Louis Gossett Jr. as Fiddler, with LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, in Roots

May 10, 2023
In The Mix

Emmy Moments: Roots

This year the Emmy Awards turn seventy-five! Get in the spirit with our series of time-defying flashbacks.

At the 1977 awards, ABC's Roots — then the most-watched program in television history — became one of the most honored. The eight-part miniseries won nine Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series. Based on the bestseller by Alex Haley, Roots traced the Black American experience from the slave trade of West Africa in 1750 to Tennessee, post–Civil War.

On a September night that proved memorable for many reasons (the Emmys were pushed from spring for the first time, due to a rift between the Television Academy's L.A. and New York factions), many speeches at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium turned emotional. Accepting his acting Emmy, Louis Gossett Jr. spoke in front of the projected image of his Roots character, Fiddler, an enslaved man assigned to teach servitude to young Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton).

"I would like to thank all of my 'roots,'" he said, "from the Gossetts that came from Africa to Georgia and South Carolina, all the way up to New York ... my mother and father, whose spirit weaves around my head from day to day ... my three brothers from Roots: LeVar, John [Amos] and the great Ben Vereen ... [producer] Stan [Margulies] ... [executive producer] Mr. [David] Wolper ... thank you. Academy, thank you for your love."

Emmy's appreciation of Roots was again witnessed in 1979, when Roots: The Next Generations was named Outstanding Limited Series. The sequel followed the descendants of Kunta Kinte from the 1880s to 1960s.

But über-producer Norman Lear had harsh words that night for ABC and NBC, which counter-programmed against the CBS Emmycast with Battlestar Galactica and King Kong, respectively. (The show was also interrupted by breaking news, a special report on the peace talks at Camp David.) "The fierceness of tonight's competition for ratings at the expense of the medium's own once-a-year Emmy broadcast," Lear said, "is like Dracula biting his own neck."

See more Emmy Moments

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #4, 2023.

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