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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Blair Underwood goes under covers

By Greg Braxton

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 14, 2007 12:00 AM

BLAIR UNDERWOOD was behind mirrored shades at the rear of a Studio City cafe, discussing his good fortune, flashing the wholesome, pearly-white smile that has paved the way for a solid career in television and film during the last 20 years.

But it was a new kind of project that brought a gleam to his eye -- a project that proves he can get his X-rated freak on and, Underwood hopes, may bring him the breakthrough leading role that has all but eluded him since his career took off more than 20 years ago with the landmark drama "L.A. Law."

Viewers tuning in to the upcoming TV season will find it hard to miss the effortlessly handsome Underwood, who is featured in three series. He's one of the richest men in the world in ABC's soapy drama "Dirty Sexy Money" and a troubled Iraq war veteran undergoing therapy in HBO's "In Treatment," set to premiere early next year. He's also continuing his role as the object of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' flirtation in CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine."

His most inventive endeavor to date is a true passion project, in more ways than one. He's joined forces with two established African American writers -- Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes -- to create Tennyson Hardwick, a former gigolo and down-on-his-luck actor who is forced to turn into an amateur sleuth when he is implicated in the murder of a popular female rapper.

Hardwick is the central character in "Casanegra," the first in a planned series of L.A.-flavored noir novels generously sprinkled with steamy erotica. While Tennyson is a conflicted soul searching for a job and peace of mind, he's more than secure with his sexual prowess, and the scenes in which he demonstrates his skills are extremely explicit.

The novel, in which urban hot spots such as Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, Eso Won Books and the lower-class Baldwin Hills-adjacent neighborhood known as "The Jungle" are prominent locales, reflects the influences of Walter Mosley ("Devil in a Blue Dress") and Zane, whose bestselling novels of black erotica have a hearty following of black female readers."If you want to compare us to them, there can be no higher compliment," said Barnes, who is married to Due.

'Casanegra's' cachet

And while most celebrity-penned first novels are ignored by critics or wind up in the bargain bin of bookstores, "Casanegra" (the title is a tongue-in-cheek twist on "Casablanca") is scoring positive reviews from mainstream publications. "The pace is taut, the dialogue is snappy, and it's hard not to fall for Underwood's fallen hero," said Entertainment Weekly. Essence recently recommended the novel for its book club.

Said Christine Saunders of Atria Books, the division of Simon & Schuster that published "Casanegra": "It's been doing very well, and the sales have been increasing each week since the book officially came out in June. And it really is a collaboration. Blair has been intensely involved in everything from the very beginning."

"All I can say is, I'm so blessed," Underwood said. "I don't take anything for granted. I'm incredibly fortunate. But I'm also extremely selective in what I do. The way I keep interested is to find things I'm really passionate about. If you can create that passionate attitude toward your work, it opens up so many things."

There's a creative calculation to the book venture. Underwood is hoping that the novels will serve as a launch pad for Tennyson to hit the big screen. And there is a clear first choice on who would play the sexed-up gumshoe. The partners are attempting to develop "Casanegra" as an independent film while working on the second Tennyson Hardwick novel, "In the Night of the Heat" (the Hardwick books will all have titles with variations of classic films).

Underwood said such a role would allow him to display his wide acting range, particularly his desire to show the sinister behind the smile. Though he has been able to bring some menacing elements into various portrayals (he played an abusive fiancee in last year's "Madea's Family Reunion"), many of his characters have emphasized his smooth, charming persona, accented by his model looks."Doing roles like that is very flattering, but it's really not my favorite thing to do. I have a track record of playing that character. But I really like to get into the darker side of things."

Trying on noir

It's the first foray into the mystery genre for all of the writers. Like many mystery novels featuring a Chandler-esque hero, the story is drenched with irony and dry wit (the hero is working in deodorant commercials). The blend of hip-hop, Hollywood and the staples of the genre -- gunplay, violence, betrayals -- is a flavorful, though occasionally overcooked, stew.

Making Tennyson a former male escort was Underwood's idea, said Due. "He really wanted to bring that erotic angle to it." The team worked smoothly together. Underwood came up with the idea for the character, and the three worked on an outline. Due did the majority of writing of the first draft, which was revised and tweaked by Barnes. Those chunks were then delivered to Underwood, who added ideas and input, particularly to Tennyson's place as a man inside Hollywood just enough to be a minor celebrity.

Said Barnes: "Through our friendship with Blair, we really got to see him in various surroundings in Hollywood, and how people react to him. He carries himself with gentleness, but there is the sense of leashed energy."

The trio displayed an affectionate chemistry at a recent get-together at the W Hotel in Westwood, where they munched on appetizers, paying little attention to the trendy chaos in one of the establishment restaurants. Barnes joked about how secure he must feel to have his wife spending so much time working with Underwood. The actor, who first became acquainted with Due when he optioned the rights to one of her earlier books, "My Soul to Keep," smiled and tossed back barbs of his own.

The path into mystery and erotica territory seems to be an unusual turn for a deeply religious, happily married husband and father of three who has never attracted scandal or been involved with behind-the-scenes diva shenanigans. He addresses the apparent disconnect in his dedication to God at the end of "Casanegra": "Though many will choose not to understand why this book was written, I thank YOU for granting me the understanding that we are all flawed, damaged and fall short of your Glory. Often the journey is not as politically correct as some would like and sometimes the journey is sordid, dark and even erotic. Nonetheless, the odyssey must be embarked upon. . . ."

"Casanegra" also marks an unusual arrangement. Underwood's name is in large print on the cover, while Due and Barnes are given smaller billing with red lettering. Underwood's slim, muscular physique is pictured on the cover, but with his back to the camera, the face hidden.

But it's a truly yin-and-yang arrangement that has the partners more than pleased that their respective audiences will be expanded by the association. Underwood's name helps attract readers who may be unfamiliar with Due and Barnes. At the same time, the actor is linked to authors who have solid literary credentials (Due is the author of several novels, including "My Soul to Keep" and "The Black Rose," while Barnes has written several science-fiction novels, including "The Cestus Deception").

Even as the team awaits word on financing, Underwood is embarking on a heavy show business schedule. He's in post-production on his first feature directorial effort, the drama "Bridge to Nowhere," starring Ving Rhames. He's also involved in the production of reality shows, including "Stage Black," a stage drama competition on TV One.

"It's always been important for me to have several things going at the same time," Underwood said. "In many ways, I feel like I'm just getting started. I hope to keep that hunger I had when I first got out of college. That's what keeps me going."