Blair Underwood

The versatile actor, who plays the commander-in-chief on NBC’s alien-invasion series The Event, on having his face on billboards, Driving While Black, and getting the part
Photograph by Robert Ascroft

A few years after I moved to Los Angeles to be on L.A. Law, I did a TNT movie called Heat Wave about the Watts riots. I played the L.A. Times journalist who led a team whose reporting won the Pulitzer Prize. Then two years after that, the 1992 riots broke out. Martin Luther King said it best: A riot is the language of the unheard. I had this beautiful home in the hills of Los Feliz from which I could see South-Central, and I just had to be down there. Why? Because along with all the incredible wealth and all the glamour and glitz and red-carpet affairs—which are part of my life—I’m also an African American man. And while I wasn’t beaten like Rodney King, I’d been pulled over by the cops. Four times. It’s happened to a lot of African American men who drive nice cars.

Once a cop stopped me and put a gun to my temple. Another time my wife and I were coming home from church at 1 a.m. on New Year’s Eve. Coming up Gower near Hollywood, two cops stop us. I know the dance. They pull us over, guns drawn. “Get out of the car!” I put both my hands out the window and get out. “Get up against the wall!” My wife is in the passenger seat, and she’s watching. They tell her, “Turn around!” and she says, “No. I want to see what you’re doing to my husband.” So they’re patting me down, and one recognizes me. Then they start backtracking, apologizing. Later I called my friend Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer, and I told him about it. He said, “Your offense was DWB: Driving While Black.”

So on the night the riots began, I went to First AME Church, where the Reverend Cecil Murray was holding a service. Afterward I came out of the church, and the palm trees were on fire. My car was parked at a Laundromat that was on fire. People were running and screaming. And what was so surreal was I felt I was in a scene of a movie I’d already shot: Heat Wave. That was a pivotal Los Angeles moment for me.

I don’t get paid to put my face on those billboards for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. When the idea first came up, some people warned me it would cost me. “Don’t you worry that people will think you have HIV or AIDS?” they asked. But I thought it was the right thing to do. My experience with AIDS started with an organization I cofounded 23 years ago: Artists for a New South Africa. Then you see the need in your backyard, where the African American community is disproportionately impacted by HIV. AIDS is rising in the heterosexual community, too. I felt I could bring that message to people.

Here’s what’s ironic: Last year when they were casting The Event at Sunset Gower Studios, one of our AHF billboards was right outside. They had been looking for a Latino actor to play the president, but that wasn’t working out. A week before they were to start shooting the pilot the casting director came to work and passed my billboard, like she had every day for weeks. She went in and said to the producers, “Why aren’t we talking to him?” That’s how I got the part.