Heroes Star Leonard Roberts Shares Details of Racism and Mistreatment on Set

Leonard Roberts as D.L. Hawkins in season one of Heroes.
Leonard Roberts as D.L. Hawkins in season one of Heroes.
Screenshot: NBC

It’s been almost 15 years since Heroes first debuted on NBC—but for Leonard Roberts, the scars the experience left are still healing. The actor has come forward about his time on the first season, detailing issues of systemic racism on set and conflicts with co-star Ali Larter, as well as why Hollywood’s reckoning with race issues needs to be more than words.

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In an essay published in Variety, Roberts shared his experience on season one of Heroes playing D.L. Hawkins, a former construction worker and framed convict who had the ability to phase through solid matter. According to Roberts, his character was supposed to be part of the series from the beginning but his arrival got pushed back several episodes until he finally made his big debut in episode six, “Better Halves.” It’s key to note Robert mentions that an early draft of the pilot described D.L. as “a white man’s nightmare,” however, he wrote, “I found a connection to the character that didn’t traffic in stereotypes” but that “there were no Black writers on staff.”

Unfortunately, Roberts said things only went downhill from there. Much of the problems he experienced centered on Larter, who played Niki/Jessica/Gina/etc. through all four seasons of Heroes. Roberts alleged Larter was rude and dismissive toward him and acted in ways that made him feel disrespected and targeted based on the color of his skin. One example involved a love scene in episode six, where we see Niki and D.L. wake up in bed together shortly after he escaped from prison. Even though the previous two episodes saw Larter’s character seducing Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) and waking up naked in his bed, Roberts said Larter refused to film a scene where it looked like she was shirtless in bed with him—even though their characters were married.

“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,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts eventually learned that he was being fired and his character would be killed off between seasons one and two, something Roberts alleges showrunner Tim Kring attributed to “the Ali Larter situation” in a voicemail he left. Roberts also wrote that executive producer Dennis Hammer said in a meeting about his dismissal that Larter was “hated” by many folks for how she was acting, and Roberts alleges Hammer “then made it clear he would deny what he said if I went public with said revelation.”

Heroes did end up giving D.L. an onscreen death in early season two, although it was brief and largely centered around Niki. Kring said in part to Variety, “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.”

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In a statement provided to Variety’s sister site TV Line, Larter said her experience on set didn’t match his, but that she was sorry for how it made him feel: “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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For his part, Roberts said it took him a decade to get another recurring role on a series—he’s been featured in American Crime Story, Major Crimes, and most notably The Magicians, where he played King Idri of Loria—and that people still speak in jest about what happened with Larter, as if it wasn’t part of a systemic problem. Speaking to that issue of anti-Black racism in Hollywood, the actor also mentioned how important it is for white people in and out of the industry to do more than pay lip service while letting the larger problems slide. (It’s important to note that Variety verified parts of Roberts’ story with at least 10 people who worked on the show or were otherwise connected, all of whom asked to remain anonymous “due to their continued work in the industry.”)

“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.”

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Heroes is currently available to watch on NBC and Amazon Prime. We encourage you to read Roberts’ essay in full here.

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Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

DISCUSSION

Oof, I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I confused him with J. August Richards a couple of times. Both of them are bald black men with very similar physiques, both of them were in the Buffyverse (Roberts in Buffy S4, and Richards in Angel), and both of them were in superhero TV shows (Roberts in Heroes, and Richards in Agents of SHIELD).

But I’m glad I’m not the only one:

I’m sorry he had the experience he had. Holy hell, that writers’ prompt for his character snippet is horrifying. “A white man’s nightmare”????