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Blair Underwood rolls in new 'Ironside'

From left, Pablo Schreiber as Virgil and Blair

From left, Pablo Schreiber as Virgil and Blair Underwood as Robert Ironside in "Ironside": "Pentimento," Episode 102. Credit: NBC

You may know the name, but you don't know the man. At least not this time.

After his long run on "Perry Mason," Raymond Burr established another iconic television character as Robert Ironside, the San Francisco detective chief who conducted investigations from a wheelchair. The chair remains, but virtually everything else is different -- including the character's attitude and the New York locale -- as Blair Underwood updates the role and the 1967-75 series when "Ironside" returns to NBC Wednesday at 10 p.m.

"I'm so excited about this," says former "L.A. Law" and "Dirty Sexy Money" co-star Underwood, also a producer of the new show. "I get a chance to do the things I love doing ... colors and textures and tones, like the aggressive side that I've had chances to show onstage and in films but not necessarily on network television. It's nice to be able to do it on this platform, but it feels very familiar and comfortable to me."

It's not as comfortable for the felons that the new, much edgier Ironside takes down, with his opening backseat interrogation of a suspected kidnapper confirming how rugged the crime buster can be. "There's a great love and nostalgia for what 'Ironside' was, and for what Raymond Burr brought to the character," Underwood acknowledges, "but at the same time, there's a whole new group of people who never heard of it."

Like the first Ironside, the current one was made paraplegic by a bullet to the spine, but he's now a street detective rather than a supervisor. Pablo Schreiber ("The Wire"), Spencer Grammer (daughter of Kelsey and former star of "Greek") and Neal Bledsoe play his colleagues, with Brent Sexton ("The Killing") as Ironside's troubled ex-partner. Kenneth Choi also stars as the by-the-book captain they answer to ... named Ed, in apparent tribute to Don Galloway's character in the original version.

"I think the style of storytelling in television, certainly in crime dramas, has changed greatly since the '60s and early '70s," Underwood says. "We really get into the psychology and the emotional aspects of this man, which are directly linked to his disability and the accident that happened only two years prior. That's a tremendous hurdle and journey."

"Tremendous" also applies to the responsibility Underwood felt to honor the original "Ironside," yet to create something fresh at the same time, while filming the pilot episode.

"I think we establish the character early on," he says, "and really give you glimpses inside, the demons he wrestles with and the memories he has to contend with."

Still, though he is the new Ironside, Underwood realizes the update isn't only a matter of him clicking with viewers.

"Most of my career, I've been a part of ensemble shows," he reflects. "I love that sense of family and community, and that's what we'll do here, broaden out those other characters. In the second episode, we already see how they come into play and how he affects their lives. And how they affect his life, which is great."

"Ironside" still rests largely on Underwood, though, and he felt it important to have a producing credit as well.

"If you're a lead in a show, you have a certain amount of say, which is fine. I've been producing for a few years now -- I have my own company called Intrepid -- and I've directed, so for the last 15 years or so, I've had an interest in the other side of the camera. It's never been 'instead of,' but 'in addition to.' It allows you to be a part of those other conversations and see how this whole process works, even choosing the other actors."

The reason a paraplegic actor wasn't cast as Ironside was that "it was always meant to see Ironside both in present day and go back into his life prior to the shooting," explains Teri Weinberg, an executive producer. "In this particular situation, we needed an actor who was able to take on both of those roles. It was really about the best actor for the role, but it was one that required an actor to not only be on his feet in his previous life but also confined to the chair."

The result, Underwood hopes, will build on a television legacy while generating a new one. He says, "We took the 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 re-imagined. All-new characters, a new city, new texture, new storytelling, new audience. There's different expectations."

Underwood learns to maneauver a wheelchair

Learning to maneuver a wheelchair was a major part of Blair Underwood's "Ironside" prep by necessity. He reports, "A gentleman named David Bryant is my technical adviser. He is a paraplegic. He was paralyzed at age 19 from a skiing accident. He's been paralyzed for 35 years. A lot of what you see in this portrayal of Ironside is inspired by him. He is very self-sufficient. Before we shot the pilot, we spent many, many hours together, just kind of doing what he does and going out in public. He said, 'Just take the chair and go around your neighborhood.'

"The first thing I noticed was there were no handles on his wheelchair. And I said, 'Dude, why don't you have handles on your wheelchair, man?' He said, 'Why would I want to? Why would I want somebody to help me out? I'm independent. Whatever I can do for myself, I'm going to do for myself.' So the first thing we did was cut the handles off the wheelchair. That speaks to some of his independence. David is like that with everything, and Ironside is very much like that in terms of his self-sufficiency."

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