Actor Leonard Roberts (Drumline, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has written a powerful op-ed for Variety, detailing issues of systemic racism while on-set of the critically acclaimed NBC television drama Heroes. In 2006, Roberts portrayed D.L. Hawkins, a superhero who possesses the ability to pass through solid matter, and husband to Niki Sanders (played by Ali Larter), in the first season—a role he claims was described in an early draft of the pilot as “a white man’s nightmare.”
Roberts describes a unilateral and dismissive work environment, where he was told his character would appear in the pilot episode, then the second, then pushed all the way to the sixth. He recalls being pushed to the back and to the side of photo-ops, despite being a series regular, making room for non-Black colleagues. He unpacks his relationship with Larter, his onscreen wife and an actor who he says behaved contemptuously towards him: In one instance, he writes that she refused to hide her shirt strap in an intimate scene between the two characters to give the appearance of toplessness, without discussing the scene with her scene partner—though she was open, collaborative, and improvisational, Roberts writes, in a comparable scene with Nathan Petrelli, played by white actor Adrian Pasdar. As the season went on, nonwhite characters were killed off, until finally Roberts was told D.L. would not return for season two—over the phone by show creator Tim Kring, because of “the Ali Larter situation.” Executive Producer Dennis Hammer assured Roberts he was “loved,” and fans “hated” Larter for her behavior. “Don’t think of this as a situation where the Black man loses and the white woman wins,” Roberts says Hammer assured him.
“And that was the first time my race was ever acknowledged while I was a part of the show: not for any creative contribution I could make, but for what I believed was the fear of me becoming litigious,” Roberts writes:
Weeks after my last “Heroes” episode, one of my castmates, with no irony, said, “Can you really say you lost your job because you’re Black? C’mon, man. They’re gonna always keep the hot blonde on the show. That’s just Hollywood.” I responded that for him, as a white man, to ask me to deny I lost my job because I was Black, but accept my co-star kept her job because of attributes he clearly believed identified her as white was, in fact, a quite literal embodiment of systemic racism. There always seemed to be a collective need for a more palatable justification of what I went through. As time went on, mentions of Ali Larter in my presence were often patronizingly qualified with a “your girl” or “your favorite person,” suggesting it was just my problem, or worse, a figment of my imagination. After “Heroes” became a success, our scripts came with a warning of our immediate dismissal, should any material ever be disclosed. “REMEMBER … WE’RE A FAMILY AND A FAMILY IS ONLY AS STRONG AS THE SECRETS WE KEEP” each script read.
In the years after my time on “Heroes,” the burden of carrying the secret of my experience had a profoundly negative effect on how I interacted with the world. Professionally, I struggled with an internalization of anger and defeat unlike any I had ever experienced in my career. Realizing I had no agency to demand anything from a work environment in which I was expected to perform left me incensed. Knowing that every other future work endeavor could potentially turn out the same way left me exhausted. Personally, carrying the burden led me to withdraw from colleagues, friends and loved ones, due to my belief that I was a failure for not being able to somehow just be “better” and rise above it all. My voice felt muted and my light dimmed. Fighting against the isolation brought on by both was at times all consuming. I was ashamed and the shame I felt wasn’t the result of suffering the indignity, but, for a fleeting moment, actually being surprised by it.
It would be 10 years before I would become a series regular again.
When asked for comment on the op-ed, Dennis Hammer wrote, “14 years is a long time ago, but I remember clearly that Leonard was a great guy and a total pro.”
Tim Kring provided Variety the following statement:
“In 2006, I set out to cast the most diverse show on television. Diversity, interconnectivity and inclusivity were groundbreaking hallmarks of ‘Heroes.’ So too was the huge, diverse cast that continually rotated off and onto the show, with none ever being written off based on their race. Looking back now, 14 years later, given the very different lens that I view the world through today, I acknowledge that a lack of diversity at the upper levels of the staff may have contributed to Leonard experiencing the lack of sensitivity that he describes. I have been committed to improving upon this issue with every project I pursue. I remember Leonard fondly and wish him well.”
And Ali Larter responded to TV Line, for some reason:
“I am deeply saddened to hear about Leonard Roberts’ experience on Heroes and I am heartbroken reading his perception of our relationship, which absolutely doesn’t match my memory nor experience on the show. I respect Leonard as an artist and I applaud him or anyone using their voice and platform. I am truly sorry for any role I may have played in his painful experience during that time and I wish him and his family the very best.”
Interesting that there’s still no mention of race...
Read the full essay here.