Now that the presidential election is over, it’s time to put to rest one of the campaign’s stranger urban legends. Was Blair Underwood’s character on the L.A. Law TV show based on a young law student named Barack Obama?
L.A. Law debuted on September 15, 1986. The NBC series was created by prolific Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) and gave a big break to David E. Kelley, the talented writer who later created legal shows like Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Boston Legal.
In its day, L.A. Law was a cornerstone of NBC’s mega-successful Thursday night line-up. Following a group of lawyers at the Los Angeles law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, and Chaney, the show showcases the talents of actors like Corbin Bernsen, Jill Eikenberry, Alan Rachins, Michael Tucker, Richard Dysart, Larry Drake, Susan Ruttan, Susan Dey, Jimmy Smits, Harry Hamlin, Michele Greene, John Spencer, Sheila Kelley, and Amanda Donohoe.
Blair Underwood joined the show’s cast in season two as a young hotshot black attorney named Jonathan Rollins. Lately, some have wondered if Underwood’s character was based on Obama in his early days. While there is a connection between the two, it’s not quite what you might expect.
As Underwood recently told MSNBC, “Steven Bochco, the show’s creator, said he wanted [my] character to have ‘a stellar resume and extraordinary background.’ So Bochco made him the president of the Harvard Law Review. I didn’t even know at the time if there’d been a black president of the Harvard Law Review.”
The actor continues, “Now, fast forward a couple years into the show… I go to Harvard to give this talk and afterward, a tall brother with big ears comes up to me and says, ‘I am Barack Obama and I am the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. You play me.'”
It turns out that the creation of Underwood’s character predates Obama’s historic post by a few years. So, actually, Obama could have been inspired by Jonathan Rollins.
Obama became the Harvard Law Review’s first black president in February 1990 and it’s a position that’s considered to be the highest student position at the prestigious school. His comments at the time echoed those of his acceptance speech last night. The 28-year-old Obama told the NY Times, “The fact that I’ve been elected shows a lot of progress… It’s encouraging.”
The publicity of the Harvard post led to Obama being offered a deal to write a book about race relations. That led him to be recruited by the University of Chicago Law School and then, well, he was on his way.
Addition: Here’s a video of Underwood relating this story to a small rally audience in Virginia Beach back in October.