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LeVar Burton and the Power of 'Roots'

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man (Announcer): Tonight we present a landmark in television entertainment - "Roots" - the true story Alex Haley uncovered in his 12-year search across the seven generations of his ancestry.


Thirty years ago this week, a hundred million Americans spent the evening together watching the final episode of "Roots." A whopping 85 percent of all television homes saw at least part of the 12-hour miniseries. "Roots' is Alex Haley's account of his own family, beginning with Kunta Kinte, who is captured in Gambia in 1767 and brought to Maryland on a slave ship.

In the miniseries, Kunta Kinte was played by a then-unknown actor named LeVar Burton, who joins me now from the studios of NPR West.

LeVar Burton, welcome to the program.

Mr. LEVAR BURTON (Actor): Thank you very much, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: What were you doing when you were asked to audition for "Roots?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: I was a theater major at the University of Southern California here in Los Angeles. I was studying drama. And in fact we were doing the spring musical during the casting process for "Roots," and I had the role of Ali Hakeem, the Persian rug dealer in the musical "Oklahoma."

ROBERTS: Did you have any idea that "Roots" would be the phenomenon it turned out to be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: No one had any idea that "Roots" would turn out to be the phenomenon that it was. Yeah, I think it's interesting to note that ABC, the network that originally broadcast "Roots" back in January of '77, they got so many kudos and such credit for the genius and brilliance of having programmed "Roots" in eight consecutive nights of television, the 12 hours over an eight night period. But ABC knew that they had something that they felt was good but they were not so sure how America would respond to a story slavery in America, told from the point of view of the slaves, of the Africans. And so they decided to just put it all on in consecutive nights in the knowledge that if nobody watched, they could brush it off and walk away quietly. But the final episode of "Roots" is still one of the most watched episodes of television in the history of medium, apparently.

ROBERTS: Yes, third in line behind the final episode of "MASH" and the Who Shot J.R. episode. So that's the company you're keeping.

Mr. BURTON: That's pretty lofty company, I suppose.

ROBERTS: Looking at the miniseries now, it's almost a, you know, full employment act for prominent African-American actors. I mean, Ben Vereen, Richard Roundtree, Cecily Tyson. You know, even O.J. Simpson and Maya Angelou have small parts. Was there a sense, even before you knew how popular it would be, that you were doing something important?

Mr. BURTON: There was definitely a sense that the material was special. Of course, it was my first job. And I was the new kid on the block. My very first day as a professional actor, Cicely Tyson played my mother, Maya Angelou played my grandmother. And every morning, during the six or seven weeks we were in Savannah, Georgia filming the first couple of hours of "Roots," every morning in the makeup trailer the sense of finally was so palpable in these veteran actors.

They would all express how they had waited their entire careers, some of them, for the opportunity to play an African, a person of color, on the screen in the popular culture from a place of such dignity and pride and respect. And it was - so there was the feeling that this was extraordinary. Yet no one, still no one knew that it would become the social phenomenon that it did.

ROBERTS: An extraordinary social phenomenon. It's still the way a lot of Americans learned about slavery. Did that surprise you, that it filled this what turned out to be a pretty serious gap in Americans' knowledge of our own history?

Mr. BURTON: Well, I think that the real truth of it is, is that black people in America tend to know more about slavery than white people did, up until "Roots." And "Roots" became an education for all of us. "Roots" is now one of the most used television resources in our nation's classrooms when it comes to this block of U.S. history, American history. It has served to be a powerful informer, a tool for bringing us all up to speed on the real truth about, you know, what this period in our history means.

ROBERTS: Was it hard? Was it draining to act this subject matter?

Mr. BURTON: Some days it was joyful and exhilarating. Some days were really difficult - physically, emotionally, spiritually. During the escape sequence, the first time Kunta Kinte escapes, I wore chains around my ankles I think for two weeks and at some point, you know, my ankles began to swell and, you know, we had to cut the padding out of them. And it was not pleasant. You know, it really hurt. However, the thing that always sustained me was the realization that whatever suffering I was going through, whatever pain I was experiencing was just a drop in the bucket as compared to the experience of my ancestors and those on whose shoulders I stand.

(Soundbite of TV miniseries, "Roots")

Mr. VIC MORROW (Actor): (as Ames): I want to hear you say your name. Your name is Toby. What's your name?

Mr. BURTON: (As Kunta Kinte): Kunta.

(Soundbite of bullwhip and screaming)

Mr. LOUIS GOSSETTE, JR. (Actor): (as Fiddler): Lord God, help that boy. They're going to whip him dead.

(Soundbite of bullwhip)

ROBERTS: There's a lot just about the production elements of "Roots" that probably wouldn't be on TV now. It opens with, you know, bare-breasted women. There's a fairly graphic natural birth scene. There are rape scenes. Do you think "Roots" could be a sensation today? Do you think the same conditions exist to have "Roots" happen again?

Mr. BURTON: In terms of the numbers of people watching?


Mr. BURTON: No. We watch television very differently today than we did 30 years ago. "Roots" was made in an era before the advent of the VCR, and now TIVO. It was much more possible for television and large events on television to have a tendency to unite us together, to have that shared experience simultaneously. So I don't think that the communal experience would be possible today because we just changed our television viewing habits in this culture.

ROBERTS: LaVar Burton, thanks so much for coming in and sharing your thoughts on this 30th anniversary of the "Roots" miniseries.

Mr. BURTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.