The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: LeVar Burton
By Mother Brain
In movies and television, there are very few actors who can make everything they touch turn into gold. Some might believe thatâ€™s the case with someone like Will Smith who has the talent to turn an entertaining but mediocre film product into a multimillion dollar smash hit at the box office. On the other side of the spectrum, thereâ€™s LeVar Burton, the star of TVâ€™s Roots, Reading Rainbow, and of course Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the real difference between the two is more than who has more success. Instead, the difference is who best educates the public more while connecting with them emotionally through the tube.
Born Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, Jr. in 1957, Burton was born in West Germany while his father was an active U.S. Army NCO stationed at Landstuhl. He and his two sisters would eventually live and be raised by their social worker mother in Southern California. Being raised in a strong Catholic household, Burton at age 13 decided to joining the priesthood and entered St. Pious seminary in Galt, California. But the seclusion of the seminary as well as his lack of motivation caused him to leave and after graduating the Christian Brothers High School in 1974, Burton attended USC and participated in their School of Theatre program.
While in his sophomore year at USC, Burton attended his first acting audition for the lead role in a controversial new ABC mini-series called Roots, an adaptation of the Alex Haley novel of the same name. Although he had previously appeared in some community television programs and short films, Burton would become recognized all over America portraying the teenage Kunta Kinte, the central character whose story is followed from his upbringing in West Africa to his life as a slave in America and the generations of his family bloodline that followed up to Alex Haley himself.
ABC was initially nervous that the series would fail due to its strong graphic images and the casting of well-known Caucasian actors (i.e. Lorne Greene and Ed Asner) in secondary roles. Instead, Roots would be watched by nearly 140 million viewers during its 8 part run in January 1977, making television history and landing Burton an Emmy nomination. Overall, Roots would open the public consciousness to African-American history and Burton would be highly instrumental in doing that job well. As he quoted in an interview, after the success of Roots, â€œBlacks and whites began to see each other as human beings, not as stereotypes. And if you throw a pebble into the pond, you’re going to get ripples. I think the only constant is change, and it’s always slow. Anything that happens overnight is lacking in foundation. Roots is part of a changing trend, and it’s still being played out.”
Hot off the success of Roots, Burton was suddenly in demand for controversial television movies. Burton expanded his range to mostly troubled young men which included convicted heroin addict-turned-Detroit Tigers baseball star Ron LeFlore in One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story, an alcoholic wife-beater in Battered, and the role of Donald Lang, a deaf man accused of murder in the movie Dummy. But his next most significant role was a part that didnâ€™t even exist in the script. In what would be Steve McQueenâ€™s final film, 1980â€™s The Hunter, McQueen himself would have Burton cast as aÂ fugitive who McQueenâ€™s character, real life bounty hunter Ralph â€œPapaâ€ Thorson, would capture and become an acquaintance of. Rumors suggested that had he lived, McQueen would have planned on collaborating with Burton on future films which sadly never happened.
As Burton continued to work steadily on television and film, PBS would offer him a chance to host a new series in 1983 designed to encourage children to read. Reading Rainbow would become a staple for the upbringing of children all over the world and become a pop culture phenomenon. I for one had the show as a big part of my childhood when I used to watch it at my both my grandparents homes after school. But aside from its catchy title tune by Chaka Khan and wide array of celebrity guests of the time, LeVar Burton brought something more special to the show by encouraging kids to read. As an individual who battled illiteracy for most of his life, Burton brought a level of enthusiasm to the program like a good school teacher who makes it a mission to make reading a passionate experience. As he said in a 2003 interview, “It’s just such an integral part of the human experience â€” that connection with the written word.” Although the show ended in 2006, word has it that it may return as Reading Rainbow 2.0 sometime soon.
If Roots and Reading Rainbow made LeVar Burton recognized, it would be his signature role as Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation that made him a household name and icon. In creating the followup to the short lived but wildly popular 1966 series which spawned off a cartoon and 4 movies up until 1987, series creator Gene Roddenberry was inspired to create the character in honor of a late Star Trek fan who was quadriplegic. Geordi, who was blind from birth, would wear a special VISOR that gave him the ability of sight. While his character may not have been as well developed as some of his fellow cast members, Burton (and fellow co-star Michael Dorn as Lnt. Worf) carried over the presence of strong, intelligent black characters which Nichelle Nichols (Uhora from the original Star Trek) embodied decades earlier. Even more unique for Burton was having to represent quadriplegics being treated as equals in the future and equality would always be a key theme in the Star Trek universe. It brought Burton wide appeal among the sci-fi community and the showâ€™s success would carry on through 7 seasons and 4 feature films.
During the 90s, Burton was working non-stop on different mediums as a star on a hit show (Star Trek: TNG) and a childrenâ€™s show host (Reading Rainbow). He would also find more success as a voiceover artist when multimedia mogul, Ted Turner, combined his efforts with DIC Entertainment to create Captain Planet and the Planeteers, an animated adventure series about a pro-environment superhero summoned by five teenagers who represent different continents in the world to fight enemies sworn to pollute it. Burton would tap into his Kunta Kinte voice to play African teenager, Kwame, the de factor Planeteer leader who possesses the power of earth and acts as the voice of reason to the group. The part was perfect for Burton and it gave him another opportunity like Reading Rainbow to educate young people. Only this time, he would push for making the planet eco-friendly. He would also lend his voice on more entertaining programs such as Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, Transformers: Prime, and Family Guy.
Outside his successes on television, Burton has worked very steadily over the ears in various movies and TV shows. In 2001, he had a brief role as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Michael Mannâ€™s Ali biopic starring Will Smith and appeared on TV shows such as Becker, Boomtown, and ironically enough Mr. Rogersâ€™ Neighborhood. He also found work as a director not only for Star Trek: TNG but also for the later series (Deep Space Nine and Voyager) as well as Charmed, JAG, and Soul Food just to name a few. He even directed the 1998 Tiger Woods made-for-TV biopic. But perhaps his most recent and hilarious appearance was on NBCâ€™s Community where he plays the idol of the Troy character who gets into a state of silent shock. If you havenâ€™t seen it, go on hulu.com now!
Thereâ€™s no doubt that in viewing his work, LeVar Burton has a widely diverse body of work in film and television, working both sides of the camera. But his real mark is really in television history with the success and historical significance of both Roots and Reading Rainbow. He may not have reached the level of Will Smith or Denzel Washington; however, his ability to entertain while educating audiences worldwide for decades sounds like a much better deal than living secluded in a seminary.