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His Roots Are in the Pious Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Talk about a defining moment. For LeVar Burton that would be March 27, 1976, when he screen-tested for “Roots.” He was a USC drama major at the time. By mid-April, he was a 19-year-old college sophomore and a working actor in the starring role of Kunta Kinte.

He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the 12-hour adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel, which ABC ran in January 1977.

Fast forward: Burton, now married and with a young daughter, played Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (Fox) on TV and in movies, and he occasionally directs. He has his own film production company, Eagle Nation Film. Burton is also host and co-executive producer of “Reading Rainbow.” He’s claimed five Emmys thus far for the PBS children’s television show, now in its 16th season.

In his spare time, Burton has written a sci-fi adventure, “Aftermath” (Warner Books, 1997), and was made, by presidential appointment, a commissioner of the National Commission on Library and Information Sciences.

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Question: Why do you think you’re so industrious?

Answer: I guess I’m one of those people who suffers from the delusion that unless I keep doing things, I’ll cease to have value in the world--you know what I mean. I believe very strongly that everybody is here for a very specific purpose and that one of the keys to living here successfully, in this realm, is to discern what your purpose is, align yourself to that and pursue it with all the passion you possess.

Q: You’re very disciplined, you know.

A: Well, I was educated by Catholic nuns. In sixth grade I had a teacher who was a staunch disciplinarian. “Don’t be a lazy lump,” Sister Mary Philip would say, and she would strut around with her ruler clasped behind her back, which she would whip out and thwack you with at a moment’s notice.

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Q: Your original plan was to go into the priesthood.

A: I decided to become a priest when I was 8 or so. I entered the seminary when I was 13. Even then I had some sense that one’s life must contribute something, you know? I stayed at St. Pius until I was 17. It was only as a result of being completely immersed in that environment, in that culture, that I knew I didn’t want to become a priest. I moved to Southern California to study theater at USC. I didn’t have a name for it then, but I know now that what I decided was that maybe it was possible for me to be a spiritual warrior without having to wear a collar.

Q: I’m trying to figure out how you went from priest to actor. Had theater already entered the picture during that time frame, while you were in the seminary?

A: Absolutely. It was where I was exposed to theater. I developed my love in the seminary. We did plays all the time.

Q: Religious plays?

A: Some. We did a Passion play every spring, but we did “Mr. Roberts,” “The Odd Couple,” in addition to “Murder in the Cathedral.” You know, as a seminarian, I used to have a recurring dream of my first sermon as an ordained priest where I was just, you know, slaying ‘em in the aisles. A large part of what I was attracted to in that job was the mystery, the spectacle and the performance in addition to the opportunity to be a part of the spiritual life, a community of people. You know, the Catholic liturgy is incredibly theatrical.

Q: So you got a good taste of acting while you were in the seminary.

A: Oh, yeah. The best priests are very gifted actors. But that goes across the board, across all religious boundaries. The most prominent spiritual leaders are all charismatic personalities. They’re all performers.

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Q: What kind of work did you do when you were a kid?

A: I was pumping gas. In addition, I did lube, oil and filters and flat tires--every day during the summer when I was 15 and 16. And I worked in a tuxedo rental agency for at least two summers, into my freshman year of college. I can still look at a guy and say, “38 reg,” “42 long.”

Q: When you see someone who is 19--same age as when you did “Roots"--do you feel inspired to help?

A: Oh, yeah. We have a program at Eagle Nations Films where from time to time we take an intern, college student. And I want to go back now and teach at USC, but I don’t want to teach acting. I want to give a course in the business of show business because I never got that information. I want to share with those bright, wide-eyed, enthusiastic--God, I can’t even believe I’m about to say this--kids what they can and should be prepared to expect when they get out into the real world.

Whatever Works runs every Monday. Send e-mail to socalliving@latimes.com.


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