Ahead of Fan Expo, LeVar Burton talks about Star Trek, Roots, and the transformative power of reading
With a career that encompasses the fantastic (Star Trek), the historic (Roots), and the educational (Reading Rainbow), LeVar Burton has worn many hats.
Even so, the actor-director-producer-writer-podcaster—who’s in Vancouver this weekend for Fan Expo—prefers a very simple description of what he does.
“I'm a storyteller,” he says, on the line from Los Angeles. “Whether I'm acting, writing, producing directing, or podcasting, I'm an itinerant storyteller. It’s how I’ve made my living.”
Noting that he hasn’t been to Vancouver since he was a guest on the locally-filmed Alan Thicke Show (“I guess I’m dating myself”), Burton clearly relishes his time with the fans.
“I really enjoy it, because, you know, it’s fun and it’s amazing, and it’s never the same. And there's nothing quite like being in a room full of people who adore you!”
He laughs uproariously, and the conversation turns to his seven-year role as Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge on the TV show Star Trek—The Next Generation, along with the four feature films which followed.
“Star Trek has always been one of the most positive and hopeful visions for the future of humanity,” he says, thoughtfully. “And for that reason, among others, I've always embraced it.”
It was also a big part of his life growing up, not just for the stories and optimism, but for its representation of people of colour.
“The original show was one of the few depictions of black people on TV that was positive,” he says.
When asked if he’s going to appear on the new series, Star Trek: Picard, Burton chuckles.
“I'm not a betting man, but I would wager good money that you'll probably see all of the Next Gen cast at some point or another, just not all at the same time. Besides, I understand that Hugh Borg [Jonathan Del Arco] is very, very prominent in Picard. And, you know, Geordi gave him his name. I think we’ll have to explore that at some point.”
Burton first found fame in the 1977 television adaption of Alex Hailey’s Roots, portraying the enslaved Kunta Kinte alongside Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, and Louis Gossett, Jr.
“I was a student at the University of Southern California, studying theatre. It was one of those things, just being in the right place at the right time. It was my first audition, but I felt absolutely preternaturally ready. I felt from the very beginning that I knew who this kid was. I knew how he would react in any and every situation that the script depicted. I should have been nervous. I was in awe, but I wasn't nervous. It was all so exciting. I was 19, I didn’t know anything.”
Still, Burton did feel an immense sense of responsibility.
“As black people in the cast, we knew how important it was to get it right, because the story of slavery had never before been told in America from the point of view of the enslaved. This was brand-new—it was unprecedented storytelling. I had no idea at the time that it would be as big a success as it was, and no one anticipated it becoming the cultural phenomenon that it did, in this country, or worldwide.”
When Burton refers to slavery as America’s original sin, he’s asked if it can ever truly be baptized away.
“That’s up to America. We haven't even apologized yet, absolution is a long way off. We're only just now scratching the surface on the institutional nature of racism, the endemic amount of injustice that still goes on in this country based on the color of one's skin.”
Last December, Burton launched a 6-part YouTube video series, This is My Story, which explores the subject of racism through first-person narratives.
“I genuinely believe that if I'm going to impact the world at all, it's going to be through the stories I tell. I just couldn't be silent anymore, I had to say something. So I sought out the advice of some trusted voices and some friends and I decided you know, let’s simply tell some stories. We're in the process now of gathering stories for season two of This is My Story, I see this as an ongoing effort.”
Burton credits his drive to make the world a better place to his mother, Erma Gene.
“My mother's the reason I am the man that I am today,” he says. “She was an English teacher and then a social worker, and I grew up in a family where it was demonstrated daily that life was about public service, about making the world a better place through your efforts and your work.”
Burton’s mother also taught him about the transformational power of reading, something he was able to share during his 25-year run as host of the PBS children’s show Reading Rainbow.
“The show was created to address what teachers know to be the summer slide, when a child is learning how to read, and they take a summer vacation and all the gains they made during the school year sort of erode. It was an effort to maintain contact with the audience. I'm a firm believer in reaching kids where they are and then taking them where you want them to go. That's certainly what the show did well, you know, It used the engagement factor of television to promote literature. It was really counterintuitive—and it worked.”
Although he has no intention of retiring any time soon—indeed, he keeps acting and directing, he runs an educational childhood reading app called Skybrary, and he has a short-story podcast (“It’s for adults who watched Reading Rainbow as kids,” he laughs)—the 62-year-old Burton is at an age where he can now look back at a résumé of real breadth.
“I know I'm going to be judged at the end of my life for the body of work that I leave behind, and I will have been very proud of all of it, including the, you know, Fantasy Island and Love Boat episodes that I did.”
He laughs, then continues on more seriously.
“Reading Rainbow will probably be the first line of my epitaph. Maybe Roots, I don't know. I'm proud of it all but for different reasons. You know, Star Trek has been hugely inspirational in my life and the life of others, and it's one of the longest-lasting, most respected, and loved franchises in the history of entertainment. Roots changed the nation's consciousness, our awareness around chattel slavery in America and the damage that it did, and continues to do; and Reading Rainbow is partially responsible for instilling in millions the love of reading and the written word. And to contain all three of those in one career, in one lifetime—how lucky am I?”
Fan Expo takes place this Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, at the Vancouver Convention Centre; LeVar Burton appears Saturday and Sunday.