Leonard Roberts, who appeared on NBC's hit series "Heroes" from 2006 to 2007, penned an essay for Variety on Tuesday that described clashes with co-star Ali Larter on set as well as a troubling experience with systemic racism.
Roberts, known for roles in the movie "Drumline" and the show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," landed his first series regular role on "Heroes," playing D.L. Hawkins, whose character was in an interracial marriage with Larter's Niki Sanders. In his piece for Variety, Roberts writes Larter balked when it came time to film an intimate scene with his character and the issues between them eventually led to his firing after the show's first season. He also notes the show had several Black series regulars but no Black writers in its first season.
"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,'" Roberts added. "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."
Larter told USA TODAY in a statement: "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."
Per Roberts' account, Larter grew uncomfortable shooting a scene where their characters were pictured in bed together after she was instructed to lower her top's straps to make it appear as if she was undressed in bed with Roberts.
"Despite (producer Greg) 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."
Roberts added: "I pondered why my co-star had exuberantly played a different scene ... 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."
Beeman did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment on Roberts' account.
Roberts also recounted Larter telling him a promotional magazine cover of the two of them "is selling the least of all of them."
"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," he writes.
The actor later learned that his character wouldn't be returning for a second season because of "the Ali Larter situation," he writes. Roberts questioned the decision to fire him, and he alleges executive producer Dennis Hammer told him: "Don’t think of this as a situation where the Black man loses and the white woman wins."
Hammer told Variety in a statement: "14 years is a long time ago, but I remember clearly that Leonard was a great guy and a total pro."
"Looking back now, fourteen 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," creator Tim Kring told USA TODAY in a statement. "I have been committed to improving upon this issue with every project I pursue. I remember Leonard fondly and wish him well."
He ultimately returned for season two to wrap up his arc. His character was killed off; his body was thrown off camera "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."
He encouraged white people – and the entertainment industry at large – to take action.
"The studio can’t spend millions to support Black causes publicly, but have no Black people in leadership roles," he mused. "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."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Heroes': Leonard Roberts talks racism, Ali Larter responds