News Column

NBC brings new approach to classic character in 'Ironside'

October 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 01--LOS ANGELES -- NBC has tried -- and failed -- to find success with remakes of classic TV shows before, such as "The Bionic Woman" and "Knight Rider."

But network executives are trying again, this time with an updated version of "Ironside." Blair Underwood plays the title character, a detective who does his job despite being confined to a wheelchair.

There are a lot of changes to Underwood's updated version compared with the original series, which ran from 1967 to 1975, starting with the approach to the lead character.

Raymond Burr portrayed Robert Ironside as a smart San Francisco cop who played by the book with the help of a few sidekicks. Underwood plays him as a tough, self-sufficient fighter of crime in New York, who doesn't think twice about shooting a hostage if it helps him catch the bad guy. And, in a complete departure from the original, the new Ironside is an active sexual being.

Underwood's version is more like the gritty cops portrayed in the 1970s movies "The French Connection" and "Serpico." That's because those movies were what "Ironside" executive producer Ken Sanzel watched when he was young.

"I think that was the moment when crime drama started to match the weight of crime literature," Sanzel says. " I don't think that if you're doing a contemporary show, with real dirt under its fingernails, you can help but evoke that era of police stories and crime dramas without necessarily being a throwback.

"The character's a tough-minded character, and that's going to evoke that moment when our perception of police and police drama changed."

To prepare for the role, Underwood did look at what Burr brought to the character to understand why it remains so popular 40 years later. But, he wants his version to be bigger, badder and better.

"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. All new characters, a new city, new texture, new storytelling, new audience. There's different expectations. So it is a crime drama wrapped in a character study."

Another difference is that when the original "Ironside" aired, no one questioned why a paralyzed actor wasn't hired to play the role. Producers of the new series thought about such a casting, but they needed an actor who could walk because of flashback scenes to Ironside's life before the accident.

Cast, crew and NBC executives are hoping the changes will make this revamped classic show a hit.

TV schedule

Wednesday

New: "Ironside," 10 p.m., KSEE (Channel 24.1); "Super Fun Night," 9:30 p.m. KFSN (Channel 30.1)

Thursday

New: "The Millers," 8:30 p.m. KGPE (Channel 47.1); "Welcome to the Family," 8:30 p.m. KSEE (Channel 24.1); "The Originals," 9 p.m. KFRE (Channel 59.1); "Sean Saves the World," 9 p.m. KSEE.

Returning: "The Vampire Diaries," 8 p.m. KFRE (Channel 59.1)

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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