"Lost" Creator Bragged That He Fired Star for "Calling Him Racist," Sources Claim
Actor Harold Perrineau says he was written off of the show after raising questions about his storyline.
For six seasons, Lost was one of the most watched and talk-about shows on TV, with viewers tuning in week after week to find out what was really happening on its mysterious island. One of the show's original main cast members was Harold Perrineau, who played Michael Dawson, a father who became stranded on the island with his son, Walt (Malcolm David Kelley). But, after the second season, Perrineau left the series, only to return in a smaller role in Season 4 and in a cameo in the final season.
Perrineau has been outspoken about his time on the show, and he shares more in the new book Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood by Maureen Ryan, including the circumstances under which he left. An excerpt of the book that focuses on Lost was published on May 30 by Vanity Fair. In it, writers and actors claim that the hit series was a toxic work environment. For those in the writers room, this allegedly included sexist and racist jokes, retaliatory behavior, and the showrunners claiming the work of others. For actors, the environment behind the scenes reportedly influenced what happened to their characters onscreen.
Speaking to Ryan, Perrineau claims that he was fired from the show after raising concerns about his character's storyline from his perspective as a Black man and about white actors being prioritized over nonwhite cast members. Other sources from the show claim that co-creator of the show Damon Lindelof later bragged about firing Perrineau for "call[ing] [him] racist," which the From star says he didn't do. Read on to find out more, including how Lindelof responded to the claims.
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Perrineau was told that the show would be a true ensemble.
Perrineau, now 59, shared that he was initially very excited to join the cast of Lost. He said he had been told that the writers wanted to tell a story that "was really equitable" in terms of serving every character's story, which would give all of its diverse cast a chance to shine. It's noted in the excerpt that he was among the cast members with the most established careers at the point when the show premiered in 2004 and that Lost courted him to come on board.
"We were all really hopeful about it," the Romeo + Juliet actor told Ryan. "It was a bigger try than I had ever seen on broadcast TV." He added that he was enthusiastic when initially promoting the show. "I was shouting about it from the rooftops," he said. "I was such a believer."
He pushed back against Michael's storyline.
Perrineau explained that it soon became evident that the show wasn't going to live up to his expectations of equity. "It became pretty clear that I was the Black guy. Daniel [Dae Kim] was the Asian guy. And then you had Jack and Kate and Sawyer," he said, referring to the white characters played by Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, and Josh Holloway, who were treated as leads.
Perrineau said that he asked to do more and was told that the focus was put on certain characters to help audiences follow the story. He claims he was also told that those characters were being centered because they were "relatable." The actor claimed that the hierarchy was reinforced by photoshoots in which nonwhite cast members were positioned to the back or on the sides.
As far as Michael's arc, the actor took particular issue with a script in which Michael didn't seem to be concerned about his son being kidnapped. Instead of searching for Walt, Michael is utilized to further the storylines of other characters.
"I don't think I can do that," Perrineau recalled thinking. "I can't be another person who doesn't care about missing Black boys, even in the context of fiction, right? This is just furthering the narrative that nobody cares about Black boys, even Black fathers."
He appealed to the showrunners.
Perrineau said he expressed his concerns in a phone call with Lindelof and executive producer Carlton Cuse.
"If you're going to use me, let's work. I'm here to work. I'm good at my job and I'll do anything you want. Except be 'the Black guy' on your show," he said he told them. The actor claims that they told him that the episode wasn't about Michael. But later, he was sent a revised script that included flashbacks to Michael's life before the island. However, the new material had to be completed across two long days of filming, which he perceived as being punitive.
"It was 14-hour, 18-hour days," Perrineau said. "I was like, 'If you think I'm gonna [expletive] this up, I'm not. I'm gonna be really good.' But I felt like suddenly they were mad at me."
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Lindelof allegedly bragged about firing Perrineau.
Michael was first written off of the show at the end of Season 2. Perrineau told Ryan that Cuse told him this ahead of filming the season finale. "I was [expletive] up about it," the actor recalled. I was like, 'Oh, I just got fired, I think.'" He said that when he asked what was happening, Cuse responded, "Well, you know, you said to us, if we don't have anything good for you, you want to go." Perrineau reiterated that he was "asking for equal depth," to which Cuse supposedly said, 'Well, you said you don't have enough work here, so we're letting you go."
"It was all very much, 'How dare you?,'" the star added.
The Vanity Fair article notes that his departure was purportedly related to his onscreen son Kelley having a growth spurt and aging out of his role. But, multiple sources told Ryan that Lindelof said in regards to Perrineau leaving Lost, "[He] called me racist, so I fired his [expletive]."
Perrineau explained that this is why he had worried about opening up the conversation with Lindelof and Cuse in the first place.
"That was the thing that was always tricky. Any time you mention race, everybody gets—their hair gets on fire, and they're like, 'I'm not racist!'" he explained. "It's like, 'Nope. Because I say that I'm Black doesn't mean I'm calling you a racist. I am talking to you from my perspective. I'm being really clear that I'm not trying to put my trauma on you, but I am trying to talk to you about what I feel. So can we just do that? Can we just have that conversation?'"
Perrineau was pressured to walk back comments he made in an interview.
After returning for Season 4, Perrineau gave an interview to TV Guide in which he talked about being disappointed in how Michael and Walt's storyline was resolved. He summarized what he said while speaking to Ryan for the book: "You know, for me, as a Black person, the idea that Walt winds up living with his grandmother and not living with his father, that feels like one of those clichés—Black kids who have been raised by their grandparents because neither of their parents are around for them. I would've liked to have seen something a little better happen, but that's not the way it went down.'"
Perrineau said that ABC pressured him into issuing a retraction. "Me mentioning the color of my skin—that just sent everybody off the rails," the actor said. "We came up with something, but it took weeks, because I was like, 'I didn't say anything wrong.'"
Not long after the interview was published, Perrineau told Entertainment Weekly that he was "disappointed" but not "bitter" about Michael's storyline.
He continued, "That was just my point-of-view in an interview. This is nothing that I've ever talked to the writers about, or I think is necessarily anything I should talk to them about. Their job is to make the story work. My feelings about the social implications are my feelings."
Lindelof said he doesn't remember his alleged comment.
Ryan also spoke to Lindelof for Burn It Down, approaching him with the many claims people who had worked on Lost made to her about their experiences, including what sources quoted him saying about Perrineau. The Leftovers creator said he didn't remember "ever" saying he fired the star for calling him racist. (For his part, Cuse argued in a response statement that Perrineau wasn't fired at all, saying that he was instead downgraded into being a recurring cast member. The actor told Ryan that he was released from his Lost contract after Season 2.)
"What can I say? Other than it breaks my heart that that was Harold's experience," Lindelof said. "And I'll just cede that the events that you're describing happened 17 years ago, and I don't know why anybody would make that up about me."
Lindelof also said that there was "a high degree of insensitivity towards all the issues that you mentioned as it relates to Harold" on the series—these issues including Black families and missing Black children. He added, "I do feel that Harold was legitimately and professionally conveying concerns about his character and how significant it was that Michael and Walt—with the exception of Rose [L. Scott Caldwell]—were really the only Black characters on the show."