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.