There are three kinds of TV watchers: those who first met LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, in the landmark miniseries "Roots"; those who came to know him for his role on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"; and those who grew up on Burton, watching him host PBS' "Reading Rainbow."
Correspondent Mo Rocca asked Burton, "When you walk down the street, when you see that somebody from a distance recognizes you, can you size them up and say, 'She's gonna know me from –'"
"Uh-huh – 'Reading Rainbow,' 'Star Trek,' 'Roots,'" he replied.
"What is television to you?"
"Simply the most powerful medium in the history of civilization for communicating thoughts, ideas and stories," Burton said.
He said it was his mentor, children's TV giant and ordained Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, who shaped his understanding of what television can do: "He taught me that it was okay to use television as a ministry, that it was possible to enlighten while entertaining, that the two don't cancel each other out."
In fact, Burton originally planned to spend his life in religious ministry. When he was just 13, he entered the seminary in Sacramento, intending to become a Catholic priest.
"Just the feeling of awe and reverence of being in a church," he said. "They're always really quiet environments. And the pomp and circumstance, too, you know. It's theatrics."
But Burton eventually decided to pursue a career in the actual theater, and so his mother, an English teacher, took a second job waitressing in a nightclub to help her son through USC.
During his sophomore year, he answered an open call for a television miniseries. It was his very first audition.
"There was an America before 'Roots,' and there was an America after 'Roots,'" Burton said. "And the America after 'Roots' was aware that this nation was founded on a system that was brutal."
"Roots," based on the Alex Haley novel, began with the kidnapping of a Mandinka tribesman played by Burton. "It was a big deal for us, because finally our story was being told from our point of view, right? The story of slavery in America had never been told from the point of view of the enslaved before."
It aired over eight consecutive nights in January 1977. "The reason why 'Roots' was broadcast in eight consecutive nights of programming was because the network was nervous that nobody would tune in," Burton said.
But more than 100 million Americans ended up watching. "Roots" featured an all-star cast – Cicely Tyson, John Amos, Ed Asner, Lorne Greene, Ben Vereen, Louis Gossett Jr. – but newcomer LeVar Burton became the face of it.
At his home, Burton showed Rocca the chains he wore as Kunta Kinte.
"Slavery still exists today," he said. "Mass incarcerations of young men of color, the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement – all of these social issues are rooted in slavery. And America is still grappling with that."
With the massive success of "Roots" came celebrity for Burton. Spots on game shows and talk shows … and naturally he served during the "Battle of the Network Stars." "The opportunities immediately post-'Roots' were the opportunities of a celebrity," he said.
"Did you like the celebrity aspect?" asked Rocca.
"I loved it. I loved it. I mean, I had joined the popular culture."
An avid science-fiction fan, Burton in 1987 assumed the role of Geordi LaForge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
"Gene Roddenberry's vision was one that included me and people who looked like me," he said. "It meant that when the future comes, there's a place for you."
An inclusive vision, yes, but the character of Geordi was blind, and for most of the run Burton performed with a visor covering his eyes.
Rocca asked, "How do you act without your eyes?"
"That's what I had to figure out. I used my body. I used my voice. I really had to develop other ways of communicating everything that I wanted the audience to know about that character."
But his longest professional ride – over 20 seasons – has been as host of PBS' literacy program, "Reading Rainbow."
He said, "Everything that I have done in the field of literacy is a tribute to my mother. As the son of an English teacher, to have been part of an effort to turn kids who know how to read into readers for life, it feels pretty good!"
Over the years Burton's read for groups large and small, and more recently recorded a hit podcast called, simply, "LeVar Burton Reads."
"It turns out there are a lot of adults who want LeVar Burton to read to them," Rocca said.
Burton is 64 now, and a grandfather – and married to makeup artist Stephanie Cozart since 1992.
In June 2019 Burton returned to Sacramento for the dedication of a park named after him, just the latest honor in a life filled with accolades and driven by purpose.
"It seems like all these things you've handled with such grace," said Rocca.
"Thanks. I'm blessed. I am," Burton said. "I have lived an amazingly charmed existence. I really have. And I'm grateful."
For more info:
- LeVar Burton Reads (Podcast)
- Follow LeVar Burton on Twitter and Instagram
- "Roots" available on Amazon Prime
- "Star Trek: The Next Generation" on cbs.com
- "This is My Story: Part 1" (YouTube)
Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Chad Cardin.