role call

Blair Underwood Answers All Our Questions About Sex and the City’s Dr. Robert

“The character was all on the paper,” says Underwood of the seemingly perfect Knicks team doctor. “All I had to do was step in his shoes and not mess it up.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: HBO

Flame-haired, tart-tongued attorney Miranda Hobbes filed through her fair share of guys on Sex and the City before finally settling down with the endearingly rumpled Steve. (Remember the Crunch trainer entranced by her confidence on the treadmill?) But when Dr. Robert Leeds entered the picture during the first stretch of the series’ sixth and final season, in 2003, he immediately stood out from the pack.

For one thing, the man was basically an urban unicorn: a funny, charismatic, and down-to-Earth stud who also happened to be the New York Knicks’ team doctor and didn’t even flinch upon learning that Miranda and her infant son had chickenpox. The two met in their Upper West Side co-op apartment, bantered about BBC America programming (swoon), dated, and then split over a healthy span of four episodes, allowing viewers ample time to grow emotionally attached. And yes, he was the rare person of color to appear on the iconic NYC series, notorious then and now for its lack of onscreen diversity.

Of course, it helped that Robert, unlike so many of SATC’s one-off romantic interests, was not played by the prototypical New York City–based actor aiming to plump a résumé beyond theater credits. At the time, Blair Underwood was a seasoned TV and film star of nearly 20 years, best known for portraying an idealistic lawyer on NBC’s Emmy Award–winning drama L.A. Law from 1987 to 1994. Underwood has gone on to appear in everything from Madea’s Family Reunion to When They See Us and landed a 2020 Best Actor Tony nomination for his performance in A Soldier’s Play. But he says fans still approach him all the time about his rom-com arc, which ended with the not-at-all-heartbroken good doctor cavorting around with two ladies in his pad.

“One of the beauties of having longevity in the business is that people remember you from so many projects,” he says. “But Sex and the City is constant. When people bring it up to me, I’m glad I made the decision to do it.” Read on for his thoughts on the role, working with onscreen love interest Cynthia Nixon, and his take on saying “I love you” via a cookie cake.

How did it come to be that you were cast? 
The executive producers were kind enough to extend an invitation to me a few years prior in the episode about Kim Cattrall’s character [Samantha Jones] dating a Black man because she was curious about it. I was respectfully not interested in being the curiosity. I thanked them profusely, and I meant that sincerely because it was such a huge hit at the time and I had met Kim and Sarah Jessica Parker a few years prior. So I said, “I’m going to have to say no, but I would love to come back at some point.” I think that set the precedent later.

I remember that episode [season three’s “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts”]. We never saw that guy again. And then what happened? 
Two years later, they came back with the role of Robert Leeds. I asked if [the character] was about his race. Like, is it about being a curiosity, or can he just be a man? They said no, he’s a doctor that lives in Cynthia’s building and they fall for each other. And I said I would love to do that. If you look at those episodes, I think race is mentioned once, when Kim Cattrall says something about him being a Black doctor. I wasn’t interested in being a curiosity in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s; I wanted to be a full-fledged, well-rounded character. Now in 2021 we’re more open to delve into the nuances of race relations and how we see each other.

I’m not sure how many episodes you had seen at that point, but the show’s absence of diversity must have been on your radar.
I had not seen the show at all, but that was on my radar. But it was the way of the world. It’s like, how is it possible that Woody Allen movies are set in New York with no minorities? That’s one of the reasons why I loved the idea of being able to represent the humanity that fills the skin … being a character first that happens to be Black, as opposed to being “the Black guy.”

So you said yes and now you’re the new guy on a smash show. Any nerves? 
The day I said yes, I was in L.A. Cynthia Nixon was on the set in New York, and she and Kim and Sarah Jessica all got on speakerphone and said, “We just heard you signed on and we just want to tell you we’re excited you’re coming on board and want to welcome you.” That just set the tone for the entire experience. Almost all my scenes were with Cynthia, but they could not have been more welcoming. It was also exciting for me because it was the final season, so there’s much more attention and focus in the media on how these story arcs would be resolved. The show had a higher profile than usual.

Generally speaking, did you like the character?  
He was cool! He’s got access to courtside seats at the Knicks games. The character was all on the paper, and all I had to do was step in his shoes and not mess it up.

I’d argue he was nice and cool almost to a fault. Was that boring for you as an actor? 
No, it was fun. I think the producers were showing a juxtaposition between Steve [David Eigenberg] and this guy who was supposed to have all these good qualities. But she loved Steve no matter what, warts and all. That was the construct of the storyline.

We did see Robert in action at Madison Square Garden. Please say you filmed during a real Knicks game. 
Sorry to kill the dream! We shot at Madison Square Garden with Knicks City Dancers, but it was not during a game. We had 300 extras there and were moving them around to angle the camera. That was so fun. I had my cousins and my brother-in-law just hanging at the Garden.

We need to talk about Robert giving Miranda a cookie cake frosted with the words “I Love You.” My friends and I maintain that no doctor for the Knicks would ever do something so hokey! 
It’s the funniest thing. I got a lot of response from people who were like, “Oh dude, it’s too much, too soon, calm down, pump the brakes.” If there were any kind of quirkiness or downside to Robert, it was that he moved a little fast.

Was it too soon, Blair Underwood? 
Oh, good question. I didn’t think it was too soon. He wasn’t asking her to marry him — he was just giving her a big ol’ cookie! In fact, I loved that cookie so much that props had to keep buying them for me. That was my dinner, breakfast, and lunch for the next three days.

Wait, you ate the cookie? With the “I Love You” intact?! 
With the “I Love You” intact. I ate it all.

Do you think Robert truly loved her? 
Yeah, I do. I think if the writers wanted to explore an iteration where they ended up together, they could have.

And you and Cynthia didn’t even know each other prior to filming? 
Not at all, which was great because the characters were meeting for the first time. We just played that.

What does it take to have great chemistry with someone? 
I think it’s about being open to hearing somebody and reacting to what they’re doing. Not just listening, but hearing. Then you internalize and respond to each other. That’s all it takes. Cynthia is such a consummate professional, being a theater baby initially and being an incredible actress. We just felt that it was very easy.

Was it a little anticlimactic to not film with Kim, Sarah Jessica, and Kristen Davis? 
Nah, I enjoyed Cynthia so much and there was so much to explore in a limited amount of time. She was just a joy to work with.

I have to ask: Did you sense any cast friction with Kim back then? 
No, not at all. I didn’t even work with Kim. It was a positive set, and by then people had learned to deal with problems or keep it to themselves. I didn’t pick up on anything, but they weren’t airing dirty laundry to guest stars, that’s for sure.

So Miranda broke up with Robert to be with Steve in the mid-season finale. But that wasn’t the last we saw of him. Did he return in the second-half premiere [in 2004] because the character was so popular? 
I don’t remember. I believe the character was only supposed to be in three episodes, and we shot two more a month later.

You have two memorable scenes in that one episode. First, Robert graphically describes their sex life in the apartment stairwell … 
He’s simulating sex! It’s such an over-the-top comedic moment. People always want to talk about the stairwell scene.

Well, it was very explicit, even by Sex and the City standards. Was that just another day at the office for you? 
You have to remember that we had already shot the love-making scene where Steve walks in on them and then Robert has to put a tampon up his nose [to stop a nosebleed]. Words are just words.

Fair. And then Steve knocks on the door and sees two naked women in your apartment!
I see that as revenge. Listen, you don’t want me? I’m going to go play.

Did you watch the rest of the series to see how it all turned out? 
I did! I became invested, and to see what people were talking about it. They were so intrigued with the show and followed it so fervently. I was curious. My wife watched it all the time, too. She was a huge fan.

And its popularity hasn’t really ceased. What do people still respond to? 
You know, I just did a guest-star role on Love Life with Anna Kendrick. And I was telling people that it’s kind of like Sex and the City. There are so many iterations of that show. But at the time, it was a fresh idea to see young women in the greatest and fastest city in the world and hear from their minds and spirits and see them control their bodies. It was very progressive and cutting-edge for the time, even for cable. So I think it had a lot to do with, “Oh my god, can you believe what they’re saying? Can you believe what they’re doing?” There was such word of mouth! It was such a cultural touchstone and it’s hard to recapture that ever again. When you’re first, you break the mold.

Do you think it’s aged well, considering the diversity issue? 
It’s definitely dated. Just look at the technology and the way people communicated with each other! But it was a very different world, and when you watch the show you feel like it was different and specific in terms of time and place. It doesn’t offend me because that’s what it was. That’s why we have to remember those times so we can keep pushing the needle forward.

Are you in the new Sex and the City series, And Just Like That?
Oh, it’s a series? I thought it was a movie! No, I’m not in it.

No hard feelings? 
Not at all! I’ve got my hands full producing two plays, and I just finished directing a movie with Sarah Silverman. It was a phenomenal experience, and like I said, you can’t recreate that kind of greatness. It’s a moment in time. And to have a chance to dance with those individuals back then, just to have this conversation now makes me grateful.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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