Here comes Ironside, starting October 2nd. It would appear that the only things the forthcoming broadcast, now set in New York, has in common with the original, 1967 version of the series is the name, the broadcasting network, and that the main character is in a wheelchair. We will find out whether that is indeed the case once Blair Underwood gets going as Robert Ironside and takes the viewers into “the gritty world of the NYPD,” according to NBC’s official words about the impending premiere: “He’s a fearless cop, who won’t stop until the guilty are brought to justice. Ironside is clearly a force to be reckoned with and a man who is willing to break the rules.”
No man is an island, so the creators, amongst them Executive Producer Michael Cales (The Sopranos, Rescue Me) and Director Peter Horton (Deception and Grey’s Anatomy) have supplied him with support. Gary Stanton (Brent Sexton) is Ironside’s former partner, presumably before a bullet took Ironside and made him a paraplegic, two years prior to him forming a specialist task force utilizing his skills and techniques to get the bad guys. He also gets to grips at some point with a fitness instructor during the 13 episodes as, according to Blair Underwood, Ironside “is still able.” A prime-time network broadcast of 10p ET/9p Central means, I suspect, that will mostly be left to the imagination.
Two characters is not enough, of course, so enter Virgil (Pablo Schreiber), Holly (Spencer Grammer), Teddy (Neal Bledsoe) and Ironside’s, no doubt, long suffering boss, Ed Rollins (Kenneth Choi). Together they will serve up justice in this remake of a long running series which aired in 195 episodes from September, 1967 to January, 1975.
I loved the as a youngster and found Raymond Burr as Chief Robert T. Ironside completely mesmerizing. My homework would have been done if he had told me to do it.
I must confess to a feeling of betrayal, however, when I discovered Ironside, or at least the actor who portrayed him, was not a paraplegic.
This is something both the old and the new series have in common. It is an area of discomfort I have with the whole genre. Acting is just that: acting a part. The better it is done, the more you believe it. Occupying a wheelchair when you don’t need to is pretending—which is different and why, in my opinion, it detracts from the quality of the storytelling. Blair Underwood is completely believable as a wheelchair user, but I know he is pretending—that is the problem. I don’t believe there aren't actors out there, living their lives as wheelchair users, who don’t have the “chops” to deliver the goods. I am also positive some of them may also possess wheelchairs with the handles removed, just like the new Ironside's, so he can’t be pushed around. The original series, created by Collier Young, gave us Raymond Burr’s character, brought down by an assassin’s bullet whilst he was out of town on holiday. He then sets up his own Special Unit and moves them into offices and quarters specially provided at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department.
As in the forthcoming series, his band of helpers represented the demographics of the day, as you would expect. There was safe, dependable Sgt. Ed Brown (Don Galloway); the beautiful (of course) police woman Eve Whitfield (a former Miss Memphis, Barbara Anderson); and the ex-con, Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell), who pushes the Boss’s wheelchair and drives the uniquely modified van. I think the toy companies brought some little figures out, if I remember rightly, as well as a model of the special van. In addition to the storylines you would expect of bad guys getting outsmarted by Ironside and his team, the writers also kept things moving by allowing the members of the team to take center stage in alternating episodes. For example, ex-con Mark Sanger became a fully-fledged policeman, then passed the bar and became an attorney.
The enchanting Eve Whitfield left after 105 episodes to be replaced by Fran Belding (Elizabeth Baur), but not before she won an Emmy for her work. The relationships between the characters drove the storylines as they cleaned the streets of San Francisco of bad men and women. They were ably assisted in this by the local Holiday Inn Select Downtown Hotel, 750 Kearny Street, and the exterior of the San Francisco Hall of Justice, knocked down in April, 1968. The backlot at Universal Studios provided the rest of the televisual canvas, as did, not surprisingly, San Francisco itself in the form of stock footage. The square-jawed Ironside, the safe pair of hands of Sgt. Brown, the beauty of Eve Whitfield, and the loyalty and ambition of Mark Sanger all hit the right note for me.
One of the other things I loved about Ironside was his passion for food and drink. Raymond Burr himself was a very keen cook and orchid grower. The new series does tip its cap to the original by having Blair Underwood’s character end the day with a sip of bourbon. Mister Underwood’s also makes special reference to his technical advisor, David Bryant, who became a paraplegic at 19, after an accident involving skiing, and helped Blair Underwood prepare for the role.
I hope the new series lasts more than 13 episodes, as television is cut-throat when it comes to viewing figures. In that respect, the original Ironside is unique. You get a real bite of the biscuit at developing characters over 195 episodes. I’ll let you know what I think after the first episodes of the new on air. I am looking forward to it. Raymond Burr and Don Galloway have passed away, but I wonder if Barbara Anderson and Mark Sanger will be watching, impressed, or feeling that the title of Episode Four of the new series sums it up: “Sleeping Dogs.” We shall wait and see…
Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.