LeVar Burton from his 2009 interview for the Television Academy Foundation.
Louis Gossett, Jr. and LeVar Burton on the set of ABC miniseries Roots.
Whoopi Goldberg and LeVar Burton film an episode of PBS's Reading Rainbow.
LeVar Burton as Geordi La Forge of the Paramount+ original series Star Trek: Picard.
Forty-five years ago, LeVar Burton starred in Roots as Kunta Kinte, a Gambian teenager (played in his later years by John Amos) who was taken captive and enslaved in America. The story about slavery and liberation sparked a national conversation around racism and the series' popularity forever changed Burton's life. The character was based on a real person — an ancestor of Alex Haley, the author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the 1976 novel on which the miniseries was based.
The eight-part series aired over consecutive nights on ABC in January of 1977, pulled in approximately 130 million viewers and went on to win nine Emmy Awards and garner twenty-eight more nominations. In 2016, an updated version of Roots — for which Burton served as coexecutive producer and appeared as the character Ephraim — aired over four consecutive nights on History and its sister networks, A&E and Lifetime.
In the following essay from 1997, written by Burton exclusively for emmy magazine, twenty years after the release of Roots, he describes television as, "a tool we possess for creating change in our society." He goes on to say that the medium has a responsibility to educate and enlighten, as well as entertain.
During this time, Burton also served as the host and executive producer of the PBS children's series Reading Rainbow, beginning in 1983. The educational show, which aimed to inspire a love of books and reading amongst children, ran for 26 years and more than 150 episodes.
In the second article, from 2001, he discusses his work on both series and the journey that led him there. Burton earned one Emmy nomination each for the three projects — both versions of Roots as well as Reading Rainbow. (He also received a slew of Daytime Emmy wins and nominations for Reading Rainbow.)
Currently, Burton can be heard as Barclay, the AI companion to the title character in The CW's Tom Swift, which airs its season finale on August 2. Later this year, he can be seen in the second season of Starz's Blindspotting. And in 2023, the Star Trek: The Next Generation alum will join the cast of Star Trek: Picard for its third and final season, reprising his beloved role as Geordi La Forge.
The Heart of the Matter
By LeVar Burton
Twenty years ago, in eight consecutive nights of television programming, my life was forever changed. The airing of Roots was not only a watershed event for me personally but a significant passage for this country. America experienced Alex Haley's Roots in an era before the advent of the VCR, and, as a result, we were temporarily transformed into an electronic village, bound night after night by this remarkable story.
When it aired, in January 1977, Roots dominated our national consciousness. We gathered in droves — in homes, in bars, in the electronics sections of department stores, wherever we could find a TV. And then it was all we talked about at work, in schools, in churches all over the country. This extraordinary piece of television prompted a national conversation about race.
Not only did the story of Kunta Kinte finally put a human face on the tragedy that was slavery, but the messages embodied in those twelve hours of television remain as relevant today as they ever were: the importance of the family as an essential structure in any healthy society and the indomitability of the human spirit. Roots communicated these truths in an uncompromising way, and the process forever changed the way we look at ourselves and each other. It was a prime example of the absolute best use of the medium — television that is not just entertaining (although it certainly was that) but enlightening as well, inspiring and ennobling.
I have come to believe that television is the most powerful tool we possess for creating change in our society. After all, we are an industry that helps create the belief systems of people all over the planet. The role that TV played in the fall of communism has already been well documented. So too are the influences television has on the developing mind of a child. We are indeed a global village: families, communities, states, and nations, for better or for worse inextricably linked by the video screen, till death do us part.
We possess a tremendous opportunity, those of us who work in TV, to educate, to help, and to heal, and along with this opportunity comes an inherent responsibility to use the medium responsibly. Last July I attended the White House Conference on Children's Television at which President Clinton announced a new mandate for three hours a week of educational children's programming from our broadcast networks. It was sobering for me to acknowledge that I live in a society where governmental regulation is necessary to assure quality TV for children. Nonetheless, I was among those who applauded the President for finally taking on the issue.
In meeting the needs of the youngest members of the viewing audience, we are faced with considerable challenges, and these challenges have sparked some interesting debates in our community. Is the new ratings system for television as effective as we had hoped? Is it too restrictive for programmers? Does it go far enough? Does it go too far? Does it give parents all the information they need about the content of a show, so that informed decision making can take place? What about a system that would identify for parents examples of quality programming for children? What about these new designations for educational content in television shows? What exactly constitutes educational programming? Isn't it true, in the greater sense, that all television is educational? And if so, what sort of education are we giving our children through TV? There is, of course, no easy way to achieve a consensus on these questions.
The overwhelming majority of those who work in this industry are parents themselves, faced with the challenge of raising children in a culture that is dominated by the electronic media. As we go about the business of television (after all, it is commerce that drives this enterprise rather than altruistic intent), it is important to remember another of the many lessons of Roots: socially responsible programming can also be very profitable. The true measure by which we should rate our television programs lies not so much in a system of letters and numbers, but in our hearts. Nothing more is required of us but that we understand and remember the truly sacred nature of our mission. Ultimately nothing less than our steadfast commitment to lift ourselves up and light the way for each other will do.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #2, 1997, under the title, "The Heart of the Matter."
Pots of Gold
By Alice Burdick Schweiger
As the son of an English teacher, LeVar Burton grew up with a passion for reading. As a nineteen-year-old actor starring in the landmark miniseries Roots, Burton learned about the power of television. So years later, when he heard about a new PBS show called Reading Rainbow, Burton quickly agreed to host. It was the perfect connection.
Eighteen years later, Burton looks back with pride. Reading Rainbow has not only encouraged a couple of generations to read, it has also dealt with social issues like violence, racism, homelessness and adoption.
"Our mission has never wavered," says Burton, also a coexecutive producer of the series and the recipient of a Daytime Emmy this year for his performance on the show. "We are there to share the joy, excitement and magic of the written word. We are always encouraging our viewers to take a look at the world around them, and for us, the process of exploration is always a book."
Burton had already read for a very different part. At thirteen he joined a Catholic seminary and began studying for the priesthood. "This was how I was going to reach people," says Burton, who was born in West Germany, raised in Sacramento and lived in Germany again during third and fourth grade. His father was a photographer for the military; his mother, an English teacher and social worker. "I grew up knowing that one's life work was in large measure about humanitarian service."
After four years at the seminary, Burton left to study acting at USC. He doesn't see that as a giant leap. "The Catholic faith is very theatrical in nature," he says. "I used to have this recurring dream about my first sermon as an ordained priest. The theme would change, but the experience was always similar in that I was able to mesmerize the congregation. So when I was going through the process of reevaluating what I wanted to do, acting came immediately to mind."
Still a sophomore, Burton landed the role of Kunta Kinte in Roots. The ABC miniseries attracted some 130 million viewers — the largest television audience up to then — earning Burton instant fame as well as an Emmy nomination.
He dropped out of college to take advantage of all the roles coming his way. A string of television movies followed, as well as feature credits and his long-running role as Lt. Geordi La Forge in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But when Reading Rainbow came along in 1982, "I thought this was the perfect marriage of medium and message," says Burton, who has testified before Congress as part of his effort to increase federal aid to public television. "As long as there is a need, we can continue to come up with ways to keep reinventing ourselves."
Burton, married and father of a twenty-one-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, also has his own production company, Eagle Nation Films. "I am doing my first feature this winter," he says. "It's called Olive — it's a Christmas movie about a talking, flying reindeer." He is also working on a movie for CBS based on The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, the award–winning children's novel by Christopher Paul Curtis; it will star Whoopi Goldberg and Alfre Woodard.
Still, Reading Rainbow remains a priority. "I feel just as passionate about the show as ever," Burton says. "I love promoting reading and reaching millions of children. I look forward to bringing more great children's books to life."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #4, 2001, under the title, "Pots of Gold."
LeVar Burton was interviewed on January 27, 2009 by Steven Wishnoff for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The entire interview can be screened here.