A PREGNANT woman approached with three tots in tow. "I am so sorry," she said, one hand on her protruding belly, the other covering her mouth. "I love you. I love you," she gushed as she got closer to Blair Underwood, dining at Clementine, a sidewalk cafe near Century City. "It was the funniest thing when you were on that show, 'Christine,' " the woman said. "I was dying. The whole time I was dying."
"I was too, 'cause I loved it," replied Underwood, who has been toiling in TV and film for two decades and might just get his first Emmy nomination this year, if buzz is a reliable barometer of such things.
The woman referred to Underwood's guest-star stint on CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine" this season in which he played Christine's (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) suave, sexy boyfriend, Daniel.
But that was only one of three prominent spots Underwood held on the tube this season.
On ABC's new drama, "Dirty Sexy Money," he plays the wealthy, dashing and ambiguous Simon Elder. On HBO's nine-week series, "In Treatment," which ended in March, he took on Alex Prince, a troubled Navy pilot whose brusque demeanor disguised his profound pain. Week after week, Underwood's exacting portrayal of that duality captured both critics and his peers, leading to industrywide speculation that this could be Underwood's year.
"You know, I've never had that conversation before this year," Underwood said. "So by the grace of God, this is 23 years in the business. These three projects are all projects I'm proud of. It's not just fluff or doing it because you can. So to be able to have the opportunity to do the work and then for people to respond in such a way, to engage in that conversation, is in and of itself a reward to me."
Underwood's commitment to "Dirty Sexy Money" doesn't allow him to return to "Old Christine," which is really why Daniel broke up with Christine, crushing women everywhere, including, possibly, Louis-Dreyfus.
"I was flying on Southwest Airlines somewhere," Louis-Dreyfus said, "and as I'm exiting the plane, the two flight attendants come running up to me and they go, 'I'm sorry, we don't mean to trouble you. We just have one quick question: Is Blair Underwood a good kisser?' " Her answer? "Oh, yeah."
Over the last two decades, Underwood has turned in solid performances on popular TV series such as "L.A. Law" and "Sex and the City," and films like "Full Frontal." In Tyler Perry's "Madea's Family Reunion," he portrayed a charismatic man who secretly beats his wife and later falls apart.
Someone who took notice of that performance was "In Treatment" creator Rodrigo Garcia, who adapted his series about a therapist (Gabriel Byrne) and his patients from a successful Israeli drama.
As Garcia crafted his version, changing a soldier into an American pilot who bombed an Iraqi school under orders -- killing 16 children -- he thought about Underwood.
"I think that it was easy to cast Blair for that terrific presence, that eloquent way of speaking, the way he conducts himself physically," Garcia said. "But what he brought to Alex that was more than I bargained for was that way of balancing his incredible cockiness with those glimpses of pain and insecurity. He's . . . so capable of giving those flashes, these little cracks that go by in a frame and then you realize that this guy is a pretender."
Instantly, Alex became one of Underwood's favorite characters but he wondered if viewers would be put off by his abrasiveness. His own father answered that question when one episode compelled him to share with his son that during the Vietnam War, he also had followed orders that led to the deaths of innocent people.
"He got choked up telling me," Underwood said. "This character has traits that address the way many of us men are wired. We come from a place where it's 'Don't talk. Man up.' Alex needs to keep coming back to [the therapist] to understand so many things but it hurts too much.
"That's the tragedy of the character but it's also why I love the character so much because we're all trying to find the path that leads us to understanding who we are and what we are."
During the filming of each half-hour episode, Underwood often had to deliver lengthy monologues, and Alex grew into a viewer favorite.
"When he broke down, Blair went for broke," Garcia noted of the episode in which Alex finally loses his composure. "It was really moving to see a man like that broken."