‘Heroes’ Was Supposed to Be Leonard Roberts’ Big Break. Instead, It Nearly Broke Him.

Leonard Roberts
·24-min read

Leonard Roberts is best known for his roles in the movie “Drumline,” and on the television shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “American Crime Story,” “Major Crimes” — and for his performance as D.L. Hawkins on the first season of NBC’s “Heroes.” While the fantasy show debuted in 2006 to immediate blockbuster status, making overnight sensations of many of its stars — including Zachary Quinto, Masi Oka, Milo Ventimiglia and Hayden Panettiere — Roberts’ time on the show was far more troubled. As he details in his account below, he experienced immediate friction with his main co-star Ali Larter — and perceived indifference from creator and showrunner Tim Kring — that led him to feel singled out as a Black actor, a feeling that only grew more intense after he was fired from the show after its first season.

Variety corroborated Roberts’ account with 10 people who either worked on “Heroes” at the time or were contemporaneously familiar with his experience on the show. When reached for comment with a detailed summary of what Roberts wrote, Larter did not provide any comment, while Kring and executive producer Dennis Hammer both praised Roberts, and did not dispute his account. Their full statements are at the end of his piece. UPDATE: Several hours after publication, Larter responded to Roberts' account to Variety's sibling site TV Line, saying she was "deeply saddened." Her full statement also follows Roberts' piece. — Adam B. Vary and Kate Aurthur

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“Daddy, why are there wood boards over all the store windows?” my eight-year-old daughter Evan asked as our family walked our dog along Venice Boulevard. Two-and-a-half months into the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the streets were quiet, as a curfew was in place. Stores all over Los Angeles were being boarded up after looting had followed a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in nearby Santa Monica the day before.

“Well, the store owners have decided to cover the windows just in case,” my wife said. Before Evan could say “in case of what?” I interjected with, “Because people get scared when Black people demand things.”

The next day I walked the dog alone, and wondered what had caused me to go full John Amos from “Good Times” the night before. I’ve been a Black actor for 25 years but I’ve been a Black man in America my whole life. Those are never separate journeys, nor do I believe they ever should be. The Black Lives Matter protests clearly were bringing up feelings of anger, fear and shame connected to a time in my professional past I now believe is deserving of reflection, and a public airing.

In 2006, I was fortunate enough to land a role on the NBC television series “Heroes.” I played D.L. Hawkins, who in an early draft of the pilot was literally described as “a white man’s nightmare.” A prison inmate, D.L. discovers he has the ability to pass through solid matter. Through the entire audition process, I found a connection to the character that didn’t traffic in stereotypes, and when I got the job, it was my first series regular role on network television.

And then a different type of work began.

After the show was picked up to series, I learned my character had been removed from the pilot and would be introduced in the second episode. I briefly wondered if Black folks in the TV game suffered the same fate as our counterparts in pre-Jordan Peele horror films, and were the first to go upon a new show’s pickup.

As production began, I looked forward to sharing my thoughts on my character with the writing staff, as I heard other cast members had done the same with theirs. Unfortunately, no such meeting ever materialized. Then I learned that despite the show’s three Black series regulars, there were no Black writers on staff. After a particularly odd promotional photoshoot — in which all the Black adult series regulars were relegated to the back and sides of photo after photo because, we were told, we were “tall” — I was approached by Tim Kring, the creator of the show. He told me my character would not be introduced in the second episode, but that great ideas were on the way. I sat on the sidelines for the second, third, fourth and fifth episodes. Finally, I was excited to learn that Episode 6 would mark my debut.

Episode 6 began filming in August 2006. D.L. Hawkins was in an interracial marriage with Niki Sanders, a white woman played by Ali Larter. The script suggested D.L. and Niki had a volatile relationship — and it wasn’t long before art was imitating life, with me on the receiving end of pushback from my co-star regarding the playing of a particularly tense scene. Coming from theater, I was familiar with passions running high in the process of bringing characters to life, so I later gave her a bottle of wine with a note affirming what I believed to be mutual respect and a shared commitment to doing exceptional work. Neither the gift nor the note was ever acknowledged.

On another occasion, during the staging of a bedroom scene, my co-star took umbrage with the level of intimacy being suggested between our characters. In a private rehearsal, Greg Beeman, our director, asked if she was willing to lower the straps of the top she was wearing and expose her bare shoulders only above the sheet that covered her, in order to give the visual impression she was in the same state of undress as me, as I was shirtless. My co-star refused Beeman’s request, and I was instantly aware of the tension on the set. I remember instinctively checking to make sure both my hands were visible to everyone who was there, as not to have my intentions or actions misconstrued. Despite Beeman’s clear description of what he was looking for visually, my co-star insisted she was, indeed, being asked to remove her top completely, and rehearsal was cut. She then demanded a meeting with Beeman and the producers who were on set and proceeded to have an intense and loud conversation in which she expressed she had never been so disrespected — as an actress, a woman or a human being.

Later, she found me and said she hoped the “discussion” could stay between us. I didn’t know how that was possible, given said “discussion” was had at elevated levels on a soundstage in front of the crew. Also, my co-star never once thought to include me, her scene partner, in any part of a “discussion,” in which I would have gladly participated. So I found the appeal to my sense of solidarity after the fact strange and somewhat hollow. Nonetheless, I assured her I was fine with getting the work done in any way she and Beeman could agree on. We completed the scene with the straps of my co-star’s top clearly visible, resolving the matter to what I believed was her satisfaction.

While that was my first episode, my co-star had been working on “Heroes” for over a month, and she’d shot another scene that called for Niki to seduce Nathan Petrelli, played by Adrian Pasdar. After watching the episode, I asked Pasdar if there had been any concerns similar to what I witnessed during my episode. He replied to the contrary, and mentioned her openness to collaboration and even improvisation. I pondered why my co-star had exuberantly played a different scene with the Petrelli character involving overt sexuality while wearing lingerie, but found aspects of one involving love and intimacy expressed through dialogue with my character, her husband, disrespectful to her core. I couldn’t help wondering whether race was a factor.

"I was only interested in dealing with drama that was on the page, but that goal would prove to be elusive."

Leonard Roberts

In December 2006, I had a meeting with executive producer Dennis Hammer, who wanted to address a post by Michael Ausiello from TV Guide:

Eenie, meenie, minie… Heroes! If other huge TV hits have taught us anything, it’s that great success begets huge ego clashes. So it should come as no surprise that on-screen tensions within one of Heroes‘ main couples have spilled over into real life. According to multiple unnamed sources who asked not to be identified for fear of having their brains devoured, the female half of this twosome cannot stand to be in the same room as her leading man, let alone make out with him. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), these two have shared only a handful of scenes together in recent weeks. Send me your guesses, and I promise I won’t confirm it if you’re correct! (I like my brain without teeth marks, too.)

Hammer told me not to worry, as the matter was “being handled internally,” and to continue being the professional I had proven myself to be. One of my go-to soundbites during that time was, “All this and a check.” I quickly learned, though, that while the acting was the vacation, the vocation was being a team player and towing the positive party line in press interviews and media events. I was only interested in dealing with drama that was on the page, but that goal would prove to be elusive.

As the first season played out, I learned two other non-white lead characters would be killed off and I started to wonder whether D.L. would suffer the same fate. His presence on the show kept getting smaller, and by the mid-season finale he had been shot more times than 2Pac. I even had my management inquire about the possibility of me being killed off. While I was initially thankful for the opportunity, the experience had become creatively unfulfilling and I thought moving on might be best for everyone. I was told, however, that the production’s response was “We love Leonard.” And in March 2007, while filming the penultimate episode of the season, a producer told me that I was indeed returning for Season 2. I took it as a positive sign, and looked forward to new possibilities.

One of our last publicity obligations that first season involved a photoshoot for Entertainment Weekly, in which cast members, based on their characters’ relationship on the show, were featured on collector’s edition covers. The release of the covers was to coincide with the network’s upfront presentation for the 2007-2008 season in New York.

Upon arriving backstage at Radio City Music Hall for a rehearsal, I caught my co-star’s eye. “I’m hearing our cover is selling the least of all of them,” she told me. It was the first and only thing she said to me that night and I believed the subtext was clear: I was tarnishing her brand.

The day after returning from upfronts, I received a call from Kring, my first ever. In a short voicemail message, he said that due to “the Ali Larter situation,” when the show returned for Season 2, audiences would learn that D.L. had died, and that I was free to call him if I wanted to talk. I was stunned.

I took a couple of days to cuss, mope and second guess, after which I decided to take Kring up on his offer, and set an appointment with him. When I arrived at his office, I was surprised to see that Dennis Hammer was there as well. Kring began by reiterating that because of my co-star, he just couldn’t make my remaining on the show work story-wise. I’m typically not one who refers to himself in the third person, but in that instance I felt compelled to channel my inner Alexander O’Neal and pointed out he fired Leonard Roberts, but only mentioned Leonard Roberts’ co-star as the reason for his firing, and that Leonard Roberts found that … curious.

Kring said he felt my character had been painted into a corner, due to the fact that “we” didn’t have “chemistry,” and that any attempt to create a new storyline for D.L. just felt like “the tail wagging the dog.” I replied that I found it interesting he had created a world where people flew, painted the future, bent time and space, read minds, erased minds and were indestructible, yet somehow the potential story solution of my character getting divorced left him utterly confounded. I also questioned how a “we” issue could be cited as justification for the firing of “me.”

Hammer stepped in. He said he needed me to know I was “loved” and my co-star was “hated” by many for her behavior, saying it as if I would join in. I didn’t; I just wanted to be able to do my job and do it well. Hammer then made it clear he would deny what he said if I went public with said revelation. I pointed out it was absurd to hear that, given that when the meeting concluded, my co-star would be the one still with a job and I would be the one painfully unemployed. Hammer said I needn’t worry, suggesting I would undoubtedly move on from “Heroes” and still be working in 10 years.

“Don’t think of this as a situation where the Black man loses and the white woman wins,” Hammer said.

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.

Kring came back into the conversation, lamenting how he wished he didn’t have to be bothered with the details of running a show and could just write. There was something about that moment that was particularly hard to swallow, as I sat in his office that I had never before seen in almost a year of “working” together. I glanced at the floor and wondered if Kring’s boots were the $4,000 custom handmade pair he told another castmate he’d bought, and marveled at the fact he was asking me to sympathize with him. It was a privilege I couldn’t get my head around. Had the meeting happened in the present climate, I suspect I might’ve heard his response as “all artists matter.”

I told them I knew exactly how Kring felt, because I wanted nothing more than to be an actor on the show and a part of the collaborative process. I told them one of my favorite times as an actor was driving home after a fulfilling day on set, listening to music to decompress and hoping I had contributed to the best of my ability. I told them that, unfortunately, the music on my drives home that first season had done little to quiet my frustration with not feeling a true part of the show.

It was then proposed I return in Season 2 to complete my character’s storyline. Kring said he was thinking of a great wrap-up to D.L.’s arc, and Hammer assured me when I drove home after my last scene, there would be no doubt what I meant to the “‘Heroes’ family.” I said I would await the scripts, and the meeting ended.

My mind turned on the meeting for days. I was now the one — as an actor, a Black man, and a human being — who felt disrespected. I wanted to feel seen and heard, if only on the way out the door. But unlike my co-star, nothing felt resolved to my satisfaction.

"My voice felt muted and my light dimmed. Fighting against the isolation brought on by both was at times all consuming."

Leonard Roberts

Weeks later, an olive branch was offered. The network was sending the “Heroes” cast on a promotional world tour to capitalize on the show’s global success, and Kring made the point of telling me over voicemail that he would personally see to it that my co-star and I would be on different legs of the tour. He also made it clear that my participation in the tour, as well as a promotional photo shoot for Season 2, were necessary to not give away the fact that D.L. was deader than fried chicken. Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Stories” on “Chappelle’s Show” came to mind. A part of me wished I had answered Kring’s call and told him what he could have done with his world tour just as Chappelle, as Rick James, dispatched Eddie Murphy’s couch. Through my representatives, I passed, with a respectful and expletive-free decline, as my priority was finding another job.

In the fall of 2007, I received two scripts that concluded D.L.’s storyline. His death was to be the result of a random act of gun violence. I found the choice to be as perplexing as it was ironic, given D.L.’s ability to pass through matter — apparently bullets were still an exception. What was most offensive was the offer to pay me as a guest star, instead of as a series regular. I was prepared to walk away, but my representatives were able to secure pay consistent with what I would have made as a series regular, as a gesture of making me whole.

D.L. Hawkins’ death was saved for my last day of filming and involved me throwing my body off camera just as an assailant raised a gun and fired. The shot ended not with me, but with Niki’s face alone in the frame, splattered with D.L.’s blood. It took one take.

“Nailed it! What a pro!” the director said. “That’s lunch!” the AD said. My co-star gave me a goodbye embrace, the most we had ever touched on or off camera. And everyone left.

As I walked to my car, Dennis Hammer’s words echoed in my head. He was right. There was no doubt what I meant to the “family.”

I drove home in complete silence.

One of the most sobering parts of this experience for me was coming to terms with the divide in how it was perceived. To Black people, whether a part of the entertainment industry or not, the frustration and pain I went through was an all-too-familiar reminder of what it meant to feel as invisible as Ralph Ellison’s revered protagonist. But to white and non-Black people in my orbit, what happened was often chalked up to a tough break; one solely driven by artistic concerns, with my long stretches of unemployment in the years after referred to as simply a stint in “actor’s jail.” To constantly feel I had to prove not only the validity, but the very existence of racism before I could even own my feelings about it only added to my frustration.

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.

Were the people I worked with racists? Even now, my instinct is to hedge, and say that I met many great people while on “Heroes,” some of whom I still call friends. Or to admit I can’t speak to what was in the hearts of the powers that be, especially when I was rarely afforded the opportunity to look them in the eye. But do those facts, however true, negate my belief that I worked in an environment in which whiteness was the default and ideal? Or that it was clear my sole purpose was to preserve that ideal, on or off camera, despite how it compromised me as an artist, a professional and a man?

They do not.

I had hoped to one day be able to reflect on my “Heroes” experience from a fulfilled, gainfully employed and less angering place, having left the whole ordeal in my rearview. While that’s not my reality, the larger moment we find ourselves in compels me to share. For this to become a true turning point, we will all have to engage in a more substantive way. I encourage white people to understand that while standing as allies has its place, action is what this moment demands. This applies to the industry as well. The studio can’t spend millions to support Black causes publicly, but have no Black people in leadership roles. The white show creator can’t create a show featuring non-white on-camera talent but disregard non-white voices behind the scenes. The white actor who’s worked for half as long as a comparable actor of color yet makes twice the pay has to be willing to put that on the line to give voice to the disparity in the name of fairness and equity. The representative should respect and live up to that title and fully embrace what it means to act on our behalf. Without the understanding that these issues are all a part of the same conversation, public acts in the name of allyship become as performative as people making social media posts espousing the virtues of equity and inclusion while privately maintaining the status quo or dropping the “Uncle” from a box of rice. As artists, as professionals and as human beings, fully embracing this moment should not only result in our existing, but thriving.

I now have the most personal stake in seeing that true and lasting systemic change becomes a reality. During “Heroes,” I focused on the fact that D.L. was a father who above all else loved his child. Now I am a father to a child, who at too tender an age, struggles with her own heartbreaking understanding of what it means to be a Black girl in this world. Nightmares have become routine, often revolving around the same fear: that her Blackness will be the death of her; for Black people aren’t safe anywhere, not even in their own homes. Like every Black parent, I live in the pain of knowing I cannot shield her from the world that exists, and struggle with the sobering thought of when and how to take her innocence away. Although I want her to be fully aware of what the world is, I also want her to live with the promise of what it can be. But before I can raise her to live in her complete truth, I have to do the same.

So with the pain there is resolve. By tearing away the boards I have put up and sharing my story, I make this experience valid. In doing so, I hope to be a part of a rebuilding that ensures my child a future in which she feels heard, seen and valid. Where she need not demand, but simply expect the respect and equality she deserves.

That would make me feel like a real hero.

Leonard Roberts first approached Variety about this essay in August through a mutual acquaintance. According to the 10 people who substantiated Roberts’ account, who did so anonymously due to their continued work in the industry, the first season of “Heroes” was often an arduous production, partly caused by the intensity of its immediate success.

Variety independently obtained a copy of an early draft of the “Heroes” pilot in which Roberts’ character is referred to as “a white man’s nightmare.” The people Variety spoke with also confirmed that other series leads had conversations with the “Heroes” writers about their characters; that there were no Black writers on the “Heroes” staff in its first season; that Black actors were sidelined in cast photos; that Larter did not like working with Roberts; and that Larter was a divisive presence on set overall.

Variety contacted everyone mentioned by name with a detailed summary of how they are described in Roberts’ essay. When asked via email about the specific day on set Roberts describes as prompting an “intense and loud conversation” between Ali Larter and director Greg Beeman, Beeman replied: “I don’t remember a loud argument or her saying anything about being disrespected. We worked out her character's intention regarding the wardrobe and shortly returned to work and finished the shot.”

A representative for Adrian Pasdar did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment. Statements from Tim Kring and Dennis Hammer are below.

Tim Kring provided this 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.”

Dennis Hammer provided this statement:

“14 years is a long time ago, but I remember clearly that Leonard was a great guy and a total pro.”

UPDATE: Despite off-the-record communication with a representative for Larter, the actor did not provide any on-the-record response to Variety. Several hours after publication, Larter provided this statement to TV Line:

"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.”

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