The Great Big Beautiful Podcast, Episode 67: LeVar Burton
This week, we welcome a legend to the show. LeVar Burton has had a career that almost doesn’t seem possible. He’s been part of – in fact at the core of – a hat trick that continues to be unbelievably influential. Most actors would be thrilled to have had a fraction of his success.
His career spans theater, film, and television, but above all there are three properties that define who he is and what he’s give to all of us: Roots, Reading Rainbow, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The influence of these three shows hasn’t been limited to popular culture. Indeed, they’ve had a profound and lasting effect on American culture and society in general. And Burton has been central to all of them. Not many actors can make such a claim.
Burton began his career as Kunta Kinte in 1977’s groundbreaking miniseries Roots. It’s difficult to name another show that has had such an immediate and long-lasting effect on both the medium of television and how slavery in North America is presented in popular culture. This weekend, The History Channel presents a brand-new Roots that looks incredibly promising. And it apparently comes with Levar Burton’s seal of approval, which – frankly – is good enough for me.
If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, though, Reading Rainbow was very likely a staple of your childhood. The show singlehandedly has done more for childhood literacy than any other show on television, Sesame Street included. It was on PBS for 21 years and earned hundreds of awards, including 26 Emmy Awards. In 2014, after buying the rights to the brand, Burton launched one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history – raising north of $6.5 million. Today, Reading Rainbow lives again in the form of a mobile app and the Skybrary digital library.
And, oh yeah, he was also Chief Engineer Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge on seven seasons (and four films) of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In addition to all of this, he’s also a director (he directed episodes of TNG, Deep Space 9, Voyager, and Enterprise), voice actor, author, producer, and activist.
We cover a lot of ground in this episode, but – much to my chagrin – we didn’t get a chance to talk about Captain Planet and the Planeteers or Transformers: Rescue Bots. My takeaway from this episode is that LeVar Burton is the most passionate, incredible, and thoughtful person I’ve ever met. We had an amazing conversation, and it was an absolute privilege to chat with him. I hope you enjoy it.