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Underwood, Blair 1964–

Blair Underwood 1964

Actor, director, producer

At a Glance

A Few Lucky Breaks

Fought Typecasting for Good Roles

Expanded His Horizons

Sources

Blair Underwood is best known for his portrayal of the upscale lawyer Jonathan Rollins on the highly successful television show L. A. Law. While his character has been called cocky, abrasive and arrogant, his friends are quick to point out that the real Blair Underwood is friendly and sweet. That is, until he is confronted with a cause that has become a passion for him.

As an outspoken champion for civil rights, Underwood has worked hard to get other black actors and actresses better representation in the entertainment industry. He has also dedicated himself to taking roles about blacks in history that are portrayed in an uplifting and accurate light. But Underwood does not limit his concern to correcting the image of past events.

In 1991 Underwood took his activism to a U.S. Senate Committee examining the plight of black men. Along with Clifford Alexander, the first African American to serve as U.S. Army secretary, Underwood pleaded an emotional case to government leaders. Jet recounted part of his testimony. If we and all American citizens will commit ourselves to addressing the plight of todays African American male, the African American male of tomorrow will be committed to his education; to his family; and to his career rather than to a correctional facility or an early grave. Such impassioned pleas are not un common for this son of a former Army colonel and an interior designer. Bom in Tacoma, Washington, the second son of Frank and Marilyn Underwood, Blair credits his family with helping him keep everything in perspective. One thing my folks always told me, he told Marilyn Marshall of Ebony, is that the same people you step on going up, you will see on the way down.

His strong family relationships helped ease the pain of the almost yearly moves from places like Warren, Michigan to Stuttgart, Germany to Richmond, Virginia. With each move, Underwood credits an optimistic outlook with helping him to beat the moving blues. Whether it was the people, the climate or the location, it was important to find something about a place that you liked, he told Pamela Johnson of Essence. He tried almost everything to make the transitions easier, including little league football and, when he was eight and nine years old living in Colorado, swimming competitively. After he placed fourth in the state in freestyle, his parents thought he might want to pursue swimming as a career.

At a Glance

Born in 1964 in Tacoma, WA; son of Frank (a U.S. Army colonel) and Marilyn (an interior designer) Underwood. Education: Carnegie-Mellon University, B.F.A., 1988.

Actor, director, and producer. Began acting in high school plays in Petersburg, Virginia. Television appearances include guest spots on The Cosby Show and Knight Rider, 1985; recurring role on One Life to Live, 1985; series regular on Downtown, 1986; series regular on L. A. Law, 1987-94. Television movies include Murder in Mississippi, 1990; Heat Wave, 1990; and Father & Son: Dangerous Relations, 1993. Motion picture appearances include Krush Groove, 1985; Posse, 1993; and The Second Coming, 1993 (also director and producer). Has produced music videos for Tony Terrys With You and That Kind of Guy. Also appeared in Measure for Measure, produced in New York City, 1993.

Awards: NAACP Image Award, 1994,

Addresses: 8500 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 520, Beverly Hills, CA 90211.

But Underwood had other ideashe wanted to become a cowboy. In fact, Underwood readily admits that he wanted to be a cowboy long before he wanted to be an actor. Fortunately for him, he has been able to do both as an adult. Along with horseback riding, he has taken part in rodeosin 1989 he served as Grand Marshal for the Coors Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo in Los Angelesand acted in Posse, Hollywoods first major western with an all-black cast.

The Underwood family settled in Petersburg, Virginia, when Blair was 13 years old. It was in high school, where he performed in school plays and served as student body president in his senior year, that Underwood decided that he wanted to make acting his career. We werent sure this was the route to take, his mother later told TV Guide, but my husband, Frank, and I have always said, If its reasonable and honest and its what our kids want, well support them.

With his parents support, Underwood moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to attend Carnegie-Mellon University. After almost three years as a musical theater major, he became concerned that the cost of his education was putting too much of a strain on his familys resources, and so he quit school. Eventually though, Underwood completed the requirements for a bachelors of fine arts degree. By using his first season on L. A. Law as an internship and writing his senior thesis on his experiences as a professional actor, he was able to secure his degree in the spring of 1988.

Underwoods decision to leave school in January of 1985 was prompted by his belief that he had learned enough about his craft and that it was time for him to make some money. He later recounted his decision to Johnson. The day I got my 8-by-10s I told my roommate, Im going to New York to just show these pictures around and see what happens. The whole game plan was to get out there anyway you can, any project.

A Few Lucky Breaks

Expecting to spend the next few years as a struggling actor, Underwood was delighted when he got his first project, a guest appearance on The Cosby Show, after only two days in New York. This was soon followed by a second appearance on Cosby, a guest shot as a punk rocker on the television series Knight Rider and a role in the movie Krush Groove. Within this same time period, Underwood landed a three-month stint on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. His character, Bobby Blue, proved to be so popular that the producers offered to extend his contract.

Underwood turned down the high-paying, steady job on one of Americans most popular soap operas in the hopes of getting something better. And, in true Blair Underwood good fortune, two weeks after he turned down the job, he signed on as a regular for a new CBS prime-time series. Underwood moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1986 to begin work on Downtown, a show about the misadventures of a cop and four of his parolees, one of whom would be portrayed by Underwood.

Unfortunately, his quick rise in the business came to a standstill. After taping only 13 episodes, the series was canceled. The whole experience left Underwood questioning his decision to leave New York, but more importantly he started to question the integrity of the industry in general. It was frustrating, he told Johnson. It started out to be about a cop and four parolees, and by the end, it was about a cop and four little cheerleaders in the background. We didnt have that much to do. Youre supposedly a regular on the series, but you pop in every once in a while and say a few sarcastic lines, and thats it.

It took almost two years for Underwood to get his next role in a series, but fortunately for him, it proved to be one that would catapult him into the limelight. When Steven Bochco, the creator and executive producer of the Emmy Award-Winning TV series L. A. Law, decided to add a black character to the series, Underwood got the job. Once again, good luck had come Underwoods way.

The weekly drama that chronicled the lives of a group of high-powered California lawyers in and out of the courtroom was already a success when Underwood joined the show. His character, Jonathan Rollins, was patterned after the white attorneys portrayed on the showwell-educated, polished, and articulate. But Underwoods character was distinguished from the others by the size of his ego, something that Underwood relished. He has spice and hits you right off the bat, he told Jet. He makes you say, Whoa, who is this brother?

It didnt take long before he was hoping to bring the struggles of being a black man into the scripts. I would love to have them show Jonathan driving a car and being stopped, he told Susan Littwin of TV Guide, because Jonathans never dealt with that. Hes come from money, from a very privileged background. Underwood, however, did understand that type of subtle racism; shortly after moving to Los Angeles, he was pulled over by the police for what he believes was no reason except that he was a black man driving a nice car.

Underwood was also hoping that the producers would bring a love interest into the storyline of the show. Ironically, when his character finally did have a serious relationship, it was with a white actress. Though he was pleased that the show had broken a taboo by showing a black man and a white women in a love scene on television, he was equally glad that it didnt turn into a serious interracial love affair. I think its important to show a character like Jonathan, he confessed to Littwin, who is obviously a minority in the world he operates innot selling out. There are so many intelligent, beautiful black actresses. Id love to work with them and show that relationship.

Fought Typecasting for Good Roles

As the popularity of the character of Jonathan Rollins grew, so did the national recognition that Underwood received. It wasnt long before he was making appearances on Oprah and Today, gracing the covers of Jet and Ebony magazines, and serving as a judge in the Miss America pageant. He also started taking advantage of his new celebrity by exploring activities like piloting F-18 jets with the Navys Blue Angels and race car driving.

Underwoods talents as an actor were quickly being noticed, though the persona of Jonathan Rollins was also typecasting him. When he auditioned for the role of civil rights worker James Chaney in the 1990 made-for-TV movie Murder in Mississippi, producers were reluctant to cast him. We didnt want him, the movies producer Mark Wolper told Peoples Joanne Kaufman. We didnt feel he could get out of his LA. Law personaclean-cut and uptown. We didnt believe he could be down-home. Underwood, determined to get the part, showed up at the audition in sweat pants and a T-shirt. After reading only three lines he got the job.

The moviebased on the relationship of three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 because they were trying to register African Americans to votecovered the same ground as the 1988 feature film Mississippi Burning. Even though the two films centered on the same story and characters, Murder in Mississippi was hailed by critics and fam% members of the slain activists as a more authentic version of the actual events. Robert Seidenberg wrote in American Film: As a rule, televisions a bad place to look for historical precision. But Murder in Mississippi proves a startling exception, like the controversial Mississippi Burning, this fact-based drama focuses on the Freedom Summer of 1964, but it seeks to paint a truer picture of that critical epoch.

Underwood was pleased to be in a movie that was honored for telling the truth about the civil rights movement; he was also forthright in his own opinion of the two movies. Mississippi Burning was a brilliant film visually, he told Littwin. The acting was incredible. Dramatically, it was exciting. Historically it was b.s. What people dont understand really, because of the way Hoflywood has portrayed blacks from the South, is that they werent all afraid; they werent all downcast. The heroes of the civil rights movement were the blacks. We were fighting for ourselves.

Later that same year, Underwood made another film about the black struggle for equal rights. Heat Wave, a Turner Network Television (TNT) made-for-cable movie, recreated the 1965 Watts riotsa six-day uproar in Los Angeles in which 34 people were killed. The story focused on Underwoods character, Bob Richardson, the first black reporter on the staff of the Los Angeles Times. Since whites were not allowed into the riot area, Richardsons eyewitness accounts were relied upon for the most accurate information. Once again, critics hailed the movie as a winner. People gave it an A+ with an opening paragraph the went beyond praise: I screened a rough cut of this filmwhich means the editing was unfinished. Its hard to see how they can make this one much better.

While Underwoods movie career was meeting with great success, his television series was beginning to become a favorite target for critics. In the fall of 1992, Jeff Jarvis belittled LA. Law in TV Guide. LA. Law has become a cheap and stupid parody of itself/ the reporter claimed. Laws redi problem: it has simply lived too long. Its a candle that once burned brilliantly but now has run out of wax and wick. Unfortunately, the ratings also reflected Jarviss sentiments. Once a Thursday night staple for many Americans, LA. Law dropped from its perch as one of the top-rated shows. In 1994, though it had regained some of its reputation from the critics and fans, the damage was done. The series was canceled after its eighth season.

Sensing that the series had run its course, Underwood continued to make his mark in large and small screen films in the early 1990s. His 1993 television movie Father & Son: Dangerous Relations explores the struggles of being black in America. The story centers on a father and son who are reunited for the first time in decades while serving time in prison. The movie exposes the lives of a father, played by Louis Gossett, Jr., and his son, played by Underwood, who also served as an associate producer, as they try to develop a relationship.

Posse, a 1993 feature film, was one that Underwood dreamed of making ever since he was a child, even though he was disappointed not to be cast as a cowboy. The movieabout a Spanish-American War deserter who travels the Wild West with his band of marauders looking to avenge his fathers murderreceived mixed reviews from critics.

Expanded His Horizons

Not one to limit himself to television and film acting, Underwood expand his horizons further. In 1993 he started directing music videos, including two for recording artist Tony Terry. He also appeared as Claudio in Measure for Measure at the Shakespeare Festival in New York Citys Central Park that summer. Around the same time, he completed work on the film The Second Coming, serving as director, co-writer, executive producer, and star. The short film chronicles the life of a black Jesus Christ in modem times. My hope is to open minds, Underwood told Upscale, especially young peoples, and give them enough information to validate their spirituality and even their existence.

As Underwood continues pursuing his lifelong dream as an actor, he vows to continue his fight for racial equality. He believes that part of the fight should be to correct an inaccurate past. Underwood is hoping to produce a miniseries about Nat Love, a 19th-century black cowboy, sometime in the future. He believes that respect for ones heritage is a privilege that will strengthen personal identity. If you know where you come from, he told Kaufman, no one can shake your tree.

Sources

American Film, February 1990, p. 40.

Ebony, March 1989, p. 96; May 1990, p. 98; October 1993, p. 46.

Entertainment Weekly, January 31, 1992, p. 44.

Essence, June 1988, p. 52.

Jet, February 8, 1988, p. 58; February 5, 1990, p. 64; March 5, 1990, p. 58; August 13, 1990, p. 56; June 10, 1991, p. 4.

Macleans, May 17, 1993, p. 50.

New York, February 5, 1990, p. 82; August 2, 1993, p. 57.

New York Times, February 17, 1994, p. C22.

People, February 5, 1990, pp. 8, 51; August 13, 1990, p. 8; April 19, 1993, p. 11; May 31, 1993, p. 14.

Time, May 11, 1991, p. 10; August 24, 1992, p. 71; December 12, 1992, p. 7.

TVGuide, February 3, 1990, p. 8; May 11, 1991, p. 10; December 12, 1992, p. 7; April 17, 1993, p. 105; May 14, 1994, p. 8.

Upscale, December/January, 1993, p. 114.

USA Today, April 15, 1993, p. D3.

Variety, February 7, 1990, p. 158; July 26, 1993, p. 30.

Joe Kuskowski

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Underwood, Blair 1964-

Underwood, Blair 1964-

PERSONAL

Born August 25, 1964, in Tacoma, WA; son of Frank (U.S. Army Colonel) and Marilyn (an interior decorator) Underwood; married Desiree DaCosta, 1994; children: Paris, Briell, Blake. Education: Carnegie-Mellon University, B.F.A., theatre.

Addresses:

Agent—Paradigm, 360 N. Crescent Dr., North Building, Beverly Hills, Ca 90210; William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019. Manager—Thruline Entertainment, 9250 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Publicist—Wallman Public Relations, 10323 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 109, Los Angeles, CA 90025.

Career:

Actor. Eclectic Entertainment, (production company), founder and partner, 1994-. Appeared in television commercials for Burger King.

Awards, Honors:

Golden Globe Award nomination, best supporting actor in a series, miniseries, or motion picture made for television, 1990, for L.A. Law; Image Award, best actor in a dramatic series, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1992, for Murder in Mississippi; Image Award, outstanding actor in a drama series, 1995, for L.A. Law; Image Award nomination, outstanding lead actor, 1997, for Soul of the Game; Image Award nomination, outstanding supporting actor, 1997, for Set It Off; Image Award, outstanding lead actor, 1999, for Mama Flora's Family; Image Award nomination, outstanding actor in a drama series, 2001, for City of Angels; Image Award nomination, outstanding supporting actor in a motion picture, 2001, for Rules of Engagement; Image Awards nominations, outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series, 2004, 2005, for Sex and the City.

CREDITS

Film Appearances:

Russell Walker, Krush Groove, Warner Bros., 1985.

Jesus, The Second Coming, 1992.

Sheriff Carver, Posse, 1993.

Bobby Earl Ferguson, Just Cause, 1995.

Keith, Set It Off, New Line Cinema, 1996.

Geneticist, Gattaca, Columbia, 1997.

Mark Simon, Deep Impact, Paramount, 1998.

Chance Williams, Asunder, New Millennium, 1998.

Captain Lee, Rules of Engagement, Paramount, 2000.

The Gristle, Allied Entertainment Group, 2001.

Narrator, Free to Dance, 2001.

Biography: Kim Fields: A Little Somethin' Somethin' (documentary), 2001.

Detective Harris, Final Breakdown (also known as Truth Be Told and Turnaround), Niko, 2002.

Chip Hightower, G, Columbia TriStar, 2002.

Nicholas/Calvin, Full Frontal, Miramax, 2002.

Tom Gibbons, Malibu's Most Wanted, Warner Bros., 2003.

Fronterz, 2004.

How Did It Feel?, Acuna, 2004.

Man, Do Geese See God?, 2004.

Voice of Gregory Fletcher, The Golden Blaze (video), Warner Bros., 2005.

Hen, Straight Out of Compton 2, 2005.

Mark Harper, Something New, United International, 2006.

Carlos, Madea's Family Reunion, Lions Gate, 2006.

Narrator, Operation Homecoming, The Documentary Group, 2007.

Sixteen, Tegan, 2007.

Film Director:

The Second Coming, 1992.

Film Producer:

Straight Out of Compton 2, 2005.

Film Work:

Co-executive producer, Asunder, New Millennium Releasing, 1998.

Television Appearances; Movies:

Horace Bouchet, The Cover Girl and the Cop (also known as Beauty & Denise), NBC, 1989.

Bob Richardson, Heat Wave, TNT, 1990.

James Chaney, Murder in Mississippi, NBC, 1990.

Jared Williams, Father & Son: Dangerous Relations (also known as Dangerous Relations and On the Streets of L.A.), NBC, 1993.

Jackie Robinson, Soul of the Game (also known as Field of Honour), HBO, 1996.

Lieutenant C. Hodges, Mistrial, HBO, 1996.

Magic man/Thomas, The Wishing Tree, Showtime, 2000.

Television Appearances; Series:

Bobby Blue, One Life to Live, ABC, 1985-86.

Terry Corsaro, Downtown, CBS, 1986-87.

Jonathan Rollins, L.A. Law, NBC, 1987-94.

Officer Mike Rhoades, High Incident, ABC, 1996.

Dr. Ben Turner, City of Angels, CBS, 2000-2001.

Dr. Arthur Bindlebeep, Fatherhood, Nickelodeon, 2004.

Roger De Souza, LAX, NBC, 2004.

Alex, In Treatment, HBO, 2006.

Television Appearances; Miniseries:

Willie, Mama Flora's Family, CBS, 1998.

I Love the '90s, VH1, 2004.

Palmer Addison, Covert One: The Hades Factor, CBS, 2006.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

Mark Roberts, "Theo and the Older Woman," The Cosby Show, NBC, 1985.

Potts, "Knight of the Juggernaut," Knight Rider, 1985.

Denise's boyfriend, "Jitterbug Break," The Cosby Show, NBC, 1985.

Soul Train, 1986.

Denise's boyfriend, "Looking Back: Part 2," The Cosby Show, NBC, 1987.

Reggie Brooks, "Don't Pet the Teacher," 21 Jump Street, Fox, 1987.

Stillman, "All That Glitters," Scarecrow and Mrs. King, 1987.

Reginold Brooks, "Gotta Finish the Riff," 21 Jump Street, Fox, 1987.

The Arsenio Hall Show, 1990.

Zelmer Collier, "War and Peace," A Different World, 1991.

Lewis Douglass, "The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry," The American Experience, 1991.

Voice, The Legend of Prince Valiant (animated), 1991.

The Word, 1993.

Aspel & Company, 1993.

Voice of King Midas, "King Midas and the Golden Touch," Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child (animated), HBO, 1995.

Voice, "Pig Amok," Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man (animated), 1996.

The Rosie O'Donnell Show, syndicated, 1996, 2000.

"A Dry White Season," Linc's, 2000.

Dinner for Five, Independent Film Channel, 2003.

"The Brad Gluckman Special," The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, The WB, 2003.

Dr. Robert Leeds, a recurring role, Sex and the City, HBO, 2003-2004.

The Oprah Winfrey Show (also known as Oprah), syndicated, 2004.

Last Call with Carson Daly, NBC, 2004.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, NBC, 2004.

"The Top 10 TV Cars," TV Land's Top Ten, TV Land, 2004.

Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC, 2004.

Tavis Smiley, PBS, 2004, 2006.

"The Big Pomp & Circumstance Episode," Half & Half, UPN, 2005.

The Tony Danza Show, syndicated, 2005.

"Tyler Perry: Madea's Family Reunion," The Tyra Banks Show, UPN, 2006.

Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, syndicated, 2006.

Mr. Harris, "The Passion of the Christine," The New Adventures of the Old Christine, CBS, 2006.

Mr. Harris, "Playdate with Destiny," The New Adventures of the Old Christine, CBS, 2006.

Mr. Harris, "Ritchie Scores," The New Adventures of the Old Christine, CBS, 2006.

Miles Sennet, "Burned," Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (also known as Law & Order's Sex Crimes, Law & Order: SVU, and Special Victims Unit), NBC, 2007.

Television Appearances; Specials:

Mickey's 60th Birthday Special, 1988.

That's What Friends Are For: AIDS Concert '88, 1988.

Judge, The 1988 Miss America Pageant, 1988.

NBC team member, Battle of the Network Stars XIX, 1988.

Unforgettable, KHV-TV, 1989.

Host, Legacy, 1990.

MDA Jerry Lewis Telethon, 1990.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade, 1990.

Host, 101st Tournament of Roses Parade, NBC, 1990.

Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake, 1991.

Story of a People: The Black Road to Hollywood, 1991.

The "L.A. Law" 100th Episode Special, 1991.

Voices That Care, 1991.

Host, 19th Annual Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1992.

Grand Marshal, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday Parade, 1992.

Muhammad Ali's 50th Birthday Celebration, 1992.

I Hate the Way I Look, ABC, 1993.

In a New Light '93, ABC, 1993.

Host, VH1 Good News People, VH1, 1993.

Host, The Secret of …, PBS, 1995.

Host, Dying in Vein: Rock n' Roll on Heroin, VH1, 1996.

The 2nd Annual Soul Train Christmas Starfest, 1999.

Weddings of a Lifetime Presents: Love Letters of a Lifetime, Lifetime, 2001.

Narrator, Free to Dance, PBS, 2001.

William Still, Whispers of Angels: A Story of the Underground Railroad, 2002.

Inside TV Land: African Americans in Television, TV Land, 2002.

The Nick at Nite Holiday Special, Nickelodeon, 2003.

Sex and the City: A Farewell, HBO, 2004.

Apollo at 70: A Hot Night in Harlem, NBC, 2004.

Voice, "To the Fallen," Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experiences, 2007.

Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:

The 10th Annual American Black Achievement Awards, 1989.

The 21st Annual NAACP Image Awards, 1989.

61st Annual Academy Awards, 1989.

Presenter, 25th NAACP Image Awards, 1993.

26th NAACP Image Awards, 1994.

Presenter, The ESPY Awards, 1995.

The 1996 NCLR Bravo Awards, 1996.

Presenter, The 53rd Annual Golden Globe Awards, 1996.

Host, 30th NAACP Image Awards, 1999.

Presenter, The 26th Annual People's Choice Awards, 2000.

Presenter, Essence Awards 2000, 2000.

6th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, 2000.

The 32nd NAACP Image Awards, Fox, 2001.

Presenter, 17th Annual IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards, Independent Film Channel, 2002.

Presenter, The 2004 IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards, 2004.

Presenter, The 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, ABC, 2004.

The WIN Awards, PAX, 2005.

The Black Movie Awards, TNT, 2005.

2006 Trumpet Awards, 2006.

Television Appearances; Pilots:

Tom Wilson, Company Town, CBS, 2006.

Stage Appearances:

Claudio, Measure for Measure, Delacorte Theatre, New York City, 1993, then Joseph Papp Public Theatre, New York City, 1993.

RECORDINGS

Videos:

Michael Jackson: HIStory on Film—Volume II, 1997.

TV in Black: The First Fifty Years, Koch Vision, 2004.

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Underwood, Blair 1964–

Blair Underwood 1964

Actor, director, producer

At a Glance

A Few Lucky Breaks

Fought Typecasting for Good Roles

Expanded His Horizons

Offered Role in City of Angels

Sources

Blair Underwood is best known for his portrayal of the upscale lawyer Jonathan Rollins on the highly successful television show L.A. Law. While his character has been called cocky, abrasive and arrogant, his friends are quick to point out that the real Blair Underwood is friendly and sweet. That is, until he is confronted with a cause that has become a passion for him.

As an outspoken champion for civil rights, Underwood has worked hard to get other black actors and actresses better representation in the entertainment industry. He has also dedicated himself to taking roles about blacks in history that are portrayed in an uplifting and accurate light. But Underwood does not limit his concern to correcting the image of past events.

In 1991 Underwood took his activism to a U.S. Senate Committee examining the plight of black men. Along with Clifford Alexander, the first African American to serve as U.S. Army secretary, Underwood pleaded an emotional case to government leaders. Jet recounted part of his testimony. If we and all American citizens will commit ourselves to addressing the plight of todays African American male, the African American male of tomorrow will be committed to his education; to his family; and to his career rather than to a correctional facility or an early grave.

Such impassioned pleas are not uncommon for the son of a former Army colonel and an interior designer. Born in Tacoma, Washington, the second son of Frank and Marilyn Underwood, Blair credits his family with helping him keep everything in perspective. One thing my folks always told me, he told Marilyn Marshall of Ebony, is that the same people you step on going up, you will see on the way down.

His strong family relationships helped ease the pain of the almost yearly moves to places like Warren, Michigan, Stutgart, Germany, and Richmond, Virginia. With each move, Underwood credits an optimistic outlook with helping him to beat the moving blues. Whether it was the people, the climate or the location, it was important to find something about a place that you liked, he told Pamela Johnson of Essence. He tried almost everything to make the transitions easier, including little league football and, when he was eight and nine years old living in Colorado, swimming competitively. After he placed fourth in the state in freestyle, his parents thought he might want to pursue swimming as a career.

At a Glance

Born in 1964 in Tacoma, WA; son of Frank (a U.S. Army colonel) and Marilyn (an interior designer) Underwood; married, Desiree DaCosta; children: Paris and Brielle. Education: Carnegie-Mellon University, B.F.A., 1988.

Career: Actor, director, and producer. Began acting in high school plays in Petersburg, Virginia. Television appearances include guest spots on The Cosby Show and Knight Rider, 1985; recurring role on One Life to Live, 1985; series regular on Downtown, 1986; series regular on L.A. Law, 1987-94; series regular on High Incident, 1996, series regular on City of Angels, 2000. Television movies include Murder in Mississippi, 1990; Heat Wave, 1990; Father & Son: Dangerous Relations, 1993; Soul of the Game, 1996; Mama Floras Family, 1998. Motion picture appearances include Krush Groove, 1985; Posse, 1993; The Second Coming, 1993 (also director and producer); Just Cause, 1995; Set It Off, 1996; Gattaca, 1997; Deep impact, 1998; Asunder, 1998; The Wishing Tree, 1999; Rules of Engagement, 2000., Has produced music videos for Tony Terrys With You and That Kind of Guy. Also appeared in Measure for Measure, produced in New York City, 1993.

Awards: NAACP Image Award, 1994.

Addresses: 8500 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 520, Beverly Hills, CA 90211.

But Underwood had other ideashe wanted to become a cowboy. In fact, Underwood readily admits that he wanted to be a cowboy long before he wanted to be an actor. Fortunately for him, he has been able to do both as an adult. In addition to horseback riding, he has taken part in rodeos. In 1989 he served as Grand Marshall for the Coors Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo in Los Angeles and in 1996 he acted in Posse, Hollywoods first major western with an all-black cast.

The Underwood family settled in Petersburg, Virginia, when Blair was 13 years old. It was in high school, where he performed in school plays and served as student body president in his senior year, that Underwood decided that he wanted to make acting his career. We werent sure this was the route to take, his mother later told TV Guide, but my husband, Frank, and I have always said, If its reasonable and honest and its what our kids want, well support them.

With his parents support, Underwood moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to attend Carnegie-Mellon University. After almost three years as a musical theater major, he became concerned that the cost of his education was putting too much of a strain on his familys resources, and so he quit school. Eventually though, Underwood completed the requirements for a bachelors of fine arts degree. By using his first season on L.A. Law as an internship and writing his senior thesis on his experiences as a professional actor, he was able to secure his degree in the spring of 1988.

Underwoods decision to leave school in January of 1985 was also prompted by his belief that he had learned enough about his craft and that it was time for him to make some money. He later recounted his decision to Johnson. The day I got my 8-by-10s I told my roommate, Im going to New York to just show these pictures around and see what happens. The whole game plan was to get out there anyway you can, any project.

A Few Lucky Breaks

Expecting to spend the next few years as a struggling actor, Underwood was delighted when he got his first project, a guest appearance on The Cosby Show, after only two days in New York. This was soon followed by a second appearance on Cosby, a guest shot as a punk rocker on the television series Knight Rider and a role in the movie Krush Groove. Within this same time period, Underwood landed a three-month stint on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. His character, Bobby Blue, proved to be so popular that the producers offered to extend his contract.

Underwood turned down the high-paying, steady job on one of Americans most popular soap operas in the hopes of getting something better. And, in true Blair Underwood good fortune, two weeks after he turned down the job, he signed on as a regular for a new CBS prime-time series. Underwood moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1986 to begin work on Downtown, a show about the misadventures of a cop and four of his parolees, one of whom would be portrayed by Underwood.

Unfortunately, his quick rise in the business came to a standstill. After taping only 13 episodes, the series was canceled. The whole experience left Underwood questioning his decision to leave New York, but more importantly he started to question the integrity of the industry in general. It was frustrating, he told Johnson. It started out to be about a cop and four parolees, and by the end, it was about a cop and four little cheerleaders in the background. We didnt have that much to do. Youre supposedly a regular on the series, but you pop in every once in a while and say a few sarcastic lines, and thats it.

It took almost two years for Underwood to get his next role in a series, but fortunately for him, it proved to be one that would catapult him into the limelight. When Steven Bochco, the creator and executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning TV series L.A. Law, decided to add a black character to the series, Underwood got the job. Once again, good luck had come Underwoods way.

The weekly drama that chronicled the lives of a group of high-powered California lawyers in and out of the courtroom was already a success when Underwood joined the show. His character, Jonathan Rollins, was patterned after the white attorneys portrayed on the showwell-educated, polished, and articulate. But Underwoods character was distinguished from the others by the size of his ego, something that Underwood relished. He has spice and hits you right off the bat, he told Jet. He makes you say, Whoa, who is this brother?

It didnt take long before he was hoping to bring the struggles of being a black man into the scripts. I would love to have them show Jonathan driving a car and being stopped, he told Susan Littwin of TV Guide, because Jonathans never dealt with that. Hes come from money, from a very privileged background. Underwood, however, did understand that type of subtle racism; shortly after moving to Los Angeles, he was pulled over by the police for what he believes was no reason except that he was a black man driving a nice car.

Underwood was also hoping that the producers would bring a love interest into the storyline of the show. Ironically, when his character finally did have a serious relationship, it was with a white actress. Though he was pleased that the show had broken a taboo by showing a black man and a white women in a love scene on television, he was equally glad that it didnt turn into a serious interracial love affair. I think its important to show a character like Jonathan, he confessed to Littwin, who is obviously a minority in the world he operates innot selling out. There are so many intelligent, beautiful black actresses. Id love to work with them and show that relationship.

Fought Typecasting for Good Roles

As the popularity of the character of Jonathan Rollins grew, so did the national recognition that Underwood received. It wasnt long before he was making appearances on Oprah and Today, gracing the covers of Jet and Ebony magazines, and serving as a judge in the Miss America pageant. He also started taking advantage of his new celebrity by exploring activities like piloting F-18 jets with the Navys Blue Angels and race car driving.

The moviebased on the relationship of three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 because they were trying to register African Americans to votecovered the same ground as the 1988 feature film Mississippi Burning. Even though the two films centered on the same story and characters, Murder in Mississippi was hailed by critics and family members of the slain activists as a more authentic version of the actual events. Robert Seidenberg wrote in American Film: As a rule, televisions a bad place to look for historical precision. But Murder in Mississippi proves a startling exception. Like the controversial Mississippi Burning, this fact-based drama focuses on the Freedom Summer of 1964, but it seeks to paint a truer picture of that critical epoch.

Underwood was pleased to be in a movie that was honored for telling the truth about the civil rights movement; he was also forthright in his own opinion of the two movies. Mississippi Burning was a brilliant film visually, he told Littwin. The acting was incredible. Dramatically, it was exciting. Historically it was b.s. What people dont understand really, because of the way Hollywood has portrayed blacks from the South, is that they werent all afraid; they werent all downcast. The heroes of the civil rights movement were the blacks. We were fighting for ourselves.

Later that same year, Underwood made another film about the black struggle for equal rights. Heat Wave, a Turner Network Television (TNT) made-for-cable movie, recreated the 1965 Watts riotsa six-day uproar in Los Angeles in which 34 people were killed. The story focused on Underwoods character, Bob Richardson, the first black reporter on the staff of the Los Angeles Times. Since whites were not allowed into the riot area, Richardsons eyewitness accounts were relied upon for the most accurate information. Once again, critics hailed the movie as a winner. People gave it an A+ with an opening paragraph the went beyond praise: I screened a rough cut of this filmwhich means the editing was unfinished. Its hard to see how they can make this one much better.

While Underwoods movie career was meeting with great success, his television series was beginning to become a favorite target for critics. In the fall of 1992, Jeff Jarvis belittled L.A. Law in TV Guide. L.A. Law has become a cheap and stupid parody of itself, the reporter claimed. Laws real problem: it has simply lived too long. Its a candle that once burned brilliantly but now has run out of wax and wick. Unfortunately, the ratings also reflected Jarviss sentiments. Once a Thursday night staple for many Americans, L.A. Law dropped from its perch as one of the top-rated shows. In 1994, though it had regained some of its reputation from the critics and fans, the damage was done. The series was canceled after its eighth season.

Sensing that the series had run its course, Underwood continued to make his mark in large and small screen films in the early 1990s. His 1993 television movie Father & Son: Dangerous Relations explores the struggles of being black in America. This time the story centers on a father and son who are reunited for the first time in decades while serving time in prison. The movie exposes the lives of a father, played by Louis Gossett, Jr., and his son, played by Underwood, who also served as an associate producer, as they try to develop a relationship.

Posse, a 1993 feature film, was one that he dreamed of making ever since he was a child, even though he was disappointed not to be cast as a cowboy. The movie about a Spanish-American War deserter who travels the Wild West with his band of marauders looking to avenge his fathers murderreceived mixed reviews from critics.

Expanded His Horizons

Not one to limit himself to television and film acting, Underwood expand his horizons further. In 1993 he started directing music videos, including two for recording artist Tony Terry. He also appeared as Claudio in Measure for Measure at the Shakespeare Festival in New York Citys Central Park that summer. Around the same time, he completed work on the film The Second Coming, serving as director, co-writer, executive producer, and star. The short film chronicles the life of a black Jesus Christ in modern times. My hope is to open minds, Underwood told Upscale, especially young peoples, and give them enough information to validate their spirituality and even their existence.

In 1996, Underwood starred in the HBO movie, Soul of the Game, a docudrama about start of the integration of black players from baseballs Negro League to the all-white majors. The film chronicles the lives of baseball greats Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson. Underwood, who played Robinson, said that one of the most difficult aspects of the role was re-creating Robinsons batting style and speed. He told Jet, Mastering Robinsons running style, which was low to the ground, grasping his particular manner of handling the bat and imitating his pigeon-toed walk was challenging.

Underwood appeared in several films throughout the late 1990s. Included among these are Gattaca (1997), Deep Impact (1998), and The Wishing Tree (1999). He also won a role in the television mini-series, Mama Floras Family, airing on CBS in 1998. Based on a story by acclaimed author Alex Haley, the mini-series began where Haleys mini-series Roots ended. Cicely Tyson took on the title role of Mama Flora and Underwood played her son, Willie.

Offered Role in City of Angels

Underwood was attending a reunion for L.A. Law when producer Steven Bochco pulled him aside and said, as Underwood told Jet, Im doing this show and I have this role thats just primo for you. Bochco told Underwood about City of Angels, a hospital drama featuring a predominantly black cast, and offered him the role of Dr. Ben Turner. Underwood leaped at the chance to play the talented surgeon.

Robert Morse, Michael Warren, and Vivica A. Fox also joined the ensemble cast. Fox told Jet, Blair is the main reason I wanted to do this. Phil Buckman filled the role of Geoffrey Weiss, the hospitals sole Jewish resident. We have one white character in the hospital, Underwood told Jet. I was the one black character on L.A. Law for so long. Its like a flip flop.

Underwood was fully aware of the importance of starring in network televisions first primarily black medical drama. Theres so much riding on this show, he told Jet. The perception in Hollywood is that if Steven Bochco, with the pedigree of black talent that hes assembled cant make a primarily black dram work, other networks and people in this town will say, Why should we?

Critics praised the ensemble cast and the shows writing. Ratings for the first season of City of Angels were not high, but the shows fans were dedicated. Letters, faxes, telephone calls, and e-mails poured in, all requesting that the show remain on the air. In response, CBS announced that it would pick up the show for a second season. The series was then canceled in November of 2000.

As Underwood continues pursuing his lifelong dream as an actor, he vows to continue his fight for racial equality. He believes that part of the fight should be to correct an inaccurately represented past. He believes that respect for ones heritage is a privilege that will strengthen personal identity. He told Kaufman, If you know where you come from no one can shake your tree.

Sources

Periodicals

American Film, February 1990, p. 40.

Ebony, March 1989, p. 96; May 1990, p. 98; October 1993, p. 46.

Entertainment Weekly, January 31, 1992, p. 44, November 8, 1996, p. 48.

Essence, June 1988, p. 52.

Jet, February 8, 1988, p. 58; February 5, 1990, p. 64; March 5, 1990, p. 58; August 13, 1990, p. 56; June 10, 1991, p. 4; April 29, 1996, p. 32, November 9,1998, p. 63; January 17, 2000, p. 36; June 5, 2000, p. 37.

Macleans, May 17, 1993, p. 50.

New York, February 5, 1990, p. 82; August 2, 1993, p. 57.

New York Times, February 17, 1994, p. C22.

People, February 5, 1990, pp. 8, 51; August 13, 1990, p. 8; April 19,1993, p. 11; May 31,1993, p. 14.

People Weekly, May 8, 2000, p. 181.

TV Guide, February 3, 1990, p. 8; May 11, 1991, p. 10; December 12, 1992, p. 7; April 17, 1993, p. 105; May 14, 1994, p. 8.

Upscale, December/January, 1993, p. 114.

USA Today, April 15, 1993, p. D3.

Variety, February 7, 1990, p. 158; July 26, 1993, p. 30.

Other

Additional material was obtained on-line at the Internet Movie Database web site located at http://us.imdb.com.

Joe Kuskowski and Jennifer M. York

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