Ron Eldard has bonded tightly with Detective Jim Dunbar, the New York cop he plays on his new ABC drama “Blind Justice.”
Not only did Eldard attend a school for the blind to prepare for the role, but also, as a personal exercise, he sometimes ventures blindfolded out into the real world, the better to identify with Dunbar’s challenges after a bullet robbed him of his sight.
But Eldard reports that a recent such outing at a shopping mall floored him.
“I have a huge lump on my shin,” he says. “I took a header.”
Eldard’s real-life tumble mirrors a future “Blind Justice” episode when Dunbar, moving by rote through the squad room, collides with a desk drawer carelessly left open by a fellow detective.
Later, when his partner notices his pant leg is stained, Dunbar retreats to the locker room to nurse his injury. The best he can do is swab the blood with a paper towel. Then he has to go. He has a murder to solve.
For the viewer, Dunbar’s flesh wound is singularly painful to behold, even in a series with a quota of at least one gruesome homicide per hour. Each episode is framed as a whodunit but, in Eldard’s mind, that’s not the point. “Who cares?” he says. “Out of the 13 shows we’ve shot, the moments that are the most beautiful have nothing to do with the crime.”
“Beautiful” — applied in various enthusiastic ways — is a word he uses often, reflecting a guy who’s jazzed and outgoing. It’s a style that strikes quite a contrast with the sullen, prickly Dunbar. All the more reason, then, for Eldard to play him.
Leading up to this week’s premiere, “Blind Justice” was heavily hyped as the next great police drama from Steven Bochco, creator of “NYPD Blue,” whose time slot (10 p.m. ET Tuesdays) it inherited.
“But I wasn’t interested in doing a cop show,” says Eldard. “I wasn’t interested in ‘NYPD Blind.”’
Not a superheroWhat attracted him instead was the chance to play a man who is not only robbed of his sight, but also robbed of his self-image.
Before, Dunbar was a man who had everything, maybe even more than his share. A hotshot detective, he also was a ladies man who cheated on his beautiful wife (Rena Sofer).
Then everything changes. He is blinded in a shootout. Refusing to retire on disability, he fights for reinstatement and wins assignment to a new precinct where he is greeted with less than open arms by the new team (Reno Wilson, Frank Grillo, Michael Gaston and Marisol Nichols, who plays his put-upon partner).
Can Dunbar prove himself again on the streets? Says Eldard, “I didn’t want a superhero. I remember telling Steven, ‘I’m really not interested in how many walls he gets over. I’m much more interested in how many walls he runs into and how many times he gets knocked down.”’
Meanwhile, in his sightless state, can Dunbar save his troubled marriage to the sort of woman “he would have originally been drawn to on looks alone?
“I think if he got back his sight tomorrow, he would be cheating on his wife in three days,” Eldard adds. “I think he hasn’t really changed that much. So I really am not interested in his becoming a very noble man. I’m much more interested in his struggling like hell not to be a schmuck.”
Eldard, 40, comes to “Blind Justice” after roles in theater (including the 1999 Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman”), films (among them “Black Hawk Down,” “Ghost Ship” and “House of Sand and Fog”), a season as a swashbuckling paramedic on “ER,” and, early on, a cop on the sublimely silly comedy “Bakersfield P.D.”
Growing up in a working-class section of Queens, Eldard had figured on being a pro athlete (he was a Golden Gloves light-heavyweight contender). But in high school he discovered acting — and a passion for stepping into other people’s shoes.
In particular, he says, “I’ve always been fascinated with people who have what we call handicaps, but are able to accomplish so much. It’s kind of interesting that ‘Blind Justice’ came along.”
Eldard says he rehearses and blocks every scene with his eyes closed. “If I bump into a chair or a person, it stays.”
Then, when cameras roll, he effects a blank, unseeing gaze.
“The way I do it, I just stop looking — at anything.” And he has found that his eyes register very little: On viewing the pilot episode, he saw for the first time what the actors who surrounded him were doing in each scene.
Eldard maintains his gaze even in the scenes when he wears dark glasses — the dark glasses, by the way, that represent another bond he shares with Dunbar.
“Those were my glasses — the sunglasses I already owned,” says Eldard. Except now he can’t wear those cool, distinctive shades in his private life. “Not with all the posters promoting the show everywhere. People would be like, ‘Dude, I get it — you’re the guy in the poster!’
“But it could be worse,” he adds with a laugh. “What if I put the glasses on and people were like, ‘Nah, I don’t get it. Who are you supposed to be?”’