He can't fly or walk through walls, but

Heroes

star

Jack Coleman

knows how to disappear.

"I was invisible for most of the '90s," says Coleman, an Easton, Pa., lad who shot to fame in the '80s as Dynasty's gay poster boy, Steven Carrington.

"I did a lot of bad TV movies and pilots that didn't go anywhere," he says. On one particularly awful straight-to-video flick, he remembers "falling asleep during one of the takes."

No dozing possible on Heroes. The hottest new series on any network this season, it's already been picked up for the fall by NBC.

As enigmatic H.R.G. (Horned Rimmed Glasses), father of cheerleader Claire (Hayden Panettiere), and pursuer of the super-powered "heroes," Coleman has yet to reveal himself as champion or villain.

"I love the ambiguity," he says. "It's what makes the character so interesting. People ask me all the time, 'Are you a good guy or a bad guy?' They want to be able to pigeonhole you.

"People can do horrible things and come home and love their children."

Look for some answers on Monday's episode, when H.R.G., also known as Mr. Bennet, assumes center ring. Coleman appears in almost every scene.

"It flashes back to how he came into this job and took possession of Claire, and who his partner used to be," says Coleman, who turns 49 today. "He must choose between family and work."

Coleman's not talking, but look for a third character to die in a week, following Simone and super-ears Dale on Monday.

Accessorized by his retro, "Max von Sydow in Three Days of the Condor" specs, H.R.G. conducts his studies for a secret international company based in tiny Odessa, Texas.

H.R.G.'s "bagging and tagging" method involves removing a hero's memory for 24 hours and surgically implanting a locator chip on their person. "They wake up with a headache and no memory of what happened," Coleman says.

Coleman has a good memory for history. It's in his blood.

His maternal grandfather, Herbert Agar, won a Pulitzer Prize in history in 1934. Coleman's father, John, taught history at Lafayette College for 40 years, until 1990.

The cherry on top: Coleman's sixth-generation grandfather is Benjamin Franklin. If he were alive today, ol' Ben "would be Steve Jobs combined with Bono," according to Coleman.

History was never in the mix for the baby of the family. "Basically, I'm bright, but I'm not an intellectual and I'm not going to be," says Coleman, a graduate of New Hope's Solebury School and Duke.

Coleman describes his acting career as "20 years of work on television, most of it forgettable. A big part of this business is just refusing to go away."

Though Heroes generated major prelaunch buzz among TV-industry types and critics, Coleman "had no idea it would become a juggernaut, a rocket ship, a runaway train."

The train averages about 14.5 million viewers a week, ranking 27th on Nielsen's Hit Parade.

"This is sci-fi and drama, the best of both worlds. It's kind of cool," Coleman says. "This is a show I would actually watch, with the stories, level of effects, writing and performances.

"Dynasty was not my cup of tea. I just don't like soaps, to be honest. I find them strained and on the nose. There's not a lot of subtlety."

Even with Heroes' success, Coleman worries it may burn too hot, too fast. The TV graveyard is full of one-season wonders.

"Nothing is promised," he says. "Anything can happen. In the world of television, you can lose your audience overnight."

At home, Coleman's audience consists of his wife, actress Beth Toussaint, and their 7-year-old daughter, Tess. Like his alter ego on Heroes, Coleman is a doting father. But he knows better than to get between Tess and Beth.

"She's a momma's girl. Her mom is her best friend, her go-to guy. They're thick as thieves."

Contact TV columnist Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or

gshister@philly news.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.