Blair Underwood’s Star Turn In ‘Ironside’ And How To Make Television More Diverse

The news broke this morning that NBC, which has been making efforts to improve the diversity of its casting, is not only rebooting Ironside, the show about a police detective who uses a wheelchair which debuted for the first time on NBC in 1967, making it the only broadcast network to have a show with a lead with a disability, but is casting Blair Underwood in that lead role, making him the only black male lead on broadcast television. That’s great news, and I’ve got my fingers crossed for the show, but Media Matters’ Oliver Willis raises a good point:

As I told Oliver, one of the reasons Underwood was cast is that NBC has a holding deal with him, which means that he’s committed in advance to work on a set number of projects for them. When networks are casting characters for new shows, it makes sense for them to look to the people they have holding deals with first: it’s a pool of actors they’ve already determined that they like, and that they have incentives to work with immediately to get as much value as they can over those existing deals. It’s one thing for an actor to break in to one role, but another one entirely for a network to decide that they want to be in the Blair Underwood business, or the Vanessa Williams business, in a genuine and long-term way.

In other words, if television is to get more diverse, we need more actors of color who are not just breaking in as one-time things, but who are being treated like franchise players. I’m encouraged by the news that Echo Kellum, who was wonderfully winsome and funny on the now-cancelled Ben & Kate has already found work again on NBC’s The Gates. Television isn’t going to start looking like the United States if there’s only a tiny pool of actors of color who have been stamped network-approved.