“I wish I were LeVar Burton,” Lance Reddick chanted, during a typically odd segment of The Eric Andre Show.
The segment began with the usual awkward interview between comedian Andre and his guest, in this case Reddick. Then Reddick, a veteran actor of shows such as The Wire and Fringe, returned to set wearing nothing but makeshift pants, a Star Trek: The Next Generation badge on his chest, and the famous VISOR worn by LeVar Burton’s Geordi La Forge in the series.
“Where’s my iconic slave role?” Asked Reddick, referencing Burton's role on Roots. Reddick's appearance was a testament to the importance of beloved actor, writer, director, and host LeVar Burton. (Burton later appeared on The Eric Andre Show himself for a callback to this segment.)
It is difficult to think of any other American actor who has had such a varied and influential impact on American popular culture as Burton. Since his television debut in Roots in 1977, Burton has served as a preeminent example of what an African American actor can accomplish in American television.
For many today, Burton is one of the great figures of nerd culture due to his work on both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Reading Rainbow. What is certain in 2021, however, is that his place in popular culture is secure—and his July 26th-30th guest hosting spot on Jeopardy is just another feather in the cap for Burton.
The role of Kunta Kinte in Roots could have launched the career of any young African American actor. For LeVar Burton, it became the vehicle to catapult him to superstardom at the very beginning of his acting career.
“LeVar Burton is not your ordinary, everyday, overnight sensation,” began an Ebony magazine piece on the new star actor in their October 1977 issue. At the time, Burton recalled the draining, but rewarding, experience of playing Kunta Kinte.
“And it hurt,” he said at the time. “It was the psychological effect, not to mention the physical anguish and discomfort that we experienced.”
In the late 1970s, coming as it did after the Civil Rights Movement and at the tail end of the Black Power era, Roots and Burton’s role in it influenced future generations of African American men and women to learn more about their history and to embrace their heritage.
Ironically, Burton’s next well-known role pushed American pop culture fans to look toward the future. In his role as chief engineer Geordi La Forge on the U.S.S. Enterprise-D in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Burton inspired a generation of Trek fans to look to the stars, as their parents and older siblings had done with The Original Series in the 1960s.
By that time, Burton was also host of the series Reading Rainbow, a program that inspired a love of literacy in youngsters.
“Butterfly in the sky/I can fly twice as high,” begins the opening credits to Reading Rainbow, a song that you are likely already humming to yourself as you read this. The PBS series, which began in 1983, lasted until 2006 and gave Burton the opportunity to inspire children to discover a passion for reading.
When the series premiered, Burton told the New York Times that it reminded him of his own upbringing in a household that cherished and promoted reading. “My mother was an English teacher and there were always books in the home,” Burton said. For him, Reading Rainbow was an opportunity to spread his love of reading to others.
Since the 1980s, Burton has continued to influence American popular culture in a variety of ways. For example, he has left an indelible impact on the Star Trek franchise—not just as an actor, but by directing episodes in several of the spinoffs.
After Reading Rainbow finished its 23-year-long run in 2006, Burton also created a literary app, which later became known as “Skybrary." It serves as another vehicle for Burton to encourage young people to enrich their imaginations via the written word.
His podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, has become a hit with adults, many of whom grew up with Burton on Reading Rainbow. As of 2021, he also hosts a book club that's open to the public on Fable.
Burton, today, is almost as well known for his guest appearances on a variety of shows as he is for his earlier dramatic roles. Guest-starring on series such as The Big Bang Theory and Community¸Burton continues to establish his credentials as a celebrity whose appeal transcends race, age group, and genre—a rare combination in an age of polarizing politics and popular culture.
Burton is also a fiction author, having penned the novel Aftermath in 1997. His speculative fiction debut seems eerily prescient now, with its discussion of an America divided after the assassination of its first African American president. The novel was reissued in 2021 in both audiobook and ebook form.
Like the works of Octavia Butler written in the 1990s, Burton’s Aftermath now reads as a warning for our present.
But Burton as an actor, director, author, and beloved celebrity also continues to push people to be hopeful, not pessimistic. His work on Reading Rainbow, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in his fiction ultimately gives his fans hope.
Want more LeVar Burton? Download Aftermath today!
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