Underwood's performance is inspired by two people in his life: David Bryant, a paraplegic himself who has been disabled for 30 years, and Underwood's mother.
"I hope I'm not speaking out of turn," he said,"but my mother has had multiple sclerosis for 10 to 15 years. She's had a number of challenges throughout the years, going through depression -- and very difficult challenging times and what that did to her and to a family,'
"Just a month ago she had a mini stroke and was in the hospital. Those challenges -- what it does -- it puts you in touch with your mortality. So a couple of times over the last 10 years we thought we were going to lose her. But she's strong. She keeps coming back," he said.
His mentor is Bryant. "He was paralyzed at age 19 from a skiing accident, coming down the slope, did a flip, which he'd done before. He knew the flip wasn't quite right. He landed right on his spinal cord.
"He said something very interesting to me, 'It took me 10 years to grasp and understand and accept this is who I am,'" Underwood said.
The character of Robert Ironside became a TV staple in the late 1960s when Raymond Burr played him as a quiet, cerebral copper.
Underwood's take is far more physical. "Given that when we meet Ironside he's only two years into the journey, he hasn't given into it yet," Underwood said.
"He's going to exercise, he's going to will it back. Maybe modern medicine will catch up to what his injury is. Those are some of his demons.
"What a challenge! And that's what I was excited about."
People remember him from "L.A. Law" or "Dirty Sexy Money" or "The Event," but it was his role as the brutish Stanley Kowalski in Broadway's "Streetcar Named Desire" last year that earned him this part.
"Bob Greenblatt (chairman of NBC Entertainment) came to see it. Stanley Kowalski, he's physical, he's visceral, he's aggressive, he's damaged -- all those things. But he's all those things that's in this new version of 'Ironside,' a lot of those colors," he said.
Underwood, 49, shares many of those qualities. He was an Army brat, constantly traveling with his family as a kid. He moved eight or nine times by the time he was 15. "I remember being different, especially in Michigan where I was the only African-American kid in an all-white school for two years.
"But my community of friends were so cool, and they opened up and embraced me.
"My father was a military officer, so we were children of an officer, so that gives you a status and confidence. So I never bought into that I was less than anybody else."
Tough Toni: Toni Collette is co-starring in one of the fall's more interesting new series, "Hostages," premiering Monday on CBS.
She plays a mother and a surgeon who finds herself ministering to the president. With her family held hostage, she is ordered to kill her patient. The show will air in 15 episodes with a defined ending.
Collette says she likes the complexity of the character.
"She has a very high-pressure job that she's incredibly successful at. She's a mom. She's a wife. She's somewhat compromised at home even though she's successful at work," Collette said.
"And the thing that I really love about her the most is quite simple. I think here's a woman who, in a way, has been toeing the line her whole life, and she's put in a situation which makes her walk straight across that line and figure out who she really is and discover her true self."
The new "Ironside" premieres at 10 p.m. Oct. 2 on NBC.
"Hostages" premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on CBS.
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