BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Actor Blair Underwood solved the dilemma of his life with a 2-percent solution. “You decide to follow this path of performing arts and all the odds are stacked against you,” he says, looking distinguished in a beige jacket, cinnamon shirt and Levi’s.
“I started in high school in Richmond, Va., and I cannot tell you how many people recommended I not follow this path. I heard it so many times then — I hear it now — only 2 percent of actors or members of the Screen Actors Guild can make a living at this thing. And the other caveat was: you’re African American, the choices are even fewer. So my response to that was, ‘Then I just have to be that 2 percent.’”
He managed the odds and snagged a job on ‘The Cosby Show’ the second day after he’d landed in New York to try his hand at acting. “The challenge came after that. It was a walk-on. But then how do you build on that? How do I get an agent? How do I find a job?”
Underwood has worked fairly consistently ever since and has probably reached his zenith with his latest role as the U.S. president in NBC’s mysterious thriller, “The Event.”
He seems born to the part. “The president was described as a Latino named Elias Martinez. I said, ‘Do you want to keep this character a Latino?’ And they did. He was described as a ‘JFK-esque Latin president.’ So when I signed on, they just made him Afro-Cuban and wanted to keep that historical, ancestral culture with this president because this show is very much about identity. He’s somebody who’s perceived as an outsider in the Oval Office.”
Though he was warned about acting, Underwood never seemed like an outsider. After his bit on “The Cosby Show” he landed a gig on the soap “One Life to Live.” “I was on for three months because I knew if I really wanted to do nighttime television, if I stayed too long on daytime, it would be harder for the buyers, producers of that genre, to hire me.”
In fact, he was invited back to “One Life” just after he’d auditioned for the part that established him, that of attorney Jonathan Rollins on “L.A. Law.”
“This woman who cast me in ‘L.A. Law’ completely changed the course of my life,” he shakes his head.
“I was 21 years old and came on in the second season, where we had a much larger audience than you would have today. So 40 million people a night, Thursday nights on NBC, are watching your show. So one day you’re just an actor looking for a job, and then the next day people recognize you and know your name and your face and you get a job you wanted to have before because you’re on a hit show. That’s professionally. Personally there’s all kinds of perks that come with that. It just completely changed the course of my life.”
Underwood, who’s been married 16 years and is the father of three children ages 9, 11 and 13, admits there was a time last year when he toyed with the idea of quitting. “For about a day,” he says.
“In 2008 I was very fortunate to be doing three series at once. I was doing ‘Dirty Sexy Money,’ ‘In Treatment’ for HBO and I was guest-starring on ‘The New Adventures of Old Christine’ with Julia Louis Dreyfus.
“In 2009 ‘Dirty Sexy Money’ was canceled. ‘In Treatment’ was a finite show, that was over. And ‘Old Christine’ called me the last week of December of 2009. So I didn’t work for the whole year. There were things I could have done, but nothing that I was excited to do. And so the projects I wanted to do were going to other actors who were very different from me. They would say more often than not, ‘We want somebody more “charactery.”’
“I’d see who they cast. It was always somebody who was more overweight and more comedic ... It happened four times in ‘09. And I remember thinking, ‘After ‘08, my busiest year ever and ‘09 so dry, if this is what my place in the industry has come to, and these are the actors you want, I don’t know if I want to stay focused on this.’ It was just a day (I felt like this). It’s my passion, my dream and I will not forego that dream for anybody else. But there was a day when I said, ‘Do I want to do this anymore?’ Then this incredible project and this character came along.”
Fate had a hand in both his personal and professional life, he thinks. “That’s always the tricky dynamic, trying to be true to what that inner voice is saying to you and where should you go? What does God say? Which way should you go? In times like that, I just try to be quiet. That time last year when I wondered do I want this still? For me it was really about being quiet and praying on it to see what’s right. My inner voice said to me, ‘Be patient. Something great will come along.’ To me ‘The Event’ is something great.”
Jennifer Finnigan (“Close to Home”) is costarring on ABC’s new comedy, “Better With You,” premiering Wednesday. The show is about three couples at different phases of their relationships. Finnigan, who’s married to actor Jonathan Silverman, says love, for her, was unexpected. “Sometimes when you know, you know. I don’t think I ever wanted to get married, and then I met my husband, and six months later he proposed, and I can’t imagine my life having gone in a different direction.”
Maura Tierney, who was suffering from breast cancer and had to withdraw from “Parenthood” last season, is back on television this fall, replacing somebody else who left. Joely Richardson was to play the lead in ABC’s “The Whole Truth,” but was gone before the show hit the airwaves. Executive producer Jonathan Lippman explains, “Joely’s life was fairly complicated. And it was kind of the right thing to do, to let her go and deal with that. And the timing worked out great, because then Maura was available and able to do it. So it was a gamble, but it paid off and — but it was the right thing to do.” Creator Tom Donaghy actually wrote the part for Tierney, who says she’s healthy now and ready to tackle the role. The show premieres Wednesday.
Showtime has agreed to air a second season of Paul Provenza’s “The Green Room,” the show where you can watch comedians share opinions, ideas and comic twists, and ad lib. It will air next year ... Auditions for “So You Think You Can Dance” will be held on Oct. 13 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, CA and on Nov. 15 at the Howard Gilman Opera House at BAM in Brooklyn ... All 89 episodes of the hilarious “The Larry Sanders Show” on DVD hits stores on Nov. 2, with lots of extras including a 60-page commemorative color book.