Machismo, Murder, and Makeovers: A Day on the 'Ironside' Set With Blair Underwood

Fall TV

Spend any amount of time on the dimly lit precinct set of "Ironside," a gritty NBC reboot of the late-'60s Raymond Burr police drama, and it's immediately clear that the cast is gelling.

Inside jokes abound; flubs like Neal Bledsoe (Teddy) ironically kicking a floor light while delivering the line "Do you think I can handle it?" are met with gentle ribbing; house remodeling and children are discussed between takes. Spencer Grammer (Holly) admits that she's got a prank in the works; and just a day earlier than our visit to the Universal Studios Lot soundstages in Los Angeles, Blair Underwood (Robert Ironside) was surprised with cupcakes to celebrate his 49th birthday. Despite only being on Episode 6, there's even a well-established tradition that everyone claps when the visiting director decides they've nailed a scene and can move on to the next.

[Related: Spencer Grammer: More Than a Bubbly Sorority Girl]

"You always get nervous when you start a new series because you never know how it's going to shake out, if everyone will get along. But from the pilot we all just clicked. This was a very easy adjustment," explained Grammer, who even let Bledsoe crash at her house for three weeks while he relocated from his "Smash" stint in New York. "We were instant friends. We have similar intensity levels and philosophies on how we approach acting."

Watch the "Ironside" trailer:

Everyone credits the smooth sailing on set to Underwood, the TV veteran behind the titular character, a play-by-his-own-rules type who refuses to let being confined to a wheelchair slow him down. "Blair's always grounded, dedicated, and prepared. He brings consistency every day," Bledsoe said. "We have a good time and we joke around, but the work always comes first. People keep asking how it's going, and the first thing that always comes to mind is how professional it all seems. There's such a respect for the job here. I feel like I got promoted from Triple-A to the major league."

Executive producer Ken Sanzel added, "The show already feels very finished and strong, and much of that stems from having a No. 1 on the call sheet who is a true leader. Blair sets a really positive tone and is there to lead the charge."

[Related: A Paraplegic Viewer Reviews NBC's 'Ironside']

Underwood, flattered and humbled when told about his team-leader status, credits his "Army brat" childhood for his ability to adapt quickly. "I was perpetually the new kid on the block because we moved around a lot, so it's very easy for me to walk into a new job. You learn to hit the ground running."

His background also gave him a healthy appreciation for tough cops. "My dad was the Army colonel, so I respect a tough, raw man's man. I'm old school in this day and age of blurred lines about manhood. That's what attracted me to this part. They're making this Ironside unapologetic, firm, demanding, and passionate for the ladies. He expects his team to work hard, but expects himself to go even harder."

The role has instilled in him an even greater admiration for people living with paraplegia. "I have such deep respect for people who look adversity in the face and give it the middle finger," said Underwood. He recalled the hours spent with technical advisor David Bryant and considers his input invaluable to the characterization of Ironside. "Almost everything you see related to Ironside's disability was informed and inspired by David, especially the way the chair looks physically. It has no handles because David's chair has no handles, because it's a point of pride that he doesn't need to be pushed through life by other people. I spent time working out with him, going out to dinner, watching how he maneuvers through his house and life, until it became closer to second nature for me."

How Underwood prepped for the role of Ironside:

Underwood would have signed on based on the character alone, but it was the premise that sealed the deal. The show opens two years after Ironside's spine was shattered by a bullet that may have come from the gun of his partner, Gary (Brent Sexton), during a dark-alley showdown with a crime boss. He is now in charge of a handpicked trio (Virgil, Teddy, and Holly) of detectives, each offering a unique background and skill set, who do whatever it takes to solve the five boroughs' most difficult and notorious cases.

"As much as he fights to not be changed by the chair and what happened to him, his whole life was changed by the chair," Underwood said. "He's now forced to deal with that reality. It's not easy to reconcile. He's been changed as a cop. He's also now a boss responsible for other people. Part of what comes up in this episode we're shooting now is that he has to send one of his people into a very dangerous situation, and he isn't sure they're ready. He's remembering how his first time backfired and also having to admit he can no longer just do it himself. He's very guarded, but the audience gets to learn more during the private moments and flashbacks."

The flashbacks, according to Sanzel, are a key storytelling element and so far have been employed in every episode. "Obviously, the pilot flashback was the easiest way to show how he ended up in a wheelchair, but going forward, flashbacks become a device to mine his state of mind in the present, show his emotional connections, speak to regrets he has, illustrate why he's correcting mistakes or doing things differently than he would have in the past, and sometimes they correlate directly to the crime they are working on currently."

The emphasis on characters over the crime of the week is intentional — in fact, "procedural" is almost a dirty word on this set — and a reason why Pablo Schreiber (Virgil) risked stepping away from his beloved 'stache in "Orange Is The New Black." (He did promise that he would appear in a limited capacity in Season 2.) "I really liked the tone of the show. It's a crime drama with procedural elements, but within that genre it's dark, personal, and explores the underworld of New York City," said Schreiber, who plays a loving family man whose violent side emerges at work and has often gotten him written up. "I liked that it doesn't just show how we solve a crime but goes into the effects the crimes have on the perpetrators, victims, and the people fighting the crimes. And now we are also getting into each of our backgrounds and how our main group gets along. There's a lot of tension between Neal and I. In the beginning, it was more banter and taking the piss out of each other the way cops do. But in this episode, it takes a more serious turn when Neal's character feels I'm upstaging him and stepping on his toes. He starts to feel like the little brother, and I'm not having any of it. I like going deeper on how the team interacts."

What's ahead on "Ironside":

Check out more photos from "Ironside":

"Ironside" premieres Wednesday Oct. 2 at 10 p.m. on NBC.