Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... LeVar Burton
June 24, 2013 4:00 AM
LeVar Burton in TNT's "Perception."
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Editor's note: This version of "Breakfast With ... LeVar Burton has been changed to correct some biographical errors.
His career seemed to be shot out of cannon when the 19-year-old LeVar Burton took on the role of Kunta Kinte in the groundbreaking ABC television mini-series "Roots" in 1977. He went from actor to director and producer. Now 56, he has 12 Emmys for his work on PBS's "Reading Rainbow." He also played Geordi La Forge in the television series "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and its movie incarnations. He is the father of two grown children and can be seen portraying Paul Haley on TNT's "Perception." The season two premiere is at 10 p.m. Tuesday.
So what do you like about your role on "Perception"?
Wow, what's not to like? For the first time in my 36-year career I am doing comedy, you know [laughing]? It's great fun. I love this character. I love that Ken Miller came to me and said, "Would you mind if we named this character in honor of Alex Haley?" I'm thrilled at that and to be working with Eric McCormack. I love him and his work. The vibe on set is fantastic. Everybody is grateful to be working and working at home. A lot of jobs have left Los Angeles, a lot of people have lost homes and businesses. So we are grateful.
You had that breakout role of Kunta Kinte in "Roots." What was it like to have your star rise so quickly at such a young age?
It was challenging. I think fame at any age is challenging. It's a powerful, powerful narcotic. And I survived. I am still here. I feel like I am still vital, and I am still contributing. I want to make a difference with my life. I come from a family where making a difference with one's life is what one is supposed to do.
I've learned a lot in the last 30-some years. I feel like I'm in a very, very good place in my life. I am working for myself with this start-up educational technology company. I feel optimistic about the future. I mean, one of the reasons why the "Star Trek" universe has always been so important to me is that it helps keep me focused on a positive outcome here. You know what I'm saying? There's a paucity of that point of view in the world right now. There is a lot of distopian, dysfunctional zombie apocalypse fantasying going on. I'm tuned to a different reality. I'm choosing a reality where we get our act together, and we start cooperating more than we compete. We pool our resources, and we take care of everybody like we were meant to do.
Do you think the generation coming up behind you is feeling the same way?
I think they are dispirited and disillusioned and they need guidance, and that is just the job for elders in society, to guide those that are coming up, to provide context for who they are and why they are here. That is what we're trying to do.
Speaking of guidance, I read you wanted to be a priest when you were younger and actually studied to do that. What stopped you, disillusioned you?
I don't feel like I was disillusioned in the least. I felt like I was enlightened, and that led me away from the priesthood.
So how were you enlightened?
I was enlightened when it was possible for me to be a person of exemplary character and live a life of a good man without wearing a collar.
How did your mother react to that?
I think with a mixture of sadness and maybe relief. And fear, because I went from the Catholic seminary to wanting to be an actor and moving to Southern California [laughing]. So I think she had some concerns.
How did the family react when you became so famous?
It's been an adjustment for all of us. I think 30-plus years into it, we are pretty groomed with it now. Look, every family has their own challenges and working out their dynamics and communication, and surely one of them blowing up worldwide in the mix is not for the weak. Ha! [laughing]
Did playing a slave in such an intense role alter your perception of society?
No, it didn't change or alter my perception of society. It gave me an opportunity to confirm my experience in this society. I'd been waiting all my life to speak up about what it felt like to be black in America. It was no [expletive] fun when I was growing up.
When did you realize you were being treated differently?
Thank God, my indoctrination started at home. You see what I'm saying? My parents were committed to making sure that I had the knowledge so that it would not come as a surprise to me.
That had to be a strange conversation the first time.
It wasn't just one conversation, darling. It had to be reinforced over and over so they were certain I got it. Then when I got out in the world that truth was certainly reinforced experientially.
Have you found that being known for being smart, talented and successful has insulated you from prejudice?
No, not at all. Not always. My son is 32 and when he was coming up, I instructed him, similar to the way my mother instructed me, about life. I shared with him my own practice when I am pulled over by law enforcement. Notice my word was chosen selectively -- "when." Whenever I am pulled over by law enforcement, not if. As a black man in this culture, it is a given that you will attract more attention from law enforcement than your white friends.
So whenever I am pulled over by law enforcement, I roll down my driver's side window and my passenger side window in the event that two officers are approaching my car. I take my hat and my sunglasses off and I place them on the seat next to me. I stick my hands outside the window and place them on the door of the car in full view because I want those officers who are approaching my car to approach in as relaxed a manner as possible.
And you taught that to your son.
For his own survival. Yes ma'am. That is my duty as his father.
LeVar, do you think things are better since President Obama was elected? Has it changed anything?
One of the things that I've experienced is people think, "OK now, we are in a post-racial America." Get the [expletive] out of here! Post-racial my ass. A black person in the White House does not a post-racial America make. This country was founded on two truths. Number 1: We wanted to get away from the oppression of the monarchy and be free to speak our minds to worship as we wanted, to gather and assemble in public and to bear arms against any outside aggressor. Number 2: We built this nation on the backs of black people.
Those two truths go to the heart of everything that this democracy is about, in its word and its deed. To try and get away from that and say that we're past the reality of that is just inappropriate.
Did your children watch you in "Roots"?
My son has seen it. Michaela, my daughter, is 18 and she has never been able to get past the part where Kunta is a young boy and goes off to manhood training. After that, she knows what's coming next, and she is not interested.
How about "Reading Rainbow" when she was younger?
Oh yeah, for a sweet spot for a minute there she called me Daddy Rainbow. That was pretty nice [laughing]. I miss those days.
Some fans want to know if you were annoyed wearing the glasses in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
It was not a joy, but it did serve a purpose in the storytelling. I was glad when we took it off. I was glad when we had decided it had served its purpose as a storytelling device. It really never told the story of how Geordi saw. It just told the story of the technology of the 24th century. So when we were able to take off the visor I got excited because I had had my eyes covered for seven years.
It's no fun for an actor. I am really proud of how I responded to it. I am most proud of the fact that when people talk about Geordi, they always talk about his accessibility [laughing]. That's a testament, I think. At least I take it as a compliment.
Is the rumor true that you would love to be the host of "Jeopardy"?
Oh, that's true. Alex [Trebek] announced his retirement in two years, a month or so ago. I have been watching "Jeopardy" since I was in the third grade. I watched "Jeopardy" with Art Fleming as master and have watched it almost every night of my life since. I badgered Alex for years to do celebrity "Jeopardy." They always told me they would never compromise the quality of the game for a celebrity contestant panel. One day they did and it turned out to be hugely successful.
I got my shot to go on. Yeah, damnit, I won on "Jeopardy"! I'd been practicing my whole life. So when Alex retires, I want somebody to step into that chair that deserves it. I think I do. I think I have skin in this game.
Do you consider yourself a competitive person?
Yeah, sure. I am. But what I've learned as an elder is how important it is to temper one's competitive nature with the desire to cooperate in the service of getting it done.