Was Jonathan Rollins on L.A. Law Based on Barack Obama?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Jonathan Rollins on L.A. Law was based, at least in part, on a young Barack Obama.

In 1987, the hit television series L.A. Law introduced a brand new character, a brilliant, young and charismatic African-American lawyer named Jonathan Rollins, played by Blair Underwood. The character was created by the show’s co-creator, Stephen Bochco.

The character would become a major part of the series, staying on the show for the rest of the series’ run (all the way to the finale in 1994) and the character would become more and more of a central figure as the show went on (as other stars, like Jimmy Smits and Harry Hamlin, left the series).

An interesting facet of Rollins’ back story on the show was that he was the first African-America President of the Harvard Law Review.

This has led people, looking back, to wonder if the character was based, even in part, on former United States President Barack Obama, who was the ACTUAL first African-American President of the Harvard Law Review.

After all, Obama’s history-making success at Harvard was big news at the time, with the “New York Times” even doing an article on the topic, “First Black Elected to Head Harvard’s Law Review.”

So it is certainly feasible that Bochko would hear about it. And it would be pretty cool if true, right? So IS it true?

As cool as it would have been, Rollins’ creation actually predates Obama’s historic achievement by a number of years (Underwood joined the show in 1987 while Obama did not even ATTEND Harvard Law School until 1988). Amusingly enough, once Obama was elected to the position, his fellow Harvard students poked fun at all of the media attention that he received from his election and one prankster even posted a notice for a movie titled “The Barack Obama Story, a Made for TV Movie, Starring Blair Underwood as Barack Obama.”

The amusing coincidences continued, as Underwood later recalled:

“Around my second or third year on L.A. Law. Harvard Law School invited the producers and me to come visit the law school and speak to the law school students When I got there, they said, ‘You’ve got to meet the [real] president of the Harvard Law Review.’ Somebody took me over to meet him. He was very nice, and very warm.”

Underwood also later recalled his first impression of Barack Obama:

I have to say, even just meeting him, what I take away from here every time I come to Harvard is just truly how bright and hungry and intelligent and curious and insightful and bold the students are and inspiring to me. Of course I saw it in him, but I see it so often on this campus.

Ever since then, Underwood made it a point to follow the progress of young Barack Obama (who, actually, is three years OLDER than Underwood, as Obama attended Harvard Law School in his late 20s).

In 2008, Blair Underwood was one of the many celebrities who campaigned for Obama to achieve another “first” for an African-America, the first African-American President of the United States.

The legend is…


Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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