Off Hollywood: LeVar Burton
In a world of ever-increasing cynicism, LeVar Burton continues to influence a better tomorrow. Born during the height of the civil rights movement, he pretty much seemed destined to make a positive difference from the time he was a teenager. At 19 years old, LeVar made a powerful television debut in the mini-series adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which helped cultivate a new understanding of the condition of the American slave.
In addition to his career as an actor, LeVar has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to fostering a love of reading in children as the host of Reading Rainbow. “Being the son of a school teacher,” he says, “I was raised with the notion you are what you read as much as what you eat.”
I recently sat with LeVar in his office—surrounded by healing crystals, sage, and his shiny gold Emmy—to discuss his career, Google Glass versus Geordi LaForge’s “Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement,” and if he ever feels like being an asshole.
VICE: You made your television debut in 1977 in the role of Kunta Kinte, a young man unwillingly brought to America, who—despite serving many years as a slave—never lost the connection to his African heritage. How did you prepare for such a weighted role?
LeVar Burton: I was a college student at the time, studying theater at the University of Southern California. In terms of my readiness as an actor, I was already living the actor’s life, busy dedicating myself to studying this craft. When I read Kunta for the first time, I knew who this kid was. I knew the innocence and the rage. I have no other way of explaining it: I felt like I’d been preparing to play Kunta my whole life.
Roots was a huge success. Today it remains the third highest-rated mini-series of all time. How did this affect you personally?
It was overwhelming to be a part of a piece of entertainment that holds that much power.Roots was weird for me specifically, because it was personal as well as public. With its success, my whole world shifted—I went from being a theater student to the cover of TV Guide. The reason it continues to have tremendous impact on the nation is that it speaks to the hearts of people who value the concept of freedom. Kunta represents the indomitability of the human spirit, and the idea that we are all born free no matter what the circumstance. So yeah, those aren’t the kind of shoes you fit into perfectly at 19 years old. You grow into them. It’s taken me my entire career to tap into the riches of that experience.
Why did it take a television mini-series to help create a better understanding of slavery in America?
It’s the power of moving pictures when they are combined with sound! Human beings are predisposed to gather the full spectrum of information in a shared experience. It gets our attention, and the information easily penetrates the deepest levels of our consciousness. The experience of watching Roots on television helped people develop empathy towards the condition of the slave. It was an awareness our country needed for genuine healing to take place.
The more time passes, the prouder I am that my middle name was inspired by this man.