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His power: survival

Times Staff Writer

Those horn-rimmed glasses. The creepy, lurking quality. The unconditional love for a teenage daughter. What more could you ask for in a TV character?

There may be a lot of spectacular flying, teleporting and mind reading on NBC’s “Heroes,” but one of the show’s most potent superpowers has proved to be a character viewers were not even supposed to get to know very well.

The morally challenged and now somewhat sympathetic Mr. Bennet, a.k.a. HRG, played by Jack Coleman, has no supernatural prowess, and his role was originally only a guest spot. But at the end of the pilot episode, it was revealed that the man who appeared to be in control of the universe while he hunted the globe for super humans also was the father of the sweet and indestructible Texas cheerleader. Viewers were intrigued, and HRG quickly went from plot device to pivotal, thanks to Coleman’s wholehearted embodiment of the conniving villain who adores his daughter.

In Monday’s season finale, HRG confided his name is Noah, but we don’t have to call him that, do we? Won’t he always be HRG to fans?

“The great part of television is that, over the course of a season, characters can surprise even the people writing them,” co-executive producer Michael J. Green wrote in an e-mail. “You’ll see a moment on screen, a flicker of connection between two people, or a hint of depth behind someone’s eyes (or in Jack’s case, a deep well), and that inspires whole levels of story that you feel dumb for never having thought of before. And you have your fantastic actors to thank for it.”

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During the course of the first season, HRG morphed from a company man into an outcast. Never the nicest guy in the room, HRG aced the parent test by getting himself shot and his memory erased to protect his daughter, Claire (Hayden Panettiere), from his bosses.

“Jack brought so much depth to his scenes with Hayden, there was such a sweetness there, that the audience was left freaking out, wondering if they could trust what looked like a father’s love,” Green wrote. “The question we heard the most during our first few episodes was people demanding to know if he was a good guy or a bad guy. The thing about Jack is that he was convincingly both. Kind and loving in one moment, menacing and deadly in the next. There’s something irresistible about someone you can’t quite pin down morally. You never know which way he’s going to fall.”

Over lunch recently at one of his favorite Larchmont haunts, La Bottega Marino, Coleman said he hopes HRG is never entirely “defanged” because he enjoys the character’s dark side. If the last two episodes were any indication, Coleman need not worry. Viewers saw HRG murder his former boss (Eric Roberts) and point a gun at a little girl without missing a beat. The praise from producers, executives and the public is humbling to an actor who 25 years ago cut his teeth on “Dynasty,” playing the first openly gay character in a television drama.

“It’s so much fun to be a [tough guy], especially when you were Steven Carrington,” said Coleman, 49, who’s also had guest appearances on numerous popular TV shows. “People think of me as soft. Not really. I got me an edge. As a human being, I have an edge, and I’ve always loved HRG’s ambiguity. He seems sincere when he says something, but you know something else is going on. That kind of complexity and dual purpose is actually easier to play than having a slam-dunk clear path. I find it’s easier than if I was always righteous or always good.”

Like the viewers, Coleman knew little about Mr. Bennet when he auditioned for the role, but he had an inkling that the character was too juicy for the writers not to expand. He was hired as a recurring guest star until the 11th episode, when NBC made him a series regular.

“I just got lucky because my character was completely undefined to start with, and I think that really worked in my favor,” he said. “I just had a really good feeling that this part would be good. Had it been conceived as a series regular and I had to go in and test and go through all the hoops, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it. I just had one audition.”

It’s hard to imagine the “Heroes” world without HRG, who declared matter-of-factly in the pilot, “I’m comfortable with shades of gray.” Executive producer and director Allan Arkush attributes that to Coleman’s poignant performance.

“He brings a lot of emotional honesty, and he is able to express more than one feeling and emotion at the same time,” Arkush said. “That’s why people first thought he was evil, when in reality, he was just someone who always had a plan, who was two steps ahead of you. It was a fascinating thing that people ascribed all kinds of motives to a character who had such emotional honesty and yet seemed to project a certain ambiguity of what his true motives were. The biggest surprise for all of us was that the biggest love affair on the show turned out to be the father-daughter relationship.”

Of all the supernatural abilities on the show, teleporting is Coleman’s favorite, but he’s glad to be playing a flawed human.

“For a while, people thought the glasses had powers,” Coleman said. “But throughout the season, I’ve enjoyed that he survives in a world he’s not physically capable of surviving in through his wits, his knowledge, knowing more about them than they know about themselves. Every time I have a run-in with Sylar [the show’s real villain], it doesn’t go well. I like that.”

And as for the next chapter of “Heroes,” now that Mr. Bennet, HRG, Noah -- whatever his name is -- is a rogue agent, what’s in store for him?

“I think a corner has been irrevocably turned,” Coleman said. “He’s not going to be working for the company bagging and tagging specials. That’s over. What I’m told is that he will use his particular skill set and also his moral fluidity to work for a very different kind of world and work against some of the powers that be. I don’t want him to become sainted. He’s never going to go back to his old life, but I would love to see him maintain that level of moral grayness.”

Not to worry. As viewers, and his darling Claire knows, HRG always has a plan.

maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com


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