History

The Role That Changed LeVar Burton’s Life

An interview with the actor about Roots.

Three images of Burton from Roots
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by ABC.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Alex Haley’s epic Roots fundamentally changed America, and did so essentially overnight. The eight-night television event was viewed by more than 100 million people when it aired in the midst of a cold spell in January 1977.

Restaurants and theaters reported seeing a dramatic decrease in attendees while Roots was on TV. New parents all over the country named their children Kizzy and Kunta. And a sophomore theater major saw his life change in a matter of days.

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That extremely green, 19-year-old actor was LeVar Burton. Starring as Haley’s distant Gambian ancestor, Kunta Kinte, Burton began his professional career with the most important miniseries in television history. For Slate’s One Year podcast on the year 1977, I interviewed Burton about the whirlwind that was Roots.

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The following is an excerpt from our interview. It has been edited for clarity.

Josh Levin: I’ve read that Roots was your first audition. What was the scene? Do you remember?

LeVar Burton: The first side I ever read was a scene that was eventually a part of the screen test, which I did on March 27, 1976. I say that because it’s really one of the few days in my life that I absolutely have instant recall around. It’s like emblazoned on my soul.

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So the scene was being in the hold of the ship, having a conversation with the wrestler. Kunta was asking the [Mandinka] wrestler, “Do you think the moon that we see is the same moon from back home?” And the wrestler says, “You know, I expect so. Why?” And Kunta says, “I would hate to know that my family can see that moon and cannot see me.”

Just brilliant writing. Powerful, powerful stuff.

Before you started filming, was it clear what was going to be required of you as an actor—and as a human—from a physical and emotional standpoint?

I had no clue. But, you know, when you’re 19 and you have that supreme self-confidence bordering on obnoxiousness—I was up for anything! My imagination was wide open. I was never more eager in my life to be a part of something, and I’d certainly never been asked to do it at that high level with the talent and professionals I found myself with. If they had asked me to strip naked and set myself on fire, I would have figured out how to do it.

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What fun things did you get to do in 1977?

The People’s Choice Awards. I remember we shot it at the Shrine Auditorium, which was right across the street from where I was going to fucking college! It was like, what is happening in my life? I had been to the Shrine to see Supertramp! I was introduced first, and I came out on stage to a standing ovation. And I looked down at the audience and there was Mary Tyler Moore standing on her feet, and Carol Burnett and John Wayne. It’s like…wow. Wow.

To hear the full interview with LeVar Burton, sign up for Slate Plus. Your first month is only $1. 

To listen to One Year’s episode on Roots, hit play or open the podcast app of your choice. 

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