So far, Uberproducer Steven Bochco has cast just one star — Blair Underwood — and barely set a shooting date (September) for his highly anticipated CBS medical series, ”City of Angels,” but already Hollywood is buzzing about what promises to become network TV’s first African-American drama. But wait just a second — Underwood tells EW Online that it’s a mistake to label the show, which debuts on CBS next January, before it even airs. Yes, the major players will be black, but don’t expect ”Angels” to cater solely to African-American audiences like a WB comedy. ”It’s a medical drama that happens to have African-American faces in it, not an African-American drama,” says Underwood, 34, who’ll play Dr. Ben Turner, head surgeon at the inner-city L.A. hospital where the show is set. ”It’s a series about urban life, starring African Americans. But we’re ready to put the stories first, not our race.”
The idea for ”City of Angels” began in the late ’80s, when Bochco (”Hill Street Blues,” ”L.A, Law”) realized he wanted to produce an Emmy-caliber series, but with black stars. ”Steven knows that good stories, stories people want to see, don’t just live in the Caucasian world,” Underwood says. But what can he reveal about the show’s plot? Not much — yet. ”All I know is that my character is very concerned about his patients. He’s no-nonsense with a slight sense of humor.”
And of course, there’s the requisite gorgeous love interest: ”A woman who comes in as the new medical director of the hospital was (in the past) very much involved with my character — almost to the point of marriage — so that’ll shake things up emotionally.” The question remains, however, whether middle America will tune in for a drama without a white lead. Underwood puts his money on Bochco’s genius for wide appeal: ”It has been proven time and time again that when you have a quality product that deals with family, anger, love — emotions we all deal with — then it will cross over to different cultures.”
Underwood, who from 1987 to 1994 was the only black regular (sexy wunderkind attorney Jonathan Rollins) on ”L.A. Law,” was cast in ”Angels” after running into Bochco at a ”Law” reunion last spring. ”My wife had read about the project, but I had promised myself I wouldn’t bring it up at the party,” he recalls. ”But when I hugged Steven hello, he said to me, ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard what I’m up to … but I have a role that’s primo for you.”’ Two days later, Underwood had the groundbreaking drama’s lead.
Underwood signed on partly because Bochco was willing to accommodate his big-screen gigs. Coming up, the actor has a supporting role in the William Friedkin thriller ”Rules of Engagement,” and he plays heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson in Friedkin’s Sonny Liston biopic, ”Night Train.” He’s even shopping a horror flick he coproduced and stars in called ”Asunder.” ”That’s the beauty of being a character on an ensemble show — you’re not the only one the series revolves around,” Underwood says. ”I’m not going to be walking down the hospital floors alone.”