In Depth

A Star Is Opened on ‘In Treatment’

Character’s Self-Examination Hits Close to Home for Underwood

Did you catch the episodes with the fighter pilot, played by Blair Underwood?

Until his untimely death during a routine training mission, Tuesday nights on the HBO series “In Treatment” belonged to Alex, a pilot who had bombed a target in Iraq, only to find out afterward that it was a religious school and children had been killed. Once he started therapy, Alex began to discover things about himself that maybe he didn’t really want to know. The shrink wasn’t that much help, either; he just sat and listened, asking a few questions here and there, as so many shrinks do, until Alex said more than he intended to say and revealed more than he actually knew about himself.

HBO’s “In Treatment,” based on “Be’ Tipul,” which made its Israeli television debut in 2005 and took the country by storm, is enlightened entertainment doubling as an actor’s and writer’s showcase, and Mr. Underwood is thrilled to have been a part of it.

The work was “intense,” he said, “but a role like Alex doesn’t come along very often. The whole format is unique.” His weekly appointment with Dr. Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne, was “pretty much an actor’s dream.”

“We shot the pilot for HBO,” he said, “and then we waited. And once we started shooting the series, we didn’t have a lot of time for rehearsal. So you really go back to Acting 101: talking and listening. You sit and you listen to each other, and you do your homework.”

Mr. Underwood probably would be the first to admit that he had already done a lot of that homework in childhood.

His father, a U.S. Army colonel, was stationed with his family for a time in Stuttgart, Germany, and Mr. Underwood acknowledged the impact of the Army lifestyle on both his portrayal of Alex and the “Let’s get it done” mentality that drives his work in general.

There are “certain thought processes,” Mr. Underwood said, that are inherent in playing a military character, “like where your loyalty lies, your sense of duty, your mission”—all elements he was able to use to get a handle on the character of Alex. “So much of it is the intangible,” he said, “and some of it’s just sensibility. In a certain sense, sometimes it’s either military or it’s not.”

At Play on TV

Like many actors, Mr. Underwood said his first love is the theater. One of the reasons he liked working on “In Treatment,” he said, was that doing the show was “like doing a one-act play every week. It was the best of both worlds.

“You eat and breathe and sleep with a character [in the theater],” he said, “and bring it to life. And when you weigh the pros and cons of doing theater, the pros far outweigh the cons.
“But the one con about theater,” he said, “is that night after night you put your heart and soul into something, and after you do it, it’s gone. In television, we have a record of it.”

Mr. Underwood’s acting break came in 1985, when he was cast on an episode of “The Cosby Show” a day after arriving in New York. That episode was followed by a turn as Bobby Blue on the soap opera “One Life to Live” from 1985-86 and then by the role of Jonathan Rollins in “L.A. Law,” which he played from 1987-94.

In between and during all this there were film roles, a Burger King commercial, television guest shots, voiceovers and anything else he could sink his time and teeth into.

“L.A. Law,” Mr. Underwood said, taught him “not to get complacent about a hot TV show.” One way he avoids that trap is by branching out as a writer and director. “Casanegra: A Tennyson Hardwick Novel,” the first of Mr. Underwood’s two novels, both co-written with television writer Steven Barnes and novelist Tananarive Due (“My Soul to Keep,” “The Living Blood”) was published in 2007. The second book in the series (“In the Night of the Heat”) is slated to print Sept. 16.

In 2004, Mr. Underwood performed a one-man show called “IM4–From the Mountain Top to Hip Hop,” conceived by the actor and written by his younger brother, Frank Underwood Jr., and Iona Morris, who also directed. Mr. Underwood played eight characters in the show: the rap mogul who is gunned down and the people he meets after death, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Underwood, who considers himself a storyteller, said it was the storytelling of “In Treatment” that first appealed to him. He added that working with Mr. Byrne was a gift. “There’s a lot of mutual respect,” he said. ”The rest of us come in and do our jobs and go, but playing Dr. Paul, he’s there all the time, making it work day in and day out.

“We didn’t know if anyone would watch, but people did. I think we’re grateful that people tuned in.”

“In Treatment” is produced by Closest to the Hole Productions, HBO and Leverage Management, and exec produced by Rodrigo García, Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg and Hagai Levi, co-creator of “Be’ Tipul.”