A few years ago, actor Blair Underwood decided to take race off the table when it came to choosing which roles to play.
The decision does not appear to have hurt him. On the contrary, Underwood, who came to fame as a smooth-talking attorney on "L.A. Law," seemed to be one of the hardest working men in show business this year, with roles on three different networks.
Today (at 10 p.m. ET), he'll return as rival billionaire Simon Elder for the second season of ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money." Elder is not your typical black man, and Underwood likes it that way.
"In my last five or six roles -- "Sex and the City," "LAX," the film "Full Frontal," "In Treatment," "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and now "Dirty Sexy Money" -- part of the conversation I had with all those directors was 'If it's going to be about race, thank you, but no thanks,'" Underwood said during a chat at a New York City coffeehouse. "Because then you're limited to a producer's or studio's or network's perception of what my black experience is. Unless you can, in a two-hour film, delve into the real aspects of what it means to be an African-American man in America, I'd rather take it off the table. It forces the audience to deal with you as a man."
In "Sex and the City," "New Adventures" and "Full Frontal," Underwood played the lover to Cynthia Nixon, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Catherine Keener and Julia Roberts, respectively.
His role as an aggressive fighter pilot in "In Treatment" was a departure from his usual cocky charmers and nearly earned him an Emmy nomination (he was among the top 10 semi-finalists) -- and is now garnering Golden Globe buzz.
In "Dirty Sexy Money," Underwood's Elder is another departure. Considered the third richest man in the world, Elder is also the rival to the Darling family, the show's central characters.
"He is the villain, but he's not that guy twisting his mustache, cookie-cutter villain," Underwood said. "He's very multidimensional. As an actor, I love playing all those colors and shades."
Show creator Craig Wright, a playwright and former writer and producer of HBO's "Six Feet Under," said he wanted to create a character never before seen on television.
"Of all the things on the show that I've managed to get out there, the creation of this character, a very powerful and wealthy African-American man who also shines a light on American history, is one of the things I'm most proud of," he said.
With the Darlings representing old world privilege, Wright wanted Elder to be "an outsider in every possible way, someone whose political and social values stand in opposition to them," he said. "So I concocted this notion of a mysterious African-American billionaire who made his money in technology but whose provenance extends from a surprising place."
That place is Russia. Elder's back story is that his parents worked as hired help for the Darling family in 1940s and '50s New York. When the couple attended a Communist Party meeting, the Darlings had them deported to the Soviet Union. Soon after Elder's parents arrived in Russia, they were killed and Elder was sent to a Russian orphanage where he grew up nursing his resentment toward the Darlings.
"Dirty Sexy Money" may be a "splashy, trashy network soap," as Wright put it, but Elder's back story is also grounded in history. During Jim Crow segregation, the Communist Party defended the rights of black Americans and recruited them to the party. Some blacks even migrated to Russia.
Underwood loves the history behind his character. "People have a chance to be educated and entertained at the same time," he said.
"Fans of the show recognize that it is a unique hybrid," said Wright. "The show has enough literacy and genuine emotion that it's a guilty pleasure you don't have to feel guilty about. Blair's performance is a perfect example of that. He's making all kinds of nasty things happen but doing so from within a character we've never seen before."
Fortunately, the role came to him. "He was my first choice," Wright said. "Blair is the perfect guy for it, so likable and charming. I knew when I wanted to find someone to play that character, I wanted to go against type and make him trustworthy and friendly. And the TV audience really trusts Blair."
This season, Wright said, viewers can expect Elder to cement his relationship with daughter Karen Darling (wedding bells?) as a way of getting a foothold into the Darlings' business empire and pursuing his goal of destroying the family.
In his 23rd year in show business -- his first recurring role was as Bobby Blue on the soap "One Life to Live" -- Underwood is not only more selective about the roles he chooses but he's expanded beyond acting in order to create more roles for himself.
"I made a decision a long time ago. If the opportunities come to me, that's great. If not, I'll create them," Underwood said.
Recently he released "In the Night of the Heat: A Tennyson Hardwick Novel," the second book in a series of erotic mystery novels that he created with novelists Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes.
The novel's main character, Hardwick, is a former gigolo and washed-up actor. Underwood got the idea for the character from a film project years ago that would have paired him with Diana Ross. Now, with the novels out, he's hoping to bring Hardwick to the screen at last.
"From the outset, we said, 'Let's create a novel and a movie at the same time,'" Underwood said.
If it's up to Underwood, it won't be through a Hollywood studio either. Underwood's first collaboration with Due, producing her novel "My Soul to Keep" as a film, has been stuck in development at a studio for six years.
Working outside the studio, he directed his first feature film called "The Bridge to Nowhere." No, it's not about Sarah Palin and Alaska. It's about four best friends who, at loose ends with their lives, start a high-class escort service and become successful. Underwood recently screened the film for several studios in hopes of selling it.
In "Bridge," Underwood stayed behind the camera. But his first love remains acting. Fortunately, his fans can see more of him on "Dirty Sexy Money."