?' Just playing those roles and doing any production eight shows a week for 5 or 6 months, you can’t help but be finely tuned, you know? And I think that was the byproduct of that, so I was just chomping at the bit to find out what the next thing was going to be and I’m so grateful and glad that this came along because I got a chance to channel a lot of those nuances and emotions that I got to play there. They were very comfortable. They were right under the skin.
TVF: You get to channel some of that Stanley rage in the pilot when you are in the wheelchair doing your workout but you just feel everything building with the flashbacks…
BU: That primal scream. That “Stella!”
TVF: Talk to me about the origins of you playing this role, Ironside. What made you say ‘yes’ to it?
BU: Oh man. It made sense. What made me say ‘yes’ to it was the fact that it was, I thought, a multi-layered, very complex, very compelling character. And to put him in the context of a network television series, I thought it was interesting. They come along, but not often. These characters are usually found on cable.
And so one thing I said to Bob Greenblatt, I had a deal with NBC, a development deal, and we sat down and talked the night before he came and saw Streetcar and he said, 'Well, what are you looking to do, comedy? Drama?' And I really felt like I wanted to kind of do drama and do it in this way. What I said to him at the time was, 'I’m excited about doing this with you because you come from the cable world. You come from Showtime and we know where NBC is with the ratings and everything else.'
When you are in that position, sometimes you're not afraid to take risks. And I could tell from the choices he made in that last few years he wasn’t afraid to take risks and I said, 'I’ll bet on me. If you bet on me. Let’s take the ride.' And that was just in general in terms of ‘let’s do a deal together.’ And then 6 or 7 months later, right in pilot season, he called my manager one night and sent 'Ironside' and another script, that was shot by the way and wasn’t picked up, I’m glad I picked the right one.
TVF: Where does the Bobby/Gary relationship go? Gary (Sexton’s character), his ex-partner, is still holding on to the past whereas your character is trying to move forward.
BU: Oh man, it continues. He’s a regular, of course, as you see, so we constantly kind of go back to that and see where they are, and then, you know, they’re like biological brothers. They’re more than friends. They’re biological brothers and that’s why sometimes they're the most contentious as we know. I think where they are is, [Gary] is dealing with some alcoholism, some drinking issues, obviously some guilt issues. Ironside is dealing with some anger issues. They’ll continue to clash but they’ll continue to connect because they understand each other.
TVF: Ironside does see some action with the ladies but is he capable of a more emotional relationship with a woman, at least in the beginning of the series?
BU: That’s a great question. That’s the big question for him. He doesn’t feel he is. I think we will find out more about that, but the woman you see in the flashback, I should have married her, that’s his heart. That’s the one that got away. So now everything else is casual. All these others are just women that come in and out. I think deep down he wants something more. But she’s not there anymore.
TVF: How has it been working in the chair? Have you gotten used to it? Is it becoming like an extension of you?
BU: I’ve heard people say, “you wear your chair” and of course, the more time I spend, the more I get used to it. This is from just a technical standpoint.
TVF: Now the team he’s assembled, are there personal connections with each of them that we’ll find out about?
BU: We will find out. Some are not necessarily personal but I can say with each one he sees a bit of himself with each one. He sees the potential in each one.
TVF: There are a lot of procedurals on the air but what do you think sets Ironside apart?
BU: Well, it’s a couple things. I think it is familiar enough in that it’s a crime show, and it’s self-contained. There’s a crime, there’s investigation, there’s a resolution. That’s familiar to us as an audience. What sets it apart is, I think, the attention to the characters that are solving the crime. Number one, there’s also the fact that he is in a wheelchair. What’s been interesting watching it now…and Ken Sanzel, our show runner, has really been kind of surprised by this, he said 'you know what? The physics of watching this man in a wheelchair, how you play a scene and how it reads, is very different than anything else he’s ever done and you don’t see often.' This particular character, not just the fact that he’s in a wheelchair, this particular character in this context, he is constantly moving. He’s constantly rolling. There's a furnace burning inside him always. So it’s hard for him to stay put in one place.
Ironside airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.
Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.