Leonard Roberts starred in the first season of Heroes as D.L. Hawkins

By Ashley Boucher
December 16, 2020 11:28 PM
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Leonard Roberts
| Credit: Alexandra Wyman/WireImage

Leonard Roberts says he experienced racism while working on the first season of Heroes.

Roberts, 48, wrote an essay for Variety published Wednesday in which he details his experience working on the NBC hit from 2006 to 2007, including his allegedly tense relationship with costar Ali Larter. Roberts played D.L. Hawkins, who was married to Larter's character, Niki Sanders.

Larter, 44, has since apologized "for any role" she played in his bad experience, but that his experience "doesn't match my memory nor experience on the show."

After his first appearance in the series had been delayed from the pilot to the second episode, and then to the sixth episode, Roberts says his first day of filming was strained.

In one scene, Larter and Roberts were in bed together talking, and Roberts recalls that the episode's director, Greg Beeman, asked Larter to lower her shirt straps so it would appear that both were shirtless — though she would be still wearing her shirt, covered by a blanket.

"My co-star refused Beeman’s request, and I was instantly aware of the tension on the set," Roberts writes of the moment. "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," Roberts continues. "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."

Ali Larter, Leonard Roberts
| Credit: Chris Haston/NBC

Roberts says that Larter later asked him to keep the incident between themselves and that he "would have gladly participated" in the discussion had he been included.

"So I found the appeal to my sense of solidarity after the fact strange and somewhat hollow," he says. "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."

For another episode, Larter had a similar scene with another actor, and Roberts asked him if he had experienced a similar issue.

"He replied to the contrary, and mentioned her openness to collaboration and even improvisation," Roberts writes. "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 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," Larter tells PEOPLE in a statement. "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."

Roberts also shares in the essay that he was never being invited to have a meeting with writers about his character, though other stars were, and that the show's Black stars were relegated to the back or sides during photo shoots.

Leonard Roberts, Ali Larter
| Credit: Chris Haston/NBC

The Drumline star also details the painful experience of being fired.

Recalling a meeting with show creator Tim Kring and producer Dennis Hammer, Roberts claims that Kring told him that because he and Larter didn't have "chemistry," he couldn't find a way for the character of D.L. to remain on the show.

"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," Roberts writes. "I also questioned how a 'we' issue could be cited as justification for the firing of 'me.' "

Roberts says Hammer told him that he was "loved" and Larter was "hated" — though Roberts was the one whose character was to be killed off the show, and Larter would remain.

"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," Roberts says. "Hammer said I needn’t worry, suggesting I would undoubtedly move on from Heroes and still be working in 10 years."

Roberts says Hammer then told him, “Don’t think of this as a situation where the Black man loses and the white woman wins."

"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 notes.

Kring and Hammer "proposed I return in Season 2 to complete my character’s storyline," Roberts says. "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."

Roberts says that one of the most "sobering" parts of the whole experience 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."

Roberts says that one of his Heroes castmates later told him, "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," Roberts writes.

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In a statement to Variety, Kring acknowledged that lack of diversity on the show's staff "may have contributed to Leonard experiencing the lack of sensitivity that he describes."

"In 2006, I set out to cast the most diverse show on television. Diversity, interconnectivity and inclusivity were groundbreaking hallmarks of Heroes," Kring told the outlet. "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."

In a statement to Variety, Hammer said, "14 years is a long time ago, but I remember clearly that Leonard was a great guy and a total pro.”

Reps for Kring and Hammer did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

In the essay, Roberts also says that his experience on Heroes impacted the rest of his career — and "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," he writes. "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."

Roberts goes on to say he was that he was inspired by his daughter to share his experience on Heroes publicly.

"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."

Roberts concludes, "That would make me feel like a real hero."