Though he's able-bodied in real life, actor Blair Underwood has no trouble executing the difficulties of the tough paraplegic cop he plays on NBC's "Ironside."
Underwood's performance is inspired by two people in his life: David Bryant, a paraplegic himself who has been disabled for 30 years, and Underwood's mother.
"I hope I'm not speaking out of turn," he says in the bustling lobby of a hotel here, "but my mother has had multiple sclerosis for 10-15 years. She's had a number of challenges throughout the years, going through depression - and very difficult challenging times and what that did to her and to a family,' he says.
"Just a month ago she had a mini stroke and was in the hospital. Those challenges - what it does - it puts you in touch with your mortality. I still have my parents and everybody close to me is still around. That can't last forever, and I know that. So a couple of times over the last 10 years we thought we were going to lose her. But she's strong. She keeps coming back."
His mentor, he says, is Bryant. "He was paralyzed at age 19 from a skiing accident, coming down the slope, did a flip, which he'd done before. He knew the flip wasn't quite right. He landed right on his spinal cord. He said something very interesting to me, 'It took me 10 years to grasp and understand and accept this is who I am.'
"He said prior to that every sunset, every week, every month, every year that passed he kept remembering that older version of himself, and he kept seeing that person more and more disappear. And he finally got to the point where he said, 'That person's gone. This is who I am.'"
The character of Robert Ironside became a TV staple in the late 1960s when Raymond Burr played him as a quiet, cerebral copper.
Underwood's take is far more physical. "Given that when we meet Ironside he's only two years into the journey, he hasn't given into it yet," says Underwood, who's dressed in a beige jacket, navy T-shirt and jeans.
"He's going to exercise, he's going to will it back. Maybe modern medicine will catch up to what his injury is. Those are some of his demons. What a challenge! And that's what I was excited about."
Underwood's done it before. People remember him from "L.A. Law" or "Dirty Sexy Money" or "The Event."
But it was his role as the brutish Stanley Kowalski in Broadway's "Streetcar Named Desire" last year that earned him this part. 'Bob Greenblatt (chairman of NBC Entertainment) came to see it. Stanley Kowalski, he's physical, he's visceral, he's aggressive, he's damaged - all those things. But he's all those things that's in this new version of 'Ironside,' a lot of those colors. I don't think if Bob hadn't seen that (play) he would've thought of me."
Underwood, 49, shares many of those qualities.
He was an Army brat, constantly traveling with his family as a kid. He moved eight or nine times by the time he was 15. "I remember being different, especially in Michigan where I was the only African-American kid in an all-white school for two years.
"But my community of friends were so cool, and they opened up and embraced me ... Then my high school, it was 90 percent African-Americans in Petersburg, Va. So it was not just in terms of humanity and people, but also racially," he says.
"I had the opportunity to see how people acted and interacted, what makes people comfortable and uncomfortable. That pretty much made me fearless. So you're not intimidated by anybody. It really does. My father was a military officer, so we were children of an officer, so that gives you a status and confidence. So I never bought into that I was less than anybody else or subservient or a second-class citizen. I don't care what society may have been dictating at any given time. That's not me. It gives you great confidence."
Another source of confidence is his 19-year marriage to Desiree and his three children, ages 16, 14 and 12. The secret to their lasting marriage, he says with his usual resolve, "is not allowing ourselves to grow apart."
Premieres 10 tonight on WCAU-TV 10 and WMGM-TV 40