The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Blair Underwood
By Mother Brain
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking briefly to Blair Underwood about three years ago when the American Black Film Festival was held in Los Angeles. He was doing a conversation program where he discussed his life and career. I got the chance to ask him about some of his rarely seen short films and what it was like for him to direct and act in his own projects which I felt would benefit me as a filmmaker. He even congratulated me on completing my first feature film at the time too. Coming out of it, I realized that Underwood is the kind of actor who may have never reached the star status level of Will Smith and Denzel Washington; however, thereâ€™s a deep sense of humbleness you find in his body of work as well as a willingness to reach out to those yearning to be part of a complicated industry.
Underwood was born an army brat in Tacoma, Washington in 1964. Most of his early youth was spent growing up around army bases in the U.S. and Germany before attending high school in Virginia. After graduation, Underwood attended the Carnegie-Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh, PA where he studied musical theatre. His alumni status in the school would later help him land his star-making role on television.
Upon moving to New York in 1985, Underwood quickly landed a guest spot on The Cosby Show playing a male friend of Denise Huxtable. But it was another acting role in New York that helped to set the stage for a global phenomenon. In Michael Shultz 1985 hip-hop epic, Krush Groove, Underwood made his feature film debut as Russell Walker, a fictionalized version of Def Jam Records founder-turned-CEO Russell Simmons. Although the film included multiple subplots involving top hip-hop acts of the 80s (Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys, LL Cool J, New Edition, etc), Underwood depicted the dramatical aspect of the story which was based on Russell Simmons early struggles with the Def Jam label. He arguably brought out the best dramatic moments outside the musical acts in the film, specifically the love triangle plot between himself, Run (his brother and Russell Simmonsâ€™ real life brother), and the beautiful but superb singer/drummer Sheila E. Their infamous love scene with the Force MDâ€™s â€œTender Loveâ€ still sends chills down my spine.
The cult success of Krush Groove gave Underwood instant notoriety with black audiences. But television appeared to be his initial calling with guest spots on Knight Rider, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, 21 Jump Street (in a disturbing episode as a straight-A student who brings a gun to school and holds students and teachers hostage), and a brief run on the daytime soap, One Life to Live. Then the hit NBC drama L.A. Law came his way in the fall of 1987. The showâ€™s creator and Carnegie-Mellon alum Steven Bochco was searching for an actor to play the firmâ€™s young black associate from Harvard named Jonathan Rollins and Underwoodâ€™s alum status along with his audition landed him the role. From 1987 to the showâ€™s cancellation in 1994, Underwoodâ€™s character would evolve from an inexperienced but promising attorney to a firm partner and the character would also tackle cases and personal issues that dealt with AIDS, racial profiling, age discrimination, interracial dating, the L.A. riots, etc. Although the role won him an NAACP Image Award and a Golden Globe Nomination, the greater irony of the Rollins role was during a visit to Harvard during the height of the showâ€™s success when Underwood met a young man named Barack Obama who was the president of Harvard Law Review. Little did he know the parallels between fiction and reality would collide a decade later!
L.A. Law helped Underwood land a series of television roles and guest spots over the course of the run. Then there were lesser known but controversial personal projects like Underwoodâ€™s short film and directorial debut, The Second Coming, where he played a black Jesus with dreadlocks. The 30 minute short, written and co-produced by Underwoodâ€™s brother Frank, was only seen in film festivals. After Lawâ€™s cancellation, Underwood threw himself into villain roles in Mario Van Peeblesâ€™ black western, Posse, and the crime thriller Just Cause opposite Sean Connery and Lawrence Fishburne. The latter proved to be the most significant as Underwood convincingly plays an accused child rapist and murderer on death row who uses Conneryâ€™s law professor character to prove the guilt of of another inmate played by Ed Harris. But the filmâ€™s twisted climax which I refuse to spoil led to perhaps the most riveting performance of Underwoodâ€™s career.
The late 90s brought a whole plethora of roles for Underwood: Jada Pinkettâ€™s love interest in Set it Off, a NASA navigator in Deep Impact, a psychotic widow in Tim Reidâ€™s thriller Asunder, and a troubled soldier in Rules of Engagement. He continued to make his mark on television by portraying Jackie Robinson in HBOâ€™s Soul of the Game. In the 2000s, Underwood appeared in Steven Soderberghâ€™s Full Frontal as a TV star getting his big movie break. He shared a good deal of screen time with Julia Roberts and even performed a mesmerizing rap/monologue about the difficulties of Hollywoodâ€™s prejudice when it comes to romanticizing leading black men. There was also another sinister turn added to Underwoodâ€™s resume as an abusive fiancee to one of Madeaâ€™s nieces in Tyler Perryâ€™s Madeaâ€™s Family Reunion in 2006. Once again, Underwood showed a great deal of versatility in portraying a successful but despicable character and gives the audience a great deal of satisfaction once karma slaps him like a bad habit near the end.
As Underwood continued to make headway in movies, television was still his prime medium for success. He had a brief stint as Dr. Robert Leeds on HBOâ€™s Sex and the City in 2003, traumatized fighter pilot Alex Prince on the first season of HBOâ€™s In Treatment, and the grade school love interest of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on CBSâ€™ The New Adventures of Old Christine. His current success on television came this past fall with NBCâ€™s The Event where Underwood plays U.S. President Elias Martinez who finds out about a government conspiracy involving extraterrestrials. Some critics have noted that Underwoodâ€™s career came full circle with the role due to the parallels between himself, his L.A. Law character, and the current President of the United States, Barack Obama.
In spite of all of his accomplishments and award nominations, Blair Underwood continues to work hard as an actor and director. He remains versatile in his acting choices, often times going against the grain to play against his looks and personality. For him, success does not mean multi-million dollar hits but instead itâ€™s all about what he can offer. At the same token, he advises those who want to be part of the business to try to treat it like a business at the end of the day and also to hone every discipline possible â€œso that you have more opportunities for more employmentâ€.