In this consumer-based industry, it can be easy to forget the years of hard work that the people in the business put in. Behind every panel, it takes a skilled writer, artist, inker and colorist to make the product complete. Behind each scene goes hours of preparation. Hush Comics’ weekly article “Respect My Craft” will dive into the history of these comic book and pop culture greats that will hopefully give a new perspective on how the men and women behind the pen (or stylus) contribute to the collective awesome-ness of the nerd world, or at least give you a reason to invest in their work.
Name: LeVar Burton
Notable Work: Roots, Reading Rainbow, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and recently raising nearly 3 million dollars to bring back Reading Rainbow in 2 days.
The “Roots” experience was one where I really was schooled on the power of the medium: television. My life was changed in two nights of television. I watched a nation be transformed around the idea of slavery and our relationship to that part of the American story. It was like ‘Wow.’ The opportunity to do “Reading Rainbow,” to do half an hour of television in the summer when kids are spending most of their time in front of the TV and try and steer them back in the direction of literature made all the sense in the world to me. My mother was an English teacher, so it was really a no-brainer. ” -LeVar Burton in an interview with the HeroComplex at the L.A. Times
LeVar Burton has been a household name since the ’70’s. However, depending on your generation, you may know him from something different than your parents. You may know him as Kunta Kinte from Roots, or if you were born in the ’80’s, you may know him as the host of the children’s literacy show Reading Rainbow, or as Geordi La Forge in Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Burton was born on an Army Base in Germany in 1957. His mother, an English teacher, moved to Sacramento when Burton was a child. When he was 13, he decided to join a seminary to become a priest. Yeah, Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge was almost a priest. After some soul-searching and reading different philosophies, Burton decided not to be a priest and enrolled in the Theater Program at University of Southern California. Burton began his acting career when he was a sophomore in college.
Burton auditioned for Roots, his first Hollywood audition, and got the part of Kunta Kinte, a name now synonymous with slavery and race relations in America. Roots was the first mainstream slavery story to be told through the eyes of the enslaved man. Kunta Kinte was a man from Gambia and a slave who never forgot where he came from. Kunta was badly abused. At one point, after trying to escape, part of his right foot was cut off. The visual images that came with Burton’s role as Kunta are still prevalent in American culture today. Roots is highly regarded as a turning point in how black people and white people viewed each other. Burton can be quoted as saying, “Roots wasn’t just art for art’s sake. It was art as a way of moving the culture forward” in an interview last year with Vulture. Burton’s portrayal of Kunta in Roots earned him an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in 1977.
His groundbreaking role garnered a lot of attention. Burton hosted the last season of the children’s show Rebop. He starred in the TV movie One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story as Ron LeFlore, the baseball player who was recruited to the MLB out of prison. Burton was in a myriad of other movies and had a guest spot on Fantasy Island once. Then, in 1983, LeVar Burton became of the host of Reading Rainbow on PBS. It was from that moment on that children across America learned to read. Ok, ok, I am exaggerating. I really hope (and on some level, I know) kids could read before Reading Rainbow was on the air. The show took kids on “field trips” to different places in America and then an awesome celebrity guest would read a book to us as the pages were shown on screen. Then kids would recommend books they liked. I can honestly say that Reading Rainbow was one of my favorite shows growing up. I was, and still am, a bookworm, and I truly believe Reading Rainbow and LeVar Burton were major catalysts in my love of reading (my grandmother and father were huge roles, too, just in case they read this). Reading Rainbow‘s original run was from 1983 to 2006. Now, LeVar is bringing Reading Rainbow online to the kids of the digital age. He famously launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising over 1 million dollars in 11 hours. In the last day, the campaign’s goal has expanded to 5 million dollars. The plan for Reading Rainbow is to not only be a full-fledged website, set up similarly to the television show, but a tool for teachers, particularly in underfunded schools, and to provide it all for free. If you would like to contribute to the cause for literacy, click HERE.
In 1986, Burton was cast as Geordi La Forge, a blind pilot, in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Burton grew up watching Star Trek, so working on the show was a dream come true. Geordi was a character who inspired many fans. Because of his “disability”, he wore a VISOR, which gave him the ability to see things even the human eye couldn’t. That prop wasn’t the best thing though, according to Burton. He has stated it obscured 80 percent or more of his vision while filming, causing him to trip or lose balance often. He also felt that without the audience being able to see his eyes, a large part of his acting skill was limited. He has also stated that he hopes that the technology of the future would be more advanced than the VISOR for blind people to be able to see. Since the series ended, Burton has been fairly vocal about the lack of a love life La Forge had. He has noted that Star Trek is generally better than to stereotype people, but that La Forge was stereotyped because he was a nerd and a black man. He says that everyone has a sexual identity, but that was denied to his character, something he would have changed. Burton was eventually able to direct an episode of TNG, and continued to do so, even beyond the TNG franchise and on to Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. To date, Burton has directed the most Star Trek episodes than any other actor from the show. His career as Geordi La Forge lasted 7 television seasons and continued in 4 Star Trek movies. You may wonder if Geordi La Forge inspired me, the way Reading Rainbow did. I do admit to being a Trekkie when I was a kid. I had a Geordi action figure and often walked around my house with a headband over my eyes. I was an odd child, but it has made me a pretty cool adult, and I’d like to think Burton and Star Trek had something to do with it.
Most recently, Burton has been a staple, whether on screen or not, in Community. Burton was Troy’s idol and caused him to go catatonic at one point because of his presence. LeVar Burton also happened to be the man who took Troy away from the study group and on Pierce’s boat the “Childish Tycoon.” However, the boat was then taken by pirates, so who knows what happened to LeVar and Troy? He has also appeared in The Big Bang Theory as himself. Burton is the voice of Doc Greene in the Hub Network series Transformers: Rescue Bots. He has said he believes it was one of the few children’s shows that portrays pro-social behavior. Burton believes all television is educational, but wonders what we are trying to teach our children. Currently, Burton is a regular on TNT’s Perception as Paul Haley, anthropologist best friend to Eric McCormack’s character who is a paranoid schizophrenic who helps the FBI investigate difficult cases. In addition to all his acting endeavors, Burton has been working as the “Curator In-Chief” for the Reading Rainbow website and campaign with business parter Mark Wolfe and revolutionizing how kids learn to love reading. I’d say, LeVar Burton is a pretty big deal. Live long and prosper, folks.
After you donate to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter, go ahead and listen to this while you think about tiny children reading all thanks to LeVar Burton.
Join us tomorrow as we continue our countdown to Denver Comic Con as we spotlight author Kevin J. Anderson!
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