NBC dug into the vault of classic Universal television shows in hopes of pulling out a winner for its fall season. It doesn’t often happen, but NBC is betting its modernized version of “Ironside,” which originally starred Raymond Burr as a San Francisco detective in a wheelchair, will find a whole, new audience.
“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,” says Blair Underwood, who plays the title role. “Everything else is re-imagined. All new characters, a new city, new texture, and new storytelling. There’s different expectations.”
In the 2013, amped-up action version of “Ironside,” which is as much character-driven as it is case-driven, it is two years after the detective became wheelchair bound. In that time, he has handpicked three talented, young detectives to comprise the new team that helps him solve some of New York’s most difficult crimes.
xfinityTV spoke to Underwood, who says he passed up a lot of roles before agreeing to take this one. To find out five reasons why audiences should tune in to the rebooted series, check out what he had to say:
1. “Ironside” is a modern-day cop show but with a ’70s sensibility. The gritty vibe of the law enforcers from some 1970s screen gems helped influence the show. For example, there is a scene in the pilot where Ironside holds a suspect over the ledge of a tall building to extract the information he needs. Not your normal police procedure.
“When we shot the pilot, we talked at great length in terms of the template of it, the texture of it, to be not necessarily ’70s TV, but ’70s movies, specifically ‘The French Connection’ and ‘Serpico,’” Underwood says. “So if you felt that, that’s good, without, at the same time, feeling dated in any way.”
And unlike CBS’ rebooted “Hawaii Five-0,” which reaches into its long-list of stories from the original series maybe once a season in homage, there are no plans to do that for Season 1 of “Ironside.”
“They were really good episodes, but we are going in such a different direction,” Underwood says.
Watch It Early! Check Out the Pilot Episode for the New “Ironside” Now on xfinityTV:
2. Ironside won’t always be seen in the wheelchair. Because of the structure of the show, it was necessary to use an actor who was not actually paralyzed to allow for flashbacks in each episode to Ironside’s life before the bullet hit his spine. This gives the producers and writers the ability to demonstrate who he used to be and who he has become. Approximately 10 percent of each episode will take place in the past.
But to make it more authentic, David Bryant, who has been a paraplegic since being paralyzed in a skiing accident at age 19, was hired to be a technical advisor.
“A lot of what you see in this portrayal of Ironside is inspired by him,” Underwood says. “He is very self-sufficient. Before we shot the pilot, we spent many, many hours together just doing what he does. He said, ‘Just take the chair and go around your neighborhood.’ We’d go out to dinner and spend a lot time. The first thing I noticed was there were no handles on his wheelchair. 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.”
In addition, there is some input from Underwood’s mother, who has been in a wheelchair for about 12 years. The line in the pilot where Ironside says something to the effect of: “Things look different down here,” is courtesy of his mom, who always said she was going to write a book with the title Four Feet High.
“I told that to the writers. That is why they put that scene in there. You have a different perspective from down there,” says Underwood, who had to learn how to get in and out of a car, in and out of bed, and has admitted to taking a tumble or two from his chair in the process.
3. There’s a strong supporting cast. In addition to the charismatic Underwood, cast members include:
~ Neal Bledsoe as Teddy, a rich and highly educated young cop who has never been good with authority.
~ Brent Sexton as Gary, a seasoned, hard-nosed detective and Ironside’s former partner.
~ Kenneth Choi as calm and pragmatic Capt. Ed Rollins, who handles situations with a level-head and cool demeanor.
~ Pablo Schreiber as Virgil, a man who wrestles with the dichotomy of being one of the toughest cops in the city and a loving family man at home.
~ Spencer Grammer as Holly, the strong, feisty detective who loves the rush of being undercover and the danger that goes with the job.
“I’m crazy about our cast. NBC told us early on, ‘Don’t worry about casting recognizable faces or big names, just cast great actors,’” Underwood says. “Each one of these are great actors in their own right. I’ve seen a lot of these faces over the years, and I’ve built a career on being part of an ensemble. I’m big on team, big on community, and these guys brought their A game every day.”
4. It’s a procedural with a twist. Most cop dramas are considered procedurals, but “Ironside” is hoping to be a crime drama that doesn’t focus on the process of solving the crime, rather more on how crime affects the victims, the criminals and the detectives who interact with both.
It is also going to do deal with the evolution of Ironside post the shooting that put him in the wheelchair. Prior to being shot, Ironside was more physical. Now, he tends to be more cerebral. We will watch as he evolves into a better, stronger man than he was before; one who overcomes the boundaries set by being in a wheelchair.
5. This hot, new Ironside has sex in his chair! Every spinal cord injury is unique, so it is possible for him to be sexually functional, since he’s paralyzed at T-12, which means from the waist down. But since his nerve endings still work, he is able to have a sex life.
“If you haven’t seen a documentary called ‘Murder Ball,’ please check it out,” Underwood says. “‘Murder Ball’ is considered the rugby of wheelchairs. These guys are just badass. They’re banging into each other, crashing into each other, and each one of those guys have able‑bodied girlfriends, and each one of them are able to perform in that way. But it is a question people ask: Is that just TV, or is that possible?”
“Ironside” premieres Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 10/9c on NBC.
TV Flashback: Watch an Episode of the Original “Ironside” with Raymond Burr: