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Actor LeVar Burton on receiving a lifetime achievement Emmy Award

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The man behind a one-of-a-kind Hollywood career gets celebrated big-time tonight in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")

ROBERT REED: (As William Reynolds) Your name is Toby. You're going to learn to say your name. Let me hear you say it.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION")

BURTON: (As Geordi La Forge) I see where you're going. We shift down, then kick hard into warp nine. Yeah, come back fighting. Woo-wee (ph).

JONATHAN FRAKES: (As William Riker) Can we do it, Geordi?

BURTON: (As Geordi La Forge) Ask me after it's done, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "READING RAINBOW")

BURTON: Welcome to Rosie's, an authentic roadside diner. I like to sit here at the counter, where I can watch the whole show. Because one of the best things about being at a diner is the people. You never know who's going to drop by. In fact, who drops by is what causes all the trouble in this book, "The Robbery At The Diamond Dog Diner."

RASCOE: That is the one and only LeVar Burton, star of "Roots," "Reading Rainbow" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And as of tonight, he'll be a lifetime achievement Emmy award-winner. Congratulations and welcome to the show, none other than LeVar Burton.

BURTON: Thank you so much.

RASCOE: So what does winning this award mean to you?

BURTON: I'm not sure you actually win the lifetime achievement award. I think, you know, you hang around long enough and they think, oh, yeah, yeah.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness.

BURTON: Why not?

RASCOE: I mean, when you look back on your career - as, you know, getting a lifetime achievement award, I would assume does that - "Reading Rainbow" was a huge part of it. And a lot of very serious actors on adult shows and miniseries don't necessarily star on kids' shows. Was there ever any hesitation with you thinking, oh, I want to be in Hollywood, I want to be taken seriously, I don't want to do a kids' show?

BURTON: No, not at all, not at all. No hesitation. One of the reasons why I was so eager to do "Reading Rainbow" was, having just come out of an experience with "Roots" having been my first job as an actor and seeing just the sheer power of the medium of television at work, right? In eight nights of television, the - this nation was transformed around our idea of what we mean when we talk about chattel slavery in this country. And so the opportunity was presented to me to sort of harness some of that power to foster a love of kids who are just learning how to read, how - cracking the code, cement a relationship with them for life through this medium of television. It was counterintuitive, but dammit, it worked.

RASCOE: Yeah. You built such a relationship with children who felt like you were talking to them. You were their friend. Did you realize at the time when you were doing it that it would have such an impact?

BURTON: I was talking to my son, and he was the proxy for the audience. And so my intent was honest. It was genuine. I wanted to communicate something that I dearly love, appreciate and believe to be the foundation of discovering your highest purpose in life. If you can read in at least one language, then you have this - the tool to educate yourself. No one can hold sway over your mind, your imagination, your dreams if you can read and be inspired, informed, educated, enlightened, liberated by the written word.

RASCOE: I know that before you became an actor, you were going to be a priest.

BURTON: Can you tell (laughter)?

RASCOE: Well, first of all, I can tell. You were kind of ministering, right? Do you consider acting to be a type of ministry?

BURTON: Fred Rogers and I had that conversation often. It was, I think, the field upon which he and I saw eye to eye.

RASCOE: And what do you think makes it into the difference between looking at this is a role or this is a job and this is a ministry?

BURTON: Well, it's tied to my purpose, and I know Fred felt the same way. And I believe that part of my purpose here is to tell stories that uplift and enlighten. And I look at it this way. I have been able to express the entirety of the Black experience in this country, from Kunta to Geordi. And LeVar is in the middle of that continuum. The breadth of humanity that I've been able to represent for in an age where representation in this country and this culture has become such an important thing to ponder, contemplate and discuss - what an honor.

RASCOE: I'm going to go there 'cause you brought up Geordi La Forge, "Star Trek." My husband is the biggest "Star Trek" fan. You know, when I told him I was talking to you, he said, well, you know, Geordi La Forge has one of the best arcs in television. And to understand it, he was like, you really need to watch all seven seasons.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: So I was like, OK.

BURTON: Yeah.

RASCOE: Anyway, he is a big "Star Trek" fan, and he had a question, and I kind of tweaked it a little bit, but it's kind of based off what you just said. It's the idea - you've played Kunta Kinte in "Roots." That's about America's past.

BURTON: Yes.

RASCOE: You've played Geordi La Forge on "Star Trek," a series about a vision of the future.

BURTON: Right.

RASCOE: Like, what did both of those very different characters teach you about how we treat the past and also about how we think about the future?

BURTON: The most important thing to me about both of those stories are that they acknowledge and celebrate the history - right? - the presence of Black people. We have been written out of American history in many regards. And the history that America tells itself about who we are has always been biased and reductive and disrespectful for the most part. And so these stories have importance to me because they are much more representative and reflective of who we are.

RASCOE: Stories in books can open minds and give voice to that thing that is ineffable, that thing that is unspeakable.

BURTON: Yeah. Right, right.

RASCOE: Thinking about all the kids who were able to have - dream of all these possibilities for themselves because of books they heard on "Reading Rainbow," is that the ultimate legacy?

BURTON: Yeah, I believe it is. Yeah. I think the most important work I will have done in this lifetime is "Reading Rainbow" in terms of the impact. You know, my mother was an English teacher. I inherited my love of reading and the written word from her. And, you know, it would have been illegal for me just a couple of generations ago to know how to read. It was a crime punishable by whipping or worse.

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah.

BURTON: And to have grown up and become an icon, a symbol, for literature and children's literacy and advocacy in this realm - only in America.

RASCOE: LeVar Burton, thank you so very much. I really appreciate you coming and speaking with us today.

BURTON: My pleasure. Thank you, Ayesha. Thank you very much.

RASCOE: LeVar Burton receives a lifetime achievement Emmy Award later today.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROVER WASHINGTON JR'S "MISTER MAGIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.