Plus, the legendary actor talks Whitney Houston, Notorious B.I.G. and his Broadway debut.
From Krush Groove to L.A. Law to the Broadway stage, Blair Underwood is a film and television veteran. Now, fans of the actor, director, producer and sex symbol (we can’t forget his 1996 cover of Playgirl!) is diving deep into his roots for the season three premiere of Who Do You Think You Are?, which airs tonight at 8/7c on NBC.
Underwood’s journey to his roots proves even more relevant considering this is Black History Month and the 47-year-old goes down in history as one of the most memorable Black actors of our time. We had to know more from Mr. Underwood, who sat down for his first BET.com interview.
I always love when Who Do You Think You Are? features African-Americans because our history is so unique. How did your perspective change when it comes to being Black in America after participating in the show?
Great question. I learned so much doing the show. Everybody has a brick wall they hit when they start doing the linage and history. Most often, when you track African-American history, the census of 1870 is where you hit that brick wall because of slavery. We were able to break that wall three times, which was amazing. I discovered a whole linage of family members who were free people of color in the Virginia south. That was all an education to me. I had a whole line of free people of color in my family, going back to 1790. Their names are documented in the free people of color registers. I never knew that!
Did you have any hesitation to go back to the roots of slavery, which was a horrific time in American history?
To their credit, the producers ask you that, "Is there anything you don't want to know?" Because they'll find it, but I said, "I want to know it all!"
How do you see the information you learned from the show affecting your future?
In one sense, it's intangible information that you're learning about yourself. But I do think, just knowing yourself, all of us, can affect how we present ourselves, how we feel about ourselves. To me, it's empowering to learn this information. It makes you stand that much stronger because you know more of who you are. How that affects life from here on? I don't know. But I know it's a good thing.
You are making your Broadway debut in A Street Car Named Desire in April. Are you nervous or feeling good?
I feel great; I think I'm too excited to be nervous. It's my Broadway debut, but I started in the theater and whenever I get a chance, I come back. I did Shakespeare in the Park in 1993, Pearly in 2005 with Anaki Noni Rose and a one-man show about five years ago—that is my first love, the stage, which is where I feel the most comfortable. I can't wait!
Next month, marks 15 years since Notorious B.I.G. was killed. Any thoughts?
You can't think of him without thinking of Diddy. I don't want to say he was the rise of rap music because, it's funny, I did Krush Grove—that was seven years deep and I remember people telling Russell Simmons that it would be a fad. But B.I.G., definitely one of the icons that propelled it to the next level. It's still a tragedy. Another tragic loss and we are just coming out of the whole Whitney loss...
Yes, you and Whitney are only a year a part in age. Your career was booming in the '80s, as was Whitney's. What did you think about the passing of the late, great Whitney Houston?
She was an extraordinary talent, it's just sad. My wife and I were at the wedding when she married Bobby Brown at her home in New Jersey. I met her in the early '80's, we hosted a show together on NBC—just known her over the years. I don't know how she ultimately passed, but we all know her battles with drug addiction. I’ve had that in my family, a lot of us have. What I've noticed is most people who battle that kind of addiction are the kindest people and they end up hurting themselves more than anybody else. So, it's not a malicious thing, it's just sad...
You've had a scandal-free career. There isn't a blemish in your career.
[Laughs] That you could find!
How have you been able to do avoid the tabloids all of these years?
[Laughs] I live a pretty low-key life. I’m not trying to go out there, be crazy and mess up, and make those kind of headlines. The focus is the work and it's why I'm so excited about Broadway. It's why I’m so excited about getting back on stage because that is my first love, besides my wife. Beyond that, everything else doesn't matter.
Why should the BET.com audience watch Who Do You Think You Are?
Well, I'd love for them to watch it and buy a ticket to A Streetcar Named Desire! [Laughs] There's so much more to our history than I realized. Judging from the people I've spoken to, our people, almost everybody I talked to is surprised about some of the things I found out. Nowadays, you can go to Ancestry.com or AfricanAncestry.com, type in your family name and you'll be amazed at what comes up. I would encourage people to do that, especially for us. As you well know, the reason we were ripped apart, the reason our language was taken away from us, our culture was taken away from us—it was to suppress us. The way to build that back up is to know us, to know who we are, know where we come from.
Who Do You Think You Are? airs tonight at 8/7c on NBC.
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