When NBC ordered the new series "Ironside," with Blair Underwood as a brilliant, paraplegic detective, paraplegic actors questioned why one of their own couldn't have gotten the part.
NBC declined to comment at the time about whether any paraplegic actors were given the chance to play the titular role. But on Saturday, the show's producers explained for the first time why it just wasn't viable to audition actors with disabilities: "Ironside" contains too many flashbacks to the days before his spinal chord was damaged in a shooting.
"It was always meant to [show] Ironside both in present day and go back into his life prior to the shooting," said executive producer Teri Weinberg. "So in this particular situation we needed an actor who was able to take on both of those roles. It was really about the best actor for the role, but it was one that required an actor to be on their feet in their previous life."
The producers said the show is about 10 percent flashbacks, which would have made it impossible to use special effects to make a paraplegic actor appear to walk. In the original 1960s series, Raymond Burr played Ironside.
Underwood said he learned to play a self-reliant wheelchair user with the help of a technical advisor, David Bryant, who lost the ability to walk in a skiing accident when he was 19.
"A lot of what you see in this portrayal of Ironside is inspired by him," Underwood said. "The first thing I noticed is there were no handles on his wheelchair and I said, 'Dude, why don't you have any handles on your wheelchair, man?' And he said, 'Why would I want to? Why would I want someone to help me out? Whatever I can do for myself, I'm going to do for myself.
"The first thing we did was cut the handles off the wheelchair. That speaks to some of his independence."
Ironside is a New York City detective, and the producers were asked if the city's department has any detectives in wheelchairs in real life. Executive producer Ken Sanzel said the department has two patrolmen with prosthetic limbs, but no paraplegic detectives.
He said he hopes the show could help open people's minds to make that possible.
"I think it's reaching a place where that could be very plausible," he said.
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- Blair Underwood