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HERO WORSHIP VIEWERS LIKE WHO THEY SEE IN NBC'S BREAKOUT HIT.

Byline: David Kronke Television Critic

Success has turned ``Heroes'' creator Tim Kring into something of a softie. Initially, he intended to kill off characters helter-skelter, but as the show -- about far-flung ordinary people who discover they have bizarre super-powers, and a global conspiracy enveloping them -- has been clicking so well, it's made his trigger finger not so itchy.

``I thought it'd be every few weeks one of these will go by the wayside, and it hasn't turned into that,'' Kring admits in his office, where a pipe collection and a bottle of red wine sits on his desk.

``It's a testament to the cast that everybody has popped in their roles so well that we have had a lot of trouble with the idea of killing people off. The audience has gotten used to them, so when and if they depart, it's going to be a much bigger deal.

``So, yes, I'm not taking as cavalierly the idea of playing the Grim Reaper as I thought I was going to.''

Still, staff writer Jesse Alexander warns: ``Absolutely, people will get killed off. The world of `Heroes' is a dangerous one, and characters that you love will take risks -- and sometimes those risks will get them killed.''

Nobody's safe

Even Masi Oka, the show's breakout star for his portrayal of Hiro, the exuberant Japanese office worker delighted by his ability to bend the space-time continuum, says, ``I don't think even Hiro's safe. It'd be sad; we grew a family with writers and cast and crew. But if it's best for the story, whatever happens, you go where the river takes you.''

``Heroes'' has rescued NBC from an otherwise dismal season with fanciful characters, myriad story lines -- many of the characters haven't even met one another yet -- and the ability to keep things hurtling along with spectacular action and revelations rather than frustrating viewers by withholding vital information or engaging in narrative wheel-spinning (unlike, say, ``Lost'').

Kring says: ``We made a real conscious effort to not disappoint the audience. I think a lot of the complaint of some of the other serialized shows is that you have to wait too long and wade through too many episodes before something really big happens. And we were sort of committed to the idea that if you watch this show, something's going to happen every week, and that was a commitment we wanted to make early on with the audience.''

Plot not `Lost'

Jack Coleman, who plays the sinister, horned-rim-glasses-

sporting character at the center of a conspiracy to thwart the ``Heroes,'' says: ``Without `Lost,' none of this is possible. Multicultural, speaking different languages, huge ensemble cast, all over the globe -- they broke so many rules, it's an iconic show. But they painted themselves into some corners. Tim decided early on that the story has to pay off faster, that you can't introduce smoking guns then never address them. There's more happening in an episode of `Heroes' than in almost any show I've ever seen.''

Kring adds: ``At first, there was a fear that we might not be able to keep that going, but very early on, before we even aired, we discovered that story is not like a tank of gas that runs out. It's actually kind of the opposite -- the more twists and turns you have, the more plot reveals, the more story you actually generate by having these crazy reveals and twists and turns. It's the engine that drives the story, and so far we're having no trouble keeping the story going.''

As Ali Larter, who plays Niki and Jessica, the conflicting flip sides of the same coin, puts it: ``Tim wrote this as a response to how complicated the world has become. People turn on the news, and every day it gets more and more intense and darker, and at some point, you want to watch television that isn't soaked in fantasy. Our show is based in reality, but it gives you that fantasy element. That's why people want to watch this show. I've never watched my work before, but I watch this show, and it makes me kind of dream -- and I love that about it.''

`A crazy, crazy ride'

Still, Oka admits to being ``absolutely'' astonished by viewer reaction. ``I knew we had something special, but there is a genre element to it,'' he says. ``I knew we were servicing the genre folks well. I'm surprised how well the mainstream audiences have responded. ... Every question we answer, we ask two more. It keeps the show going full-throttle.

``I can't wait to see what they do next,'' Oka says of the show's writers. ``You think the story's going one way and all of a sudden -- boom! It goes another.''

Similarly stunned is Hayden Panettiere, who plays the seemingly indestructible cheerleader Claire, who was at the center of the popular ``Save the cheerleader/Save the world'' story line.

``I still don't get it,'' she says. ``I'm, like, caught in the middle of this craziness. I don't think you ever really expect that kind of success. It's been a ride -- it's been a crazy, crazy ride so far, and it's just getting started.''

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638

david.kronke@dailynews.com

`Heroes' trivia

Though Claire (Hayden Panettiere) seems to only wear her cheerleading outfit, that doesn't mean the show's skimping on her costumes. For the ``Homecoming'' episode, Panettiere recalls, ``I had about 10 of them, ranging from no blood at all to a lot of blood and everything in between.'' She adds, ominously, ``I'm sure they didn't throw them away.''

Fan favorite Hiro (Golden Globe nominee Masi Oka), who delights in his powers, didn't even appear in the first draft of the pilot. Series creator Tim Kring explains: ``I realized fairly early on, after the first draft of the pilot, that while sticking to reality, I had robbed the characters of any joy. So that character was written after the first draft as a reaction to the idea where there was too much angst in the story.''

George Takei's casting as Hiro's father in upcoming episodes was a dream come true for Oka. ``I'm a Trekkie,'' he confesses. ``My favorite moment was when I first met him. I thought we were going to speak to one another in Japanese. But in fact, we started speaking Spanish to each other, for the longest time, before speaking in Japanese. I never would've expected that.''

Ali Larter didn't even know what her character Niki's power -- dueling dual personalities -- was going to be when she started work on the show.

``I didn't know there was going to be an alter ego,'' she admits. ``You sign onto these things ... and when they brought on the whole idea of this alter ego, I was really nervous, actually. I voiced my concerns to Tim and the writers, because if it wasn't dealt with really well, it was possible to make a mockery of myself.''

Claire's father, played by Jack Coleman, was originally a bit character; he's still just referred to in scripts as ``H.R.G.'' (horn-rimmed glasses). ``It's a testament to Jack that that character has become as prominent as he has,'' Kring says. ``He's so much fun to watch.'' Coleman notes: ``I don't think anybody in their wildest dreams would've thought that this character has become what he has become. ``There's nothing like a pair of horn-rimmed glasses to add an air of possible sinister quality to somebody.'' As Panettiere notes of Coleman's eyewear, ``He works 'em.''

Despite ``Heroes' '' comic-book themes, writer Jesse Alexander, sporting a ``Fantastic Four'' T-shirt, notes that creator Kring ``is not a comic-book guy; he's never read a comic book. So he approaches this from an incredibly, open, real-world, naturalistic, humanistic way that touches that broad audience. If I or some of the other guys on the show had created this, it would've been a disaster.''

-- D.K.

CAPTION(S):

6 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) WHEN WE LAST SAW OUR...

HEROES

...THEY ARE STILL ALIVE, BUT WHO KNOWS IF THEY'LL SURVIVE THE NBC HIT SERIES

(2) The actors on ``Heroes'' know that their characters can meet an untimely end at any moment in the plot-driven series.

(3) Hayden Panettiere

(4) Masi Oka

(5) Ali Larter

(6) Jack Coleman

Box:

`Heroes' trivia (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 14, 2007
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