LeVar Burton on 'Roots' Remake: America Needs It Now "More Than Ever"

The star of the original 1977 blockbuster miniseries recalls author Alex Haley's mentorship and watching the first episode alone in his apartment at USC.

“I know America really needs Roots now, almost more than ever,” says LeVar Burton.

The star of the original blockbuster 1977 miniseries, Burton is an executive producer of the A+E Networks reboot, which premieres Monday, Memorial Day, across the portfolio’s flagship channels History, A&E and Lifetime. And while he was initially skeptical that a remake should be attempted in today’s fractured media environment, he is hopeful that the new Roots can further elevate the racial discourse in the Black Lives Matter era. 

“I believe that we set a foundation 40 years ago and that there was an awful lot of enlightenment that went on with that first telling of the story,” says Burton. “And I am very hopeful that we can once again initiate a conversation, a much-needed conversation.”

Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 best-seller, the original Roots had a profound effect on the culture, illuminating America’s shameful history of slavery, which tended to be underplayed in textbooks at the time. Burton was an 18-year-old drama student at the University of Southern California when he landed the role of Kunta Kinte, the African warrior kidnapped in Gambia and sold into slavery in America. It was his first professional audition. And Haley, who died in 1992, would become an important mentor. (During filming, Haley sent Burton’s mother a plane ticket to come to Atlanta, where Roots was shooting.) 

Still, Burton was unprepared for the impact the role would have. He recalls first seeing episode one of Roots at a screening at the Gambian Embassy in Washington, D.C., a few days before it bowed on ABC. Then he flew back to Los Angeles and watched the TV premiere alone in his apartment at USC. The next day, he drove to Sacramento to watch episode two at home with his parents.

“The morning after night two, I went into the grocery store and saw myself on the cover of TV Guide,” he recalls.

As much as Roots altered the trajectory of Burton’s career, its impact on him personally has been far more profound.

“Kunta was like an alter ego for me and has been the whole of my life,” he says. “I learned at the age of 18 that television could do more than entertain, it could enlighten, it could educate. For me, Roots has always been an uplifting story because it's not about enslavement, it’s about survival. And the redemption is in the survival. Playing this role is a rite of passage; an initiation ritual. And I wasn't the same at the end of the process as I was at the beginning.”