LeVar Burton celebrates his fifty-fourth birthday today, and in addition to reminiscing about his good fortune in landing the role of Kunta Kinte in Roots, he shares several things about himself that fans might not know.
Burton was a young and aspiring actor who lucked out when offered the role of Kinte. “Mine is truly one of those unbelievable Hollywood stories,” Burton explained. “Roots was my first professional audition. I was a sophomore at USC, working towards my BFA in Theater. My goal at the time was Broadway, not Hollywood. The producers had been on an exhaustive search all over the country and still had not found what they were looking for so they came back to LA and broadened the casting net. They contacted Drama schools in the area. I was in the right place at the right time.”
According to Burton, not only was he in the right time and place, but so was Roots itself. “I don’t believe Roots could’ve happened ten years earlier in America, nor ten years later for that matter. Socially, the timing was perfect in every respect. The Civil Rights Movement had succeeded to the point where America was accustomed to accepting Black people as equal citizens in this society. Then came the Vietnam era which forced us to take an unvarnished look at ourselves and our politics. By the time the late seventies rolled around, I think we were finally ready to deal with the issue of slavery and how its legacy has impact even to this day.”
In 1986, Burton was tapped for the role of Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not only was Burton happy because he was a Star Trek fan, but he liked Roddenberry’s attitude when it came to casting roles on the show. “Working with Gene was a dream come true for me,” he said. “I was a huge fan of the original Star Trek. I’ve always been a fan of the Sci-Fi genre and Gene’s vision was all about diversity. He put a Black woman in a visible position of authority on TV at a time when there weren’t many people of color on TV at all. It’s so important for human beings to see themselves reflected in the popular culture. Otherwise it’s incredibly difficult to develop any positive sense of self.”
Burton began directing while still on The Next Generation, and he explained why he decided to go behind the camera. “This is an inherently tough business,” he said. “Ups and downs are a given. One day you’re hot, the next you’re not! I simply believe it’s a good thing to be able to do more than one thing. Survival 101. As a producer on Reading Rainbow I had gotten used to being more at the center of the creative process. I recognized early on that ST:TNG could provide an opportunity to learn how to express myself creatively as a director as well.”
And what about those five things that fans may or may not know about Burton (or his family)? “I studied for the Catholic priesthood for four years,” Burton said. “Used to have Yoga classes on the Enterprise sets during lunch breaks when we were filming Star Trek: TNG. I’m very fond of Irish Whiskey. I am addicted to Family Guy. My granddaughter is a member of the current National Champion Hip-Hop Dance Team.”
TrekToday wishes LeVar a very Happy Birthday.