LeVar Burton: An Icon Seeks A New Iconic Role
LeVar & Monique

LeVar Burton: An Icon Seeks A New Iconic Role

LeVar & Monique

When I first asked LeVar Burton to do an interview with me to talk about him wanting to be the next host of “Jeopardy,” it was in one of those, “Why not? You never know,” sort of ways. It started with a tweet, then an open letter. Not only did he say yes, he offered to meet me in person. As I told LeVar that afternoon, I couldn’t have been more excited to meet him if he were Big Bird himself.

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Serial Optimist: First of all, this is amazing. Thank you.

LeVar Burton: Well, I really wanted to acknowledge you for putting it out there, for going after what you wanted. There was just something about… I don’t know. There was just a really good vibe coming off your tweet, so I decided to say yes.

You know what, I genuinely believe in life that sometimes you just have to show up. Not knowing what the outcome is is essential. Showing up in life is mandatory, it’s not optional. Sometimes you just have to say yes.

SO NOTE: Yes, he’s already awesome. Are you surprised? We chatted in the lobby of his Chicago hotel, conversation flowing easily as we joked around and laughed together. Not only is he an interesting man with an impressive resume, you can really tell how much he enjoys teaching. What I expected to be a cool interview became a storytelling event for an audience of one, all done with a nice balance between confident badass and humble, down to earth gentleman.

SO: Well thank you. I want to get to Jeopardy, but first I have some questions.

I find that people who inspire me are those who create their own paths and who really put themselves out there. Wikipedia for example talks about how when you auditioned for “Roots” it was your first professional audition.

LeVar: It was. They got that right.

SO: That was LITERALLY the first thing you ever auditioned for?! No commercials? No, anything else?

LeVar: No, no nothing. It was my first professional audition. You have to understand that I was studying theater at USC. I hadn’t really given television and movies a second thought. I really hadn’t. So it did come out of left field.

SO: How did the audition even come to you?

LeVar: They had completely exhausted all the normal/traditional means of finding talents, which is to say they had looked at everyone in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago… every young black kid who had an agent, who had a connection through the business, through those channels. They just hadn’t found who they were looking for, for Kunta. So they cast their net wider. They called the drama departments at USC, UCLA and Cal-Arts and I was in the right place at the right time.

SO: Were you nervous or were you too dumb to know?

LeVar: I was too dumb to know. I was blissfully unaware, but I wasn’t alone. It’s not like ABC; the network that broadcast “Roots” knew that it was going to be this blockbuster. They KNEW it was quality, but they didn’t know how it was going to play in Peoria, as they say. As Stan Margulies, the Producer of “Roots” used to say, “in a country where 80 of the population is white and 20 is black, how is America going to respond to multiple hours of storytelling, where the whites are the villains and the blacks are the heroes?”

SO: Right, it was brand new.

LeVar: Nobody had ever tried it before. So, they figured if we put it on in 8 consecutive nights, if it tanks, it’ll be over, right? Final episodes of “Roots” is still number 3 on the list of most watched episodes of television in the history of the media. So, I was not alone, in my naïveté. I say, I didn’t know what a miniseries was, but then again, most of America didn’t. It was a new form of storytelling on TV.

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SO: What was the learning curve from studying theater to… well, television acting is very different.

LeVar: David Greene, the man who directed the first three hours of “Roots”, use to tell a great story. He said when I came to read for him for the first time, he was ready to throw me out of the office. I had no concept of television versus stage acting, so I was PROJECTING. And he was like “Woah, woah, woah! Kid, let’s bring it down.” And he took the time to explain to me the difference and he said “acting is very intimate” and he said in the adjustment I’d made, he knew he’d found what he was looking for.

SO: So from there you decided to go on and just do a bunch of iconic roles that everybody will know you for… You know, like you do.

LeVar: Well, we’re making it up as we go along.

SO NOTE: LeVar humbly laughs, which I can’t help but be distracted by. His voice, even his laugh is so familiar to me that I am immediately taken back to my days as a kid in front of the TV learning about a new book.

SO: This all started because of social media, so I asked people on Twitter and Facebook what they’d ask you if they could.

LeVar: Great! Ooh yeah, let’s do that!

SO: So my Aunt Rhonda..

LeVar: Hi, Aunt Rhonda!

SO:… wants to know “what was your first job?”

LeVar: Wow, good question Aunt Rhonda. My first job was… well it wasn’t really a job. I was trying to sell newspaper subscriptions. I was part of a crew of young… kind of like Oliver Twist, a crew of ragamuffins, and we would get in a van at 7:30 in the morning this guy would come pick us up and take us out to the hinterlands. I grew up like 10, 20, 30 miles away from Sacramento in these rural areas where we’d walk up and down the street and sell subscription to local Sacramento papers. I lasted about a week. When my mother recognized that she was giving more in lunch money everyday than I was making in a week. That was when that job terminated.

SO: Did you always know you wanted to be an actor, even then?

LeVar: No. I was studying for the Catholic priesthood.

SO:That’s right. Was it acting or a girl that made you leave the priesthood?

LeVar: Umm… it was Catholicism (he shyly laughs with a bit of guilt) No; I’m not laying blame on the Catholic Church. Let me make that really abundantly clear.

SO: Nope, too late. I’m live tweeting that you hate all Catholics.

LeVar: That’s all I need, the Catholic League on my ass. What I mean to say is that my desire to experience the world extended beyond what I was beginning to understand was a very particular point of view that the Catholics have about the universe and everything therein. I had genuinely wanted to be a priest. That’s all I focused on from the time I was 8 or 9 years old. When I decided to not become a priest, I was like, “Well what AM I going to do? What am I good at?” St. Pius had a very strong drama program and it just kind of sucked me in. Also, I grew up in Sacramento where political consciousness was a way of life and at that time, Ronald Reagan was governor of California. I thought really seriously, the best way to get into politics is to be an actor and to use some of those skills.

SO NOTE: Which is exactly what LeVar has done. In September of 2012, he became a member of the AIDS Research Alliance Board of Directors and a part of the NOH8 Campaign, which raises awareness and funds for gay rights causes.

He’s also spent much of his career speaking on the importance of education and literacy. During the 2012 Presidential campaign, LeVar became very outspoken when Mitt Romney promised to defund PBS, saying he was “outraged”. In an interview on CNN he said, “I couldn’t believe that the man actually fixed his mouth to say that. I interpreted it as an attack on children…” (Full interview here)

Of course, his love of literacy shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. One would hope this is the view of the host of the groundbreaking Peabody and Emmy Award winning television show based around books. In June 2013, he even re-launched “Reading Rainbow” as an iPad App (rrkidz.com). According to Wikipedia, it became the #1 Educational App within 36 hours.

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LeVar Burton & 7-year-old Shane Ammon explore the  Reading Rainbow adventure app

LeVar Burton & 7-year-old Shane Ammon explore the Reading Rainbow adventure app

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SO: Ok, so “Reading Rainbow” is what I’m the most geeked out about. Who came up with the phrase, “But you don’t have to take my word for it?”

LeVar: I guess that was in the original script, because it was one of those lines that appeared in every episode and it became like… a catch phrase.

SO: Take us through the process of what it was like to pick the books and review them.

LeVar: That was a wonderful process. We had wonderful producers on “Reading Rainbow”, all of them women, interestingly enough. In terms of the book selection process, it was always important for us to look for, number 1 – good literature, number 2 – literature of the right variety that lent itself to this visual medium of television. Where we could take the art and move the camera over it and create motion to an otherwise static image. It was the story telling. Then there was a celebrity that did the voice over for the book. That really told the story in a really, beautiful way, really fleshed out. That’s part of the beauty of actors is that…

SO: They make it come to life!

LeVar: They make it come to life. Exactly. And then there was always the sweeping music and sound effects and the idea of giving a piece of literature, another life in this visual medium. I mean, books are incredibly visual, but actually communicating the energy of books with a camera was a really beautiful process. And so the books had to lend themselves to that sort of treatment.

We always looked for diversity, women in non-traditional roles, ethnic diversity. We were always looking for ways to expand the ideas… not expand, but really reflect the way life really was. See I grew up in an era where television did not reflect life the way it was. Television was very segregated when I was growing up. To have the opportunity to be the host of “Reading Rainbow” and for us to not discuss color at all, in terms of my being the host, but to be able to tell stories that dealt with slavery or war… or the 9-11 tragedy… Overtime we really became one of those voices from PBS, like Fred (Rogers) that addressed the real world with kids. That’s what Fred was so brilliant at and that’s what I tried to emulate in terms of really being authentic with kids. We were always out in the world showing you that the book is the jumping off point. Now go out there and drink in life.

SO: And by not commenting on everything like, “Hey, I’m a black guy doing this.” I think it’s so much more powerful, because it becomes normal.

LeVar: For the first time, a generation of children in America was able to grow up in an environment where they did not think race first. That’s the first time that happened. These kids, this generation of “Reading Rainbow” watchers and certainly the second generation of “Reading Rainbow” watchers, they don’t see race at all.

SO: Does it feel like a privilege to be in that place? Is it something you purposely did or did you just luck into it?

LeVar: Purposely? I’m not Harrison Ford. I don’t get to pick what I do. I’m just a guy whose made good with the opportunities that have come my way.

SO: Continuing on with Twitter questions, Andy Boyle (@andymboyle) asks…

LeVar: Hi Andy!

SO:  “What is your favorite book? A rainbow doesn’t have to be involved.”

LeVar: Of all time?!… Umm… I try to follow… follow…that’s an unfair question.

SO: It is a little tough.

LeVar: My favorite book of ALL time…

SO: We’re going to judge you really hard, too, if you pick something stupid.

LeVar: Wow, right? I like to say that the book I’m reading at any given time is my favorite book. These days, because I travel with an iPad, I’ve got a library of books.

SO: What are you reading now?

LeVar: I’m always reading some science fiction. There’s a guy name Gardner Dozois who does a yearly compendium of the best short stories in science fiction, so that’s great bedtime reading, because you can digest a story, you can get through a story before I fall asleep. I’m reading the new Joyce Carol Oates called The Accused, which is INTENSE and wonderful.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation

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SO:Were you much of a Sci-fi guy before “Star Trek?”

LeVar: Yes, oh yes. Watched the original series, devoutly. My whole family did. It was one of those few representations of, the future, certainly where diversity was present. It was one of the few television shows where black people were represented at all in a television landscape. So, I was already a science fiction fan and Gene (Roddenberry) helped solidify my love of the science fiction genre. It doesn’t get better than that vision for the future. I mean. It. Doesn’t. Get. Any. Better. It’s still the platinum standard for how we should be evolving. It was because it was on TV that I had access to it that drove me to the huge body of literature.

SO NOTE: In 1986, LeVar scored the role of a Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Born blind, La Forge is best known for his visor, which granted him not only sight, but allowed him to see energies at an infrared level and human vital signs. It’s been well documented how uncomfortable the visor was, but given his love of Star Trek, I doubt he minded it too much.

SO: Was that a hard gig to book? How did it come to you?

LeVar: In the “everything happens for a reason” category, years before they started   casting for “Next Gen”, I’d done a very bad TV movie. It was not good, but the producer of the movie was a man named Robert H. Justman. Having been a fan of the original, I knew that Bob was an associate producer on Star Trek. I would pump him EVERYDAY, “Tell me, just tell me! What was it like?” When he was working with Gene Roddenberry on Next Gen, he remembered my passion for Star Trek.

SO: Andy also asks, “If you could pick one technology from the enterprise and make it real, what would it be? You can’t say the transporter room.”

LeVar: (Without hesitation) Holodeck. Done and done. Done. Holodeck.

SO:Ok, here’s a question from my friends at “Improvised Star Trek”, which is an improv show here in Chicago and a hilarious podcast.

(Keep an eye out for the upcoming “Improvised Star Trek” interview on Serial Optimist and special episode with me as their guest later this summer!)

SO: “ Which of these people are the worst?

1. People who prefer the movie to the book.

2. People who brainwash you to spy for Romulans.

3. People who won’t answer in the form of a question.”

LeVar: Definitely people who won’t answer in the form of a question. It annoys me (laughing). Well, I mean, if we were on Jeopardy it would. Not ok. If you’re on Jeopardy, you better be answering in the form of a question.

SO: You were on Jeopardy.

LeVar: I won on Jeopardy!

SO: That’s what I read. You had to lobby to get on Jeopardy, right?

LeVar: I lobbied Alex to do a celebrity version of Jeopardy.

SO: They hadn’t had a celebrity version before?

LeVar: Well, no. I mean, I started bugging Alex like 25 years ago. Maybe more.

SO: Were you already friends with him?

LeVar: I’m not “friends” with him. I would just see him, you know. Around. You know how everybody in Hollywood knows each other.

SO: Joe Collier (@mcquake01) asks, “How was being a Jeopardy contestant different than being an actor in front of the camera? Were you nervous?”

LeVar: I was petrified. Petrified! Actually, the fear of embarrassing yourself on national television was so prevalent.

SO: Were you and the other contestants trying to psyche each other out or was everyone just cool trying to do their best?

LeVar: In America, in a culture where everything is competitive, it’s game on.

I mean, I started watching Jeopardy in the 3rd grade. Art Fleming, the very first quizmaster of Jeopardy, was an icon in my world.  So, all through my daughter’s childhood, part of our nightly ritual is 7pm Jeopardy, 7:30pm, Wheel of Fortune.

SO NOTE: LeVar speaks of his daughter with the pride of loving father, recalling memories such as her finally being able to kick his ass in Tomb Raider and how like any father, he drives her crazy.

SO:  What’s the dorkiest dad thing you do that drives her crazy?

LeVar: Breathe. Everything I do annoys her. Everything I do! EVERYTHING.

SO NOTE: And again we’re back to the humble, everyday man. Married for over 20 years, perhaps it’s this strong family root that’s helped keep his down to earth sensibility. Plus, get ready to swoon, ladies… 

SO:Your wife, Stephanie is a makeup artist. Is that how you met her?

LeVar:  Mmm hmm.

SO: On “Reading Rainbow”?

LeVar: Nope, on “Roots the Gift” a TV movie that Louis Gossett and I did reprising the roles of Kunta and Fiddler.

SO: And what’s your wife like? Is she funny?

LeVar: She’s hysterical. She’s got a wicked sense of humor, also, very morbid. Stephanie is a goddess. Fiercely intelligent, stunning to look at. INTENSE in her energy. She’s a goddess. I married a goddess.

SO: So are you a romantic guy?  

LeVar: You know what… we’re empty nesters, so we are in the process of rediscovering who we are to one another. I’m really trying to remember the romance. It’s an opportunity to really start courting my wife again and in an effort to really connect on a level we haven’t been able to in a long, long time, just through the nature of life and raising a child. Raising a child in this modern era isn’t easy. Everybody struggles with parenting these days, everybody. It requires a lot of focus if you’re going to do it right.

SO: Somehow you have to find that right balance, it seems.

LeVar: Actors and gypsies, we go where the work is, right? As an actor and then as a director it was no different. I had to be away from home at certain times. I tried not to be gone for anything really important. There were and have been times that I had to miss something and I can never get that back.

SO: But she seems pretty ok with it?

LeVar: She’s balanced. I don’t think she has any lasting scars… maybe…

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LeVar Burton on Celebrity Jeopardy

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SO: What do you think people recognize you from the most?

LeVar: Depends on their age. That gentleman over there in the Hound’s-tooth sports coat would recognize me from “Roots” more immediately than anything else. Those two over there, “Star Trek”. Katie the waitress, “Reading Rainbow”.

SO NOTE: He looks around the lobby, pointing out how people would recognize him. It’s not done in a braggadocious way, but with a confidence of someone who’s just speaking the truth. No matter the age, ethnicity or demographic of the room, chances are they will recognize him from at least one of his iconic roles. To pretend to be anyone but who he is would be disingenuous, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about LeVar Burton it’s that he’s genuine. I also learned that he like slider hamburgers and garlic fries, and according to his assistant, just about any food you put in front of him.

SO: See, everybody loves you. Again, that’s why I think you should be the host of Jeopardy. I really do!

LeVar: I think I should be too! I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

SO: So, I have a quote from Ken Jennings

LeVar: Jeopardy champion.

SO: … because I emailed him.

LeVar: You did? And he emailed you back?!

SO: I did.

LeVar: I love that!

SO: Well, your saying “yes” to me was motivating. It got me thinking, “What else can I do?” so I thought I’d give it a shot. Ken is also big on Twitter and is very funny. (Look for his interview with Serial Optimist later this summer as well.)

From Ken: “I’ve spent more time on the Jeopardy set than any non-Canadian human being living. What if Trebek, in one final eccentric act, decides to anoint ME as his successor? That’s my secret fantasy. LeVar, I don’t come to where you work and try to re-calibrate the warp plasma coils, do I?”

LeVar: (laughing) No, no Ken and God bless you for that, because safety first. I understand his point of view. If I were Ken Jennings, I would feel the same way.

SO: While I couldn’t get an actual straight answer out of Ken, he does seem to at least be a good enough sport for me to give you a hard time. He also wanted me to give you a hard time, because on Twitter, you spelled it “Jeapordy”.

LeVar: Yes. Busted. I cop to it. I have a penchant for getting into bed at the end of my day and tweeting. And you know what, in my own defense it went out and then I was like, “Gasp, No, no, no! What?!” And then there was an immediate avalanche, a flood of “What an asshole. Nobody’s going to hire you if you can’t spell it right?”

SO: Well, luckily you won’t have to spell on the show. Ok, so tell us why you think you should be the next Jeopardy host.

LeVar: I feel like I’ve been preparing for this job since I was in the 3rd grade. Jeopardy has been a HUGE part of my life. Like I said, Art Fleming and Alex Trebek, they are icons in America as quizmasters. Jeopardy IS the holy grail of quiz shows and has been for many… what 40 years, 45 (it first aired in 1964 – 49 years) something like that… Crazy! I believe the next host of Jeopardy should have a legacy to Jeopardy. I feel like, check that one off. I feel like the next host of Jeopardy should have some legitimacy in the education field, or at least the enrichment field. Check. I know I can do the job.

SO: Also, we don’t have a lot of “professional game show hosts.” It’s evolved.

LeVar: It has. I think the game show has evolved. I just think, as evidence of the changing nature of the set, and I don’t mean to pour gas on this fire, but quite frankly, I believe part of the reason Alex shaved the mustache is to appeal to a younger demographic. I think I connect with younger audiences.

SO: But an older audience still trusts you.

LeVar: I think I have the ability to speak to audiences both old and young and I think that’s reflective in my career.

SO:  Have you spoken to the people at Jeopardy?

LeVar: I have not personally, but my manager has… They know. They are acutely aware. I believe they are also aware of the petition.

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SO NOTE: That’s right, there’s a petition on The Petition Site. Sign it here – LeVar Burton Should Be The Next Host Of Jeopardy.

After kindly taking 40 minutes out of his day to talk with me, it was time to wrap up. LeVar had a plane to catch, where he’d enjoy the Garrett’s Popcorn he won in my homemade special “LeVar Burton” version of Jeopardy. He tweeted to me later to confirm that the delicious popcorn was indeed changing his life, as I’d predicted.

Charming, smart and captivating, he has all the makings of a great game show host. If you’re a true Jeopardy fan, you have to at least respect his legacy and appreciate his love of learning. If you’re more of a casual fan of the show, wouldn’t you be more likely to watch it if a cool guy like that was hosting? And no offense to Alex, but LeVar’s got him beat in the looks category… though I do like the no mustache look. It’s a little weird, like the first time you see an uncle without facial hair, but I’m getting use to it.

From “Roots”, to “Reading Rainbow”, to “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, LeVar Burton has taken things as they come to him, creating a legacy and a special place in the hearts of Americans, from one iconic role to the next. What’s more of a natural progression than to continue to be iconic by hosting “Jeopardy”? He’d be great at it! But, you don’t have to take my word for it…

Misspellings or not, LeVar loves Twitter. Follow him @levarburton. Also, check out rrkidz.com for games and reading adventures for kids and don’t forget to sign that petition, or email your Congressman or The President. Do whatever you need to do in order to get the word out that we want LeVar Burton to be the next host of “Jeopardy!”

 

Monique Madrid

Monique Madrid

West Coast Editor at Serial Optimist
Monique Madrid is a Los Angeles via Chicago comedian, writer and actor. Check out more about her and where you can catch her performing on moniquemadrid.com. Also follow her on Twitter @moniquemadrid.
Monique Madrid
Monique Madrid

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