Happy birthday to actor, director, producer, and author, LeVar Burton who turns 60 today. Burton doesn’t look a day over 30, though, because black don’t crack. I’m just saying the man looks good. LeVar Burton might not be a household name to many people, but the actor played three iconic roles over the past 40 years. These roles have shaped generations of people, including me! In celebration of LeVar Burton we look at these three roles and the impact they left.
There’s a theme of teaching, togetherness, and sharing that runs through so much of what LeVar Burton does.
Most actors never hear their name when it comes to Emmy nominations, but LeVar Burton began his career with one. Burton’s first ever professional audition was for a role in the slavery-era ABC miniseries Roots. In Roots, Burton played Kunta Kinte, a young African who is stolen by slavers and taken to America. Burton plays Kinte during the slave’s teenage years which is essentially a hellish nightmare.
Roots aired for eight nights on ABC back in 1977. The mini-series put slavery and the struggle of African-Americans on television like never before, becoming one of the most-watched TV events of the decade. The Emmy’s nominated Burton for best actor in a mini-series, and the young actor’s career was off to a fast start.
Now free from fictional slavery, Burton spent the next few years making appearances on TV shows and in films. In 1983, Burton became producer and host of Reading Rainbow. The show dedicated to reading featured a book every episode and told stories in a variety of ways including skits and animation. Many celebrity legends like Patrick Stewart, Matthew Broderick, and Helen Mirren lent their talents to Reading Rainbow.
In 2006, after 23 seasons and 155 episodes, PBS canceled Reading Rainbow. I consider this a national travesty since this show did more for reading than most schools. For many kids, Burton’s bright, smiling face is permanently etched as the face of Reading Rainbow which introduced new worlds every week. Since its cancellation, Burton and his company RRKIDS launched a successful Kickstarter campaign and Reading Rainbow is now a app across multiple platforms providing free reading materials for children.
Joining the voyage of humanity through space, Burton took on the role of Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG). As the blind chief engineer of the Enterprise, Burton’s LaForge tackled issues of people with disabilities and fell short in love repeatedly (what’s up with that ST:TNG writers?) LaForge’s quiet contribution to ST:TNG was as the human counterpart to Data. In many ways, Geordi was the human Data would likely become, except for some reason Data was luckier with the ladies — what is up with that ST:TNG writers?!
Burton’s LaForge so beautifully presented the human reality to Data’s android fantasy of humanity. LaForge often answered Data’s questions about being human, and the engineer’s responses were much like our own. Some responses were simple matters of decency and common sense, while others were difficult for any of us to answer and Data was left to learn the answer for himself.
There’s a theme of teaching, togetherness, and sharing that runs through so much of what LeVar Burton does. As Kunta Kinte he shared the pain of his ancestors. As host of reading rainbow he shared knowledge and taught us to explore the world within our minds through reading. Geordi LaForge literally kept the ship together and served as the balanced center of a world of cosmic extremes. Throughout his career Burton directed some of the finest episodes of ST:TNG, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. In all of them, these same qualities permeate the scenes and story. So, on this day of his birth, Monkeys Fighting Robots would like to thank LeVar Burton for sharing his talents with the rest of the world.