LeVar Burton is speaking out about the cultural impact of the Roots miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It aired on ABC across eight consecutive nights, beginning on Jan. 23, 1977.
“I continue to be surprised by the enduring popularity of Roots worldwide,” Burton tells PEOPLE. “I’ve been to places on the globe like Suriname, where Kunta Kinte is a national hero and songs are literally written about him. Kunta Kinte is an international symbol of freedom and resistance, is something that I’m really, really proud of. And that’s something that has certainly grown over time. I don’t think I could be more proud.”
Burton won the role of Kunta Kinte while he was a sophomore at the University of Southern California. He described his first day on set as “more inspiring than it was intimidating.”
“I felt like I knew who this kid was, so intimately well. That’s all I focused on,” he explains. “All I needed to do was play this part. And from the very first moment I read the first set of sides, I knew, I knew who Kunta was, inside and out. And that never wavered for me. Never.”
On his “very first day as a professional actor … my very first scene, Cicely Tyson played my mother. Maya Angelou played my grandmother. I was in the presence of royalty,” he continued.
“They treated me like a peer, a young peer, which was great for me because they all schooled me,” Burton said. “Everything I know about the professional work ethic of an actor, I learned on Roots from Lou Gossett, from Maya Angelou, from Cicely Tyson, from Moses Gunn, from Hari Rhodes, from Ji-Tu Cumbuka. I was the kid. They were the vets, and they took me under their wing.”
Months after the film wrapped Burton said he, “did not want to let the character go. … The experience was so enlivening for me. It’s like I found my place in the world.”
Roots won nine of the 37 Emmys for which it was nominated was watched by more than 255 million households. Years after the mini-series, Burton continued his small-screen success with Reading Rainbow.
“When I was presented a few years later with the idea of using the medium of television to steer children back in the direction of literature and the written word during the summer months, I thought, ‘Yeah, that makes sense to me,’” he explains. “Reading Rainbow was a good idea, a good use of the television airwaves and a perfectly legitimate way for me to tell stories to perhaps the most important audience for all of us.”
Meanwhile, we reported earlier that Burton’s dream job of hosting Jeopardy! was crushed by the game show’s producers but he’s still eyeing a gig in the game show circuit.
As reported by The New York Post, Burton, 64, is teaming up with Entertainment One to create a game show based on Hasbro’s famed Trivial Pursuit. Per the report, Hasbro purchased Entertainment One for $3.8 billion in 2019. Burton will host the series and executive produce along with producers Tara Long and Geno McDermott from eOne and Sangita Patel from LeVar Burton Entertainment.
Long said in a statement, “LeVar Burton has been an iconic member of American pop culture for decades from Roots to Reading Rainbow to Star Trek and beyond. His love for intellectual curiosity paired with his ability to connect with audiences worldwide make him the perfect partner to bring Hasbro’s beloved trivia game to households in a new and exciting way.”
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