What: Reimagining of the old Raymond Burr crime series with Blair Underwood in the title role.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday.
In a darkened bar, a tough-looking crowd mills around a pool table — leather and tattoos the norm, biker symbols on the wall. They are overdressed.
Outside, the temperature is cresting at 100 degrees, another warm Southern California afternoon. Leather jackets would not be a good choice. But inside this air conditioned warehouse in the city of San Fernando, it's the business of making a television show.
As the director sets up the scene in the bar, Blair Underwood — star of the NBC's new “Ironside” — sits in a wheelchair in the next room, one with monitors and lights. A crew member checks out the actor's makeup and outfit, which also includes a leather coat, just no studs.
The heavier jackets make sense, though. The NBC series — a reboot of the Raymond Burr show that ran from 1967-75 about a disabled detective — is set in New York City.
As Underwood readies himself, you notice that his legs appear thin, unused. This is an illusion, of course, a combination of acting and the outfit, which gives the actor's upper body some padding. He credits his technical advisor, David Bryant, who became a paraplegic after a skiing accident at age 19, for informing the role.
“When I first saw him, I was struck by how his legs were very close together, and the reason for that is how they atrophied,” says Underwood, who is returning to television after six months on Broadway last year playing Stanley Kowalski in a revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
In the scene they are shooting, Underwood's Robert T. Ironside is about to burst into the bar with his team — played by Pablo Schreiber, Spencer Grammer (Kelsey's daughter) and Neal Bledsoe — to look for a woman who may know something about two gruesome murders in which a chainsaw was used.
Underwood says that true to the new Ironside's brash style, he goes into the bar ready to crack heads and make things happen. Those qualities in the character are part of what attracted the actor to the role. Though disabled, the detective is a man of action.
“One thing I find fascinating is that while on wheels, this character is constantly in motion,” he says.
The actor says when he first met Bryant, he noticed there were no handles on his wheelchair and asked him about it. “He said, ‘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,'” says Underwood.
As a consequence, there are no handles on Ironside's wheelchair as he rolls around the set. It's one of the many changes from the original series, which was set in San Francisco.
“We took his name, Robert T. Ironside, the fact that he is a detective, and the fact that he happens to be in a wheelchair,” Underwood says. “Everything else is re-imagined. We have new characters with different stories and we're in a new city.”
Producer Teri Weinberg says Underwood was so keen on the part, it only took about a day to get him onboard.
“I think he was very excited to see how contemporary it was,” she says, “and also that he had the opportunity to have some context in his past life with flashbacks.”
In the opening episode, you see how Ironside loses the use of his legs. (We won't give it away here.) Weinberg says every episode will feature a flashback sequence, which will dovetail with the title character emotionally.
But the producer stresses that the series is foremost a crime show that relies on storytelling and great characters.
“It's not serialized to the point where if you miss an episode, you feel lost,” adds Underwood.
Having flashbacks is the reason that a disabled person could not be cast for the role. Underwood says he became accustomed to the wheelchair by using one at home while learning his lines. The role has special significance for the actor because his mother, Marilyn, is in a wheelchair as the result of multiple sclerosis.
As it turns out, family is one of the reasons “Ironside” is filmed in Los Angeles instead of New York, where the pilot was shot. Weinberg says Underwood wanted to stay closer to home.
“I been married for 19 years and have three children — 12, 14 and 16. And family is the most important thing especially at this time in life,” says Underwood, who calls himself an Army brat and names a half-dozen states he lived in growing up.
“After six months in New York doing stage, I really didn't want to be away from my family that long, and NBC was nice enough to shoot the series here, which is great.”
The 49-year-old Underwood — who looks far younger than his years — is a veteran of numerous TV series, getting his first big break on “L.A. Law,” which he was on from 1987-94. On his last series, “The Event” in 2010-11, he played the President of the United States. Underwood says he tells his kids he became an actor because he didn't want to grow up.
“There is also a lot of truth in that,” he adds with a laugh. “I get to learn something new with each character. It's kind of like taking a peek inside different people's lives.”
While theater is his first love, for the moment he's happy being to be back in television. NBC has ordered 13 episodes of the show, and everyone is hoping the series will be picked up for a full season of 22 episodes and beyond.
Weinberg has some experience in re-imagining shows — “The Office” from the British series and “Ugly Betty,” which was adapted from a Colombian telenovela soap opera — but she knows it's not as easy to measure what is a hit today.
Because so many people are watching shows they DVR-ed or on video on demand (VOD), overnight numbers don't mean as much, especially with a 10 p.m. timeslot on a weekday. So it may take a while to know if the new “Ironside” has the staying power of the original.
“Do I hope that 50 million people show up (to watch?)” says Weinberg. “Of course, but you can't predict that these days.”