‘Quantico’ Actor Blair Underwood Reflects on Early Career, Meeting Sidney Poitier

Blair Underwood First Time in Variety
illustration: michael Hoeweler; photo reference: Clint Spaulding/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

Blair Underwood solidified his place as an industry mainstay with his role as attorney Jonathan Rollins on the NBC legal drama “L.A. Law” from 1987-1994. Since then, he’s gone on to have notable turns in shows including “Sex and the City,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” and “Dirty Sexy Money.” He recently joined the cast of “Quantico.” Underwood has been helping to bring nonprofits to reality TV by executive-producing the daytime show “Give” — which he describes as “ ‘Undercover Boss’ meets ‘Extreme Makeover’ ” — through his production company, Intrepid, along with Bungalow Media and Litton Entertainment. He got his first mention in Variety on April 18, 1984, for a Carnegie Mellon University production of “Guys and Dolls” led by Billy Wilson, who directed and choreographed Broadway’s “Bubbling Brown Sugar.”

Did you know that your college production was covered in Variety?

I never saw that article when it was published. I sent it to all my college buddies, and we were all blown away by it. I remember well: We were sophomores, and as [underclassmen], it was kind of rare to be on the main stage. There were a lot of us — maybe seven or eight — that were in “Guys and Dolls.” So it was very exciting and kind of unusual to be part of a production. I played Harry the Horse. I remember, of course, it was directed by Billy Wilson. In many ways, I owe Billy my career.

How so?

Right after “Guys and Dolls,” he told me whenever I moved to New York to let him know and he would introduce me to his agent. My junior year became very tough financially and I couldn’t afford to stay in school; I had to leave after the first semester. It turned out well, though, because I literally was able to be a walk-on on “The Cosby Show” my second day in New York.

Were there actors at the time that you admired?

Oh yeah, Sidney Poitier, definitely. James Earl Jones, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, of course. Especially at that time, those are the people I looked up to.

What made you want to become an actor? Was watching them what made you want to become an actor?

To be honest with you, it looked like something fun to do. It was make-believe and playing characters. I translated that in my head as never having to grow up. I could just play make-believe for my whole life.

So your career took off right after leaving school. But did you ever regret not getting a degree?

I felt anxiety about not being able to finish what I’d started. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t stay. But going into the world, I really was too young and naive to be scared. After joining “L.A. Law,” I got a letter from the head of the Carnegie Mellon Fine Arts department. He said, “If you want to complete your requirements and finish your degree, those years in the industry can count as credit, and you just have to write a final thesis on what you learned.” “L.A. Law” was the No. 1 show on television at the time, so it was kind of a win-win situation.

Did you do it?

I was in New York City doing press all weekend long for “L.A. Law,” and I was getting on the plane going to Los Angeles. My objective on that flight was to write my final thesis — just do a rough draft. I’m looking at my ticket. I’m on the plane walking down the aisle. I turn the corner and I see this African-American man with these long legs and he’s half asleep. I look at my seat number, and I see the empty seat next to this gentleman. And I look up and it’s Sidney Poitier. It was insane.

That seems almost like … divine intervention?

So I’ve got five hours sitting next to Mr. Poitier. I let him off the hook for the first two hours. I tried to play it cool. But he was so gracious and so open about himself — his career and his life. That final paper ended up being that conversation with Sidney Poitier and the pearls of wisdom that he gave me.