A USC theater department student sits alone in a friend’s apartment, engrossed in the premiere of the ABC miniseries “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” The 19-year-old is excited that the TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s epic bestseller is finally on the air. He hopes others are watching but isn’t sure if they are.
The following day, the student visits his mother in Sacramento, and they and friends watch the second installment of “Roots,” which chronicles how Kunta Kinte, the young African captured by white traders and transported to America, was sold into slavery.
It’s not until the next day, Jan. 25, 1977, that the student realizes others had indeed seen “Roots"--an awareness that comes at the same time he realizes that his life has changed.
“This crowd started gathering around me [in a supermarket], pointing at me, saying, ‘Hey, you’re Kunta Kinte,’” recalled LeVar Burton last week, sitting in the offices of his Eagle Nation production company on the Paramount Pictures lot. “It got to a point where my presence was causing a disturbance in the market. I had no idea that anybody had been watching. But it just was the beginning. Soon I found myself in the center of the eye of the hurricane.”
With his wide smile and slim build, Burton, now 45, doesn’t appear far removed physically from the novice actor who made his professional debut as the young Kunta Kinte in “Roots,” the landmark television event, which is marking its 25th anniversary during the next several days. The drama gripped the country in a fashion that no other entertainment program had done before, making history as the highest-rated television program ever at that time.
Burton’s defiant expression while shackled in chains became one of the most searing images from the miniseries, which traced Haley’s ancestry back to Kinte in Africa and through the slaves of the American South.
These days, Burton is being thrust back into the spotlight as a flurry of activities marks the anniversary of “Roots.” In addition to a stream of interviews on talk and news shows, he is the host of tonight’s NBC documentary “Roots: Celebrating 25 Years.” He also provided commentary for the just-released DVD “Roots” boxed set from Warner Home Video. The Hallmark Channel will show the entire original miniseries starting Sunday.
The recent attention surrounding “Roots” has not been daunting to Burton--certainly not when compared with the first go-round. “It’s not crazy at all,” he said. “1977, now that was crazy. The energy was frenzied and furious. For a 19-year-old to have lived through that is just incredible. I was totally green. It was a real life lesson. I truly walked through fire and came out at the end a tempered piece of steel.”
Although “Roots” provided valuable exposure for numerous black performers, including John Amos, Georg Stanford Brown, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Louis Gossett Jr. and O.J. Simpson, Burton, as an unknown, perhaps used the opportunity most aggressively as a launching pad for a flourishing career that has branched out in several directions.
Currently, he is preparing for his 19th season as host and co- executive producer of the PBS children’s television series “Reading Rainbow,” which has earned him seven Emmys. He’s reprising his “Star Trek: The Next Generation” role as the blind Lt. Geordi La Forge for the latest film version, “Star Trek: Nemesis,” now in production. Burton is also preparing for his directorial feature debut with “Blizzard,” about a talking reindeer, scheduled for release next holiday season.
Burton developed his directing chops during the last several years, helming numerous episodes of the “Star Trek” offshoots “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” Voyager” and the current “Enterprise,” as well as installments of the Showtime series “Soul Food” and the TV movie “The Tiger Woods Story.”
Burton also has written a novel, “Aftermath,” and has a small role in “Ali.” Several other film and television projects are in the works at his Eagle Nations company. In addition, he’s enjoying fatherhood--he has a 7-year-old daughter with wife Stephanie--as well as grandfatherhood, with a 6-month-old grandson.
“Life is truly, truly great,” Burton said, describing his approach toward projects at this point as “a spiritual journey. I really want to create a body of work that will make a difference.”
And while some other “Roots” cast members have declined to talk about the anniversary, Burton has joined in celebrating the miniseries and its influence on him.
“‘Roots’ deserves all the accolades it receives,” he said. “It has earned its place in the pantheon of the best of the best. And I have a 25-year body of work that allows me the luxury of reveling in Kunta. I embrace him as intensely as ever. ‘KUNTA’ is my license plate.”
During the week that “Roots” aired, theaters and restaurants were void of patrons. Nightclubs ended shows early. On the final night, more than half of all homes in the U.S. were tuned to the drama, with an audience of approximately 77 million. That telecast still ranks as the third-highest-rated entertainment broadcast in U.S. history.
David L. Wolper, who produced “Roots” along with the late Stan Margulies, calls Burton’s performance “a miracle. He had never acted a day in his life, and his first role is on one of the most watched television programs in history. The audience had to feel sympathy for him, especially when he’s plucked away from his home in Africa. We really had to have someone who was very likable.”
Sure, there were roles in films such as “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Hunter,” “Grambling’s White Tiger,” “Dummy” and others. But there were other changes for the actor, who had originally planned to go into the priesthood before deciding on a career in the arts.
“Well, let’s just say that because of ‘Roots,’ I know what it feels like to be a rock star, and just leave it at that,” Burton said, laughing heartily. “Look, I was 19. I have no apologies for how I reacted. Am I a better person having gone through that? Absolutely. A lot of who I am was forged by that experience.”
Though he is enjoying the “Roots” retrospective, Burton is outraged at ABC’s decision to pass on the “Roots” documentary, given its place in the network’s history. Questioned by reporters earlier this week, executives maintained they did not consider the pitch on the special to be strong enough to warrant buying it. However, ABC’s newly named entertainment president Susan Lyne, who had been in charge of network movies and specials, said she should have followed through on plans to commemorate “Roots.”
“The century is still young, but I believe in 98 years, ABC’s decision not to air the ‘Roots’ special will be sure to be one of the most boneheaded moves of the century,” Burton said. “I’m just flabbergasted by that.”
Still, he is not letting the snub get to him. There are too many positives to consider about the anniversary, Burton said, and about his career.
“The past 25 years,” he said, “have just been preparation for my next 25.”