LeVar Burton on How Radical TV Was in the ’70s, Roots, and What’s Going On With That Reading Rainbow Revival

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Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

A year after winning solid ratings and good reviews for a multipart exploration of The Sixties, CNN and executive producer Tom Hanks are turning back the clock for a sequel — titled, of course, The Seventies, premiering tonight at 9 p.m. EST on the news network. The eight-part documentary look at the Me Decade will explore the usual touchstones: Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the rise and fall of disco. And kicking things off tonight is “Television Gets Real,” an hour-long primer on how the medium derided decades before as a “vast wasteland” began to grow up and tackle serious themes as never before. One of the key players in that evolutio n— and a frequent presence on tonight’s episode of The Seventies — was a then-unknown actor named LeVar Burton, who starred as the slave Kunta Kinte in ABC’s landmark 1977 mini-series Roots. (And, in case you’ve been stuck in the ’70s since then, you know that he would go on to land two more iconic roles: Geordi on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the host of PBS’s Reading Rainbow.) We caught up with Burton Wednesday and talked about his memories of the decade, how Roots changed America forever, and the status of his Reading Rainbow revival.

So the first episode of The Seventies is all about how TV became more than just the “boob tube” during that decade. And while today it’s often said, I think correctly, that there is a lot more really good TV being produced, I don’t think TV has quite the same impact it did then. It was so much more central to our lives then. Do you agree?
I do. I absolutely do. I mean, it was the beginning of television becoming a major force in our lives. It was part of our lives in a slightly different way in the ’70s — [it was] the delivery system for that which was really important in the world. I think the original charter for television was that it could really educate the masses as well as entertain. And I think the ’70s was a real delivery on the promise of that potential.

That certainly is what happened with Roots.
And so many other shows. It wasn’t just drama. There were the Norman Lear comedies, and how they moved the culture forward. All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times: These shows were about life in America, and it was a reflection of America as it was. That was new for television. They came up with [the phrase] “Must-See TV” in the ’80s, but must-see TV was really born in the ’70s. On Saturday nights, you didn’t go out. When Roots aired, you didn’t go out. You stayed at home, and you watched as a family.

Is TV today as interested in making a difference in society, in moving it forward?
It helps if you expand your definition of what television is. There is some amazing storytelling being done in the medium — a lot of it on cable. But, yes: You will not find a network [doing] what Fred Silverman did when he was at CBS in the ’70s. He said, “All right, all of these popular rural shows, like Petticoat Junction and Green Acres? We’re going to take them off the air. And we’re going to replace them with something closer to the pulse of what’s going on in this nation.” You would never see a decision like that made by a network head today, right? There are far fewer risks being taken. It’s a different landscape today. Monetarily, financially, the stakes are higher.

Some of those risks are being taken, though, like you said, you have to think beyond broadcast — to cable and streaming. And you need to look for those shows.
We live in an age where there is so much choice; discernment is the key. In some ways, all of the power has been placed in the hands of the many, in the hands of the consumer, now. And it is up to us to put together a balanced, healthy diet of television, because there’s so much to choose from. And you’re right: A lot of it is crap.

What show or shows do you remember loving in the '70s?
Star Trek. Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future was one that embraced me, and I embraced it. It was a big deal for me and my family to see Clarence Williams III on Mod Squad, to see Sammy Davis Jr. on an episode of The Rifleman, to see Diahann Carroll have her own series with Julia. These were huge moments for us, because being reflected in the popular culture is essential for the establishment of anyone’s healthy self-identity.

And Roots was perhaps the most monumental demonstration of that during the decade. Right now, when something becomes a hit, we can track it via social media or the million online publications out there. How did you know Roots was turning into a phenomenon?
I watched night one in Southern California. And then I drove to Sacramento and watched night two with my mom and a small group of family and friends. The morning of day three, I was recognized in the supermarket running an errand for my mom. It was on the cover of TV Guide and Life magazine, and it was all over the airwaves. It was what everyone was talking about — on the street, in the schools, in office buildings. It was the national conversation. Those first eight nights were phenomenal, and the wave just kept rolling in. It was like a tsunami. It just didn’t stop. The water wasn’t receding. Roots and the conversation it sparked culturally became a part of the fabric of America. There was an America before Roots, and there was an America after Roots. And the country was really forever changed … Roots was one of the first opportunities we had to see our story, our journey in America told through our own eyes.

You talked about the importance of viewers seeing themselves on TV. I don’t want to draw too exact a link with Roots, but this year we also saw a show that resonated …
You’re going to link it to Empire?

I am, just a bit! The ratings among African-American audiences were bigger than some Super Bowls. Do you think it connected in a similar way as Roots?
Absolutely. It is [about] this slice of American life — hip-hop culture — which is the lingua franca of the planet. And it is told through the eyes of black people. You cannot underestimate the power of seeing oneself, feeling oneself represented in the popular culture.

One of the hallmarks of ’70s and ’80s television, at least for working actors back then, was doing a guest spot on an anthology show — particularly the Aaron Spelling shows. You did a Love Boat opposite Shari Belafonte a few years before Star Trek: The Next Generation, where your character was blind. And you did a Fantasy Island, and then in the 1980s, you were on Murder, She Wrote. What was it like being a guest on those shows back then? Was it a factory, where you were just in and out, doing your scenes?
It was. I did not go on a cruise or to Fantasy Island. It was all on a stage at the Goldwyn lot on Formosa. And yeah, it was a bit of a factory. But it was what one did back in the day, you know? 

Was it fun?
It was enormous fun. There was a tendency, I suppose, at one point in my career, where I would have wanted to minimize having done both of those shows. But now? I’m good with it. I’m happy to have been a part of that era of television. It wasn’t moving the culture forward, necessarily. But it was great entertainment, or else people wouldn’t have tuned in week after week after week. And Sammy Davis Jr. played my father!

How was he to work with?
It was amazing. After shooting, he invited us all up to his house. It’s one of my most treasured memories of the 36, 37 years I’ve been in this business — getting to spend time with a hero and a legend.

Let’s move ahead to the present. It was announced a few months ago that you were coming onboard as a co-executive producer on the remake of Roots being done by the A&E Networks group. That was something of a relief to those of us wondering why such a classic even had to be remade. But do you understand why some might be wary of this project?
I had that same response. I was skeptical when I first heard of the effort. [But] in talking to Mark Wolper, [original producer] David Wolper’s son, he explained to me how he had a very difficult time getting his children to watch the original Roots because they felt it was dated. And that immediately resonated in my own life. My 21-year-old, only in the last few years has she started watching black-and-white movies. What I recognized is that there’s a whole generation of Americans for whom Roots is the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. This is too important of a part of our common history in America, both black people and white people, to be forgotten, to not be a current aspect of our memory. And so I made a decision to become involved in order to make it as good as I believed it could possibly be — and not sit on the sidelines and judge.

You broke the internet with your Kickstarter for Reading Rainbow. How are things going?
Well, the Skybrary is up and running. You will recall that the Kickstarter was about every child, everywhere. And this is our first post-Kickstarter project — our library of books and videos on the web. It’s the app translated for the web browser, and with more access, we can make a difference in the lives of more kids. And we’re looking forward to releasing our product for classroom use in the fall, Reading Rainbow for the classroom. So, as ’70s icon Sonny Bono would’ve said, the beat goes on.

Are you still interested in eventually bringing the show back to TV?
We’re looking at TV. However, you gotta remember that television was simply the technology of access we used in the ’80s. If you want to reach kids today, you need to be in the digital realm. You have to be an app, you have to be on the web. So we are crawling before we walk, walking before we can run. Television is on our road map. But it wasn’t first. That’s the significant difference. When we relaunched Reading Rainbow we didn’t go to television first, because our mission is to be effective.

You’ve been in asked a lot in past interviews about the fact that you’ve had iconic roles for three generations of viewers: Roots for the baby boomers, TNG for Gen X, and Reading Rainbow for the millennials. I’m wondering if, even though it was just two episodes, you think your Community guest spots might one day be similar touchstones?
I definitely get recognized now for my appearances on both Community and Big Bang Theory. How great is that? How lucky am I?