ROOTS PLUS 20 : Present at the Creation

Susan King is a Times staff writer

LeVar Burton

Role: Kunta Kinte

MEMORIES: "I was the first one there [on location] in Savannah. Everyone came in after I arrived, and the buzz among the actors was, 'This is material that we do not often see.' These were all veterans in the industry and really venerable actors in my eyes, and they all had a special feeling in their voices when talking about the script.

"There's such a thing as the 'Roots' family. It's not like we talk every day, but whenever we are in the presence of each other, it's very special."

AFTERMATH: "It's impossible for me to communicate to you what [being in "Roots"] was like, so I stopped trying. For the last 20 years, I have been successful at adding to the body of work that I intend to leave behind; 14 years as the producer and host of 'Reading Rainbow' is a part of that, 10 years with 'Star Trek' is a part of that and 'Roots' is a part of that."

CURRENT STATUS: His first novel, the sci-fi thriller "Aftermath," has just been published. He directs episodes of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager" and has a deal at Paramount to produce and star in film and TV projects.


Brandon Stoddard

Then senior vice president of dramatic programs and movies for ABC

MEMORIES: " 'Roots' came about as a result of a luncheon I had with [executive producer] David Wolper and Alex Haley and [producer] Stan Margulies. Alex talked quite a long time. Basically he told the story, and I thought, 'Gee, this is really wonderful. We ought to buy it.' . . . [As the book was being written], our writers were writing [the screenplay] right behind, the idea being that we were going to try to have the miniseries come out relatively near the issuance of the book, so that one would help the other."

AFTERMATH: "Standing there that Monday morning in that office and realizing what had happened the night before was something that had never happened before in history and probably wouldn't happen again--it was an exciting moment. But also terrifying because you are kind of sitting there saying, 'Well, this is it. This is the highlight of your career, pal, where do you go from here?' On the other hand, 'Roots' was a real risk for lots of different reasons, and a lot of people didn't think it would work for a lot of different reasons--the subject matter, the length, the fact it was the first real drama about blacks from a black point of view. What it did for me was to enforce the feeling of risk. It also made me take other risks, one of them being the movie 'The Day After.' I don't think we would have ever done 'The Day After' if we had not done 'Roots' first."

CURRENT STATUS: Independent producer.


Leslie Uggams

Role: Kizzy

MEMORIES: "It was just wild [when it aired]. I was at the time rehearsing 'Guys and Dolls' in Las Vegas, and to see the reaction to this program was just unbelievable. It got so if you wanted to eat something, you had to order two hours ahead for room service because people were not leaving their rooms to eat anything. The casinos were empty. People realized I had been serious about being an actress, too."

AFTERMATH: "I think the men fared better than the women. Even though we all had very high expectations and thought that the world was going to be everyone's oyster, it didn't happen that way. We expected more."

CURRENT STATUS: Recently did a 12-week guest shot on ABC's "All My Children" and is on a concert tour of the United States with Ben Vereen, who played Kizzy's son, Chicken George.


Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs

Role: Noah

MEMORIES: "I was real excited about doing it, and I was getting hyped up. When you do a sitcom ["Welcome Back, Kotter"] for a long time and you're playing the same kind of character over and over, that's a wonderful blessing, but you also [want] to break out of it because you get thought of in that fashion. When this opportunity came up, I dove in."

AFTERMATH: "It has an impact on you because it's a piece of important history that was documented in detail. You look back and say, 'I was in this show,' and you can look back and say, 'My God, I was so skinny there. Did I ever look like that?' "

CURRENT STATUS: Appears in episodic TV and is in pre-production as director on "Gangstaz."


David Greene

Won an Emmy Award for directing the first installment of "Roots"

MEMORIES: "I was very overwhelmed being asked to do it. I just read [the script] and couldn't stop crying. Alex Haley was a beautiful man. In fact, he called me less than two weeks before he died. I hadn't spoken to him in years. I said, 'What's on your mind, Alex?' He said, 'I just wanted to talk to you,' and about 10 days later he died."

AFTERMATH: "I don't think my work in 'Roots' was my best work. But the thing about 'Roots' was it didn't need to be done well. The whole world was waiting for it. It was such a powerful story that hadn't been done before, it didn't have to be done all that well."

CURRENT STATUS: Winner of four Emmy Awards, Greene directed the 1996 CBS miniseries "Season of Purgatory" and "Breach of Faith: Family of Cops II," set to air Feb. 2 on CBS.


Olivia Cole

Won an Emmy in her role of Mathilda

MEMORIES: "People were just saying it was some of their most important work. It was really amazing. During [filming], Alex came about four different times to talk about the history, about his background, about how 'Roots' evolved and what he went through. By the time it got to my part, I got to the last talk. There were crew members who were there for the fourth time to hear the talk, and when he finished talking, there was nothing you could say. We just went up and touched him. We wanted to press the flesh because there were no words. We were so inspired by him. You were just part of the family."

AFTERMATH: "I think just about everything I have done has enriched my life and has taught me. I think that every time you have an opportunity to do these kinds of [projects], they cannot but help. Every bit of exposure helps [a career]."

CURRENT STATUS: Does episodic TV and regional theater.


Maya Angelou

Role: Nyo Boto

MEMORIES: "Alex Haley asked me to take the role of Nyo Boto because he and Stan Margulies and David Wolper were really trying to stack the deck with names. I mean, no one expected it to be that popular, so they got O.J. Simpson, Cicely Tyson and all sorts of people in that first one. I took it because I had directed one film for the American Film Institute and I wanted to have a chance to direct one of those segments of ["Roots"]. So that was the agreement, but by the time it came around to me directing a segment, it was so big and I didn't know how to handle 80 pieces of transportation and 112 extras. So with some grace, I said, 'Maybe you would like to have someone else direct it.' "

AFTERMATH: "By that time, I had probably five national bestsellers and had been nominated for every award and won some and was on the board everywhere. But people would run up to me and say, 'My God, you're a great actress. You should act more!' "

CURRENT STATUS: Recently appeared in the video "Elmo Saves Christmas," has a children's book out called "Kofi and His Magic" (Random House) and just completed a novel, "Even the Stars Look Lonesome."


Georg Stanford Brown

Role: Tom Harvey (Also played Harvey in the 1979 sequel, "Roots: The Next Generation," and directed a segment).

MEMORIES: "It remains one of the best experiences I have had in my career. I don't recall another project that involved so many people of color, black people particularly, before and behind the camera to that extent. That is certainly something to be remembered."

AFTERMATH: "It was, I believe for all of us, a moment of great celebrity. But I tell you there is a great deal of irony to all of that because every five or 10 years, the phone rings and people want to ask how was it and what did it mean and how did it impact on your life. That is the irony: that in between that recognition is not there. I don't know that any one of us can truthfully, with very few exceptions, look at 'Roots' and say it changed our career. I can't think of any one job that was directly related to me being in 'Roots.' "

CURRENT STATUS: Director and independent producer.


Stan Margulies

Emmy Award-winning producer

MEMORIES: "David Wolper and I had had this idea of trying to do American stories in terms of generations. Someone called me one day and said, 'Are you still interested in a generational story?' They said, 'We hear that a man named Alex Haley is doing his story about six or seven generations in a black family.' I mean, the lightbulb went on over my head. We had lunch at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, and Alex told us the story and our mouths dropped open 10 feet.

Alex's editor once said to me, 'If you hadn't made the miniseries, Alex would still be working on the book.' He had been [working] 10 years on the book--part of that was that he didn't have enough money to just concentrate on writing the book. When we started the project, the book was not finished and we had half the book. Then Alex told us the second half and then kept sending pages."

AFTERMATH: "Well, obviously it gave me greater visibility within the business. I mean, I once said jokingly, 'I now get turned down by higher executives.' When we started 'Roots' it really was a labor of love. When we began, our goal was simply to get 'Roots' on the air in prime time. There was a passion about doing it, which I think is what I have been trying to accomplish ever since--to do things where people say, 'Oh God, I've got to do this.' That's what it's about. The work is the reward. All the honors and the Emmys and whatever is frosting on the cake. You should love what you are doing or you shouldn't be in that business."

CURRENT STATUS: His latest film, "The Man Who Captured Eichmann," aired in November on TNT. He has several projects in development; the one "nearest and dearest" to him is HBO's six-hour adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Kentucky Cycle."


Cicely Tyson

Role: Binta

MEMORIES: "I was in the first segment of 'Roots,' and I gave birth to Kunta Kinte [laughs]. I am laughing because several of my friends have said if I hadn't given birth to Kunta Kinte, he would have been a bastard child.

"At that time it was not easy to get actors to participate. That was 1976 and we were going through the beginning stages of the black exploitation films and I think there was a need to look forward rather than back into history. There was a very strong need to look ahead rather than look back, and this was definitely a piece that took us back to the beginning of our times."

AFTERMATH: "I tell you what it did for me: I became acutely aware of how little we knew about our bloodline. I would venture to say that for the most part, as the series progressed, most of us became interested because of the enlightenment it gave us in terms of our descendancy--that we were in fact descendants of royalty and that we were not pimps and thieves and addicts and the like. What happened as a result of "Roots" is that I suddenly then became curious about the tribe, the area, etc., I was linked to, as did most black people. If you are cognizant of this, you will know that the generation that followed me and their children have African names."

CURRENT STATUS: Recently completed four films, including Showtime's "Riot," due to air in April, and the upcoming feature "Hoodlum" with Laurence Fishburne. Just signed to play Scrooge in a USA TV movie.


'Roots' Memoriam "Roots" author Alex Haley died at age 71 in 1992. Here are the cast members who have died:

MacDonald Carey (Squire James), 81, 1994

Chuck Connors (Tom Moore), 71, 1992

Scatman Crothers (Mingo), 76, 1986

Brad Davis (Ol' George Johnson), 41, 1991

Lorne Greene (John Reynolds), 72, 1987

Moses Gunn (Kintango), 64, 1993

Burl Ives (Justin), 85, 1995

Carolyn Jones (Mrs. Moore), 54, 1983

Doug McClure (Jemmy Brent), 59, 1995

Vic Morrow (Ames), 51, 1982

Lillian Randolph (Sister Sara), 65, 1980

Thalmus Rasulala (Omoro) 51, 1991

Robert Reed (Dr. William Reynolds), 59, 1992

Roxie Roker (Melissa), 66, 1995

Paul Shenar (Carrington) 53, 1989

Madge Sinclair (Bell) 58, 1995

Raymond St. Jacques (The Drummer), 60, 1990

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