‘Star Trek: TNG’: LeVar Burton engineers new career chapters

Feb. 27, 2012 | 8:24 a.m.

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

Television fans have watched LeVar Burton for 35 years now, but when they walk up to the actor he’s never quite sure which of his three signature personas they will mention. For many, he will always be the face of the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries “Roots,” but more recent generations know him as the ever-affable host of “Reading Rainbow,” which opened up the world of books to young PBS viewers for 22 years and 150 episodes. And, of course, to millions of Starfleet fans he’s the chief engineer of a starship called Enterprise. Burton portrayed the resourceful Geordi La Forge for seven seasons of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and in the crew’s four feature films. These days, Burton is working full-time to relaunch an online revival of “Reading Rainbow,” which went off the air in 2009. He’s also lending his voice to the new animated series “Transformers: Rescue Bots,” which premiered Feb. 18 on The Hub. He also occasionally pops up as himself in places like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Community,” and he’s got a powerful Twitter presence. He recently spoke with Hero Complex contributor Patrick Kevin Day about all these aspects of his long career.

Levar Burton (Hasbro Studios)

PKD: Do you still attend “Star Trek” conventions?

LB: I do. This year is our 25th anniversary of “Next Gen,” so there are a few beginning in April where we will all be together on stage at the same time. We’ve kind of arrived at a place where we don’t enjoy it unless at least one other of our cast is there because then we have an opportunity hang out. Our cast is very close and so it’s fun for us to go and be able to hang out , sit next to each other during the day and sign,  and have dinner. I’m looking forward to all of us being together again. We try and do a Christmas party every year. It rotates, but Patrick [Stewart] lives in England now. It’s been over a year since we were all in the same room at the same time. The thing about the dynamic among us is that we make each other laugh more than I think anyone else in our lives makes us laugh. So when we’re together it’s just really fun.

PKD: Who do you see the most?

LeVar Burton as Geordi La Forge (Paramount)

LB: Brent [Spiner] and Marina [Sirtis]. Jonathan travels a lot directing. Patrick infrequently. I go over there or he comes over here. Gates [McFadden] is busy with her theater. Michael Dorn is out spending his money.

PKD: Is there some kind of email loop for “Star Trek” cast members?

LB: It’s not that formal. You’re right — there are a lot of us. You gravitate toward the ones you feel like you have something in common with. I love Bill [Shatner]. I know Bill. I’ve hung with Bill. I don’t really have a relationship with anyone else in his cast.  I revere Leonard Nimoy because he made that incredibly difficult transition from actor to director successfully. That’s not easy to do. Plus, he’s Spock and I’m a huge “Star Trek” fan. With the “Deep Space Nine” cast, I don’t see Sid [Alexander Siddig] or Nana [Visitor] a lot. But I see Avery [Brooks] and Rene [Auberjonois], who I love. Colm [Meaney], I love. “Voyager,” I don’t see the “Voyager” cast all that often.

PKD: I read you directed more “Star Trek” episodes than any other cast member.

LB: I’ve read that too. Jonathan was the first of us to direct. That was the birth of Star Trek University. ["Trek" Producer] Rick Berman was really generous in terms of allowing an actor to make that transition if he or she demonstrated the commitment to it. Before you got your name assigned to a slot you really had to put in the time. Six or more months of intensive study. You had to go to school. He would say, “Go to school,” which meant coming in on your days off, after work. You had to go sit in the editing room, go to spotting sessions, scoring sessions. You really had to immerse yourself in the process. It was so great to be able to have access to the pre- and post-production process and learn it from the inside out and being given an opportunity to direct with a net of family underneath you for your first episode. Whether you got a second episode depended on how you did with your first. I was on fire about directing. It just worked out. We finished our series and I was available. I wasn’t interested in acting at all. I had reached saturation point and really wanted to immerse myself in another occupation and directing presented itself. I became very involved in the DGA and was on the board.

PKD: There’s been no “Star Trek” on TV for awhile now. Do you see a difference in how the fans interact with the franchise?

LB: There was a lot left on the table with the “Next Generation” cast when we stopped doing movies and that’s become more and more prevalent in the communication from the fans. Paramount had run the “Star Trek” universe into the ground and caused “Star Trek” to not be special anymore and that was a real dangerous time for the franchise. So it’s been good that there hasn’t been any “Trek.” Like everybody else I was a fan of the reboot that J.J. Abrams did. The only thing wrong with it is that it sort of ignores our timeline. I think that we added a lot to the “Star Trek” canon. The fans really want to see us do something. For our cast, because we came after the revered, beloved iconic original series and earned our way into people’s hearts and we did our own part in terms of expanding the fan base of “Star Trek” we feel very good about our contribution. I don’t know how the other casts feel. But I know that we’re really, really proud of what we were able to accomplish.

Mae Jemison and LeVar Burton in an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (Robbie Robinson / Paramount Pictures)

PKD: It seems like the original series and “Next Generation” had a cast camaraderie that the other series weren’t able to replicate.

LB: You didn’t tune in for the people. You tuned in for the stories and the storytelling. But on the original series and “Next Generation,” you tuned in for the storytelling and you tuned in because you really cared about the characters.

PKD: It seems like Geordi always got shot down by women. Constantly. Did you ever bring that up to the showrunners?

LB: Mm-hmm. It was frustrating to me. I mean from a writer’s perspective, I get that it was the idea that the nerd or the geek is inept around the feminine form. But I was never comfortable with it. And I also thought there were some other things going on. Sociological things. Everybody had a sexual identity, even Data the robot. But Geordi didn’t. The Klingon did. But the black man didn’t. You’d have to be a black man to have the perspective, because you see that pattern repeated throughout popular culture, so it becomes a familiar pattern that you notice readily.

PKD: It’s surprising those patterns continue to this day.

LB: I’m never surprised anymore. But in dealing with it, I was surprised where “Star Trek” was concerned, I will say that. Because it was such an important part of creating such a sense of hopefulness and belonging because of Gene’s [Roddenberry] vision. To watch them fall into that trap was a bit disappointing because “Star Trek” was about all of these high ideals and the execution through humanity of these very high principles.

LeVar Burton and Patrick Stewart in the movie "Star Trek: Insurrection" (Paramount Pictures)

PKD: Did everyone on the cast share that vision with Gene?

LB: I think so. I think it’s dependent on who you are talking to. There are some who really embraced Gene’s vision. Others for whom that vision was the framework for a gig.

PKD: It seems like you totally embraced it.

LB: First of all, as a student of culture and popular culture and the impact that it has on us all, I know this to be true: Seeing yourself represented in the popular culture is really critical in terms of forming your own self image. I’m old enough to have been around before seeing black people represented in the popular culture in diverse ways. When I was a kid, it was a big deal to see a black person on television. So that’s why it was important in a science fiction thing — in “Star Trek” — it was huge. I read a lot of science fiction books as a kid. As a kid of science fiction, “Star Trek” was important to me and seeing a person of color in a command position was hugely important to me. My kids grew up completely different. Hip hop is the lingua franca on the planet. It’s a very different world. “Star Trek” was really important to me growing up. I embraced the vision.

PKD: You recently asked your Twitter followers’ help to regain control of @ReadingRainbow and it worked. How did that come about?

LB: Social media is a large part of our marketing strategy. It’s really, really important. We have a lot of faith and confidence in our ability to speak directly to people. The account name was being occupied by somebody. I tried to reach the guy and just couldn’t because he hadn’t tweeted in three years. So it was  a shot in the dark just reaching out to him. And then it just occurred to me, let me see if I can appeal directly to Twitter. And within two hours we had [the account].

"Roots" aired in 1977 (ABC)

PKD: This person got bombarded?

LB: The sequence of events: I got contacted by a friend of mine who has a friend in Twitter and I was able to send that person an email and we were able to exchange information. And I don’t know what he went and did — and I don’t want to know — but in a little over two hours, I had the name back.

PKD: That’s really harnessing the power of your fans.

Ed Asner and Levar Burton in "Roots" (ABC)

LB: It was a really dramatic demonstration. And I engage my fans via Twitter. I really do. I’ve been doing this for a minute now. I was at the early edge of this wave and I’ve learned that engagement really is it. It’s about engagement. Engagement and having the opportunity to feel like you are sharing with them. A friend of mine introduced me to it.  What happened was, somebody who had the account @levarburton and was tweeting and had amassed a bit of a following — a few thousand people — because of the things that this was person was saying in the context of it coming out of LeVar Burton’s mouth.

And I found that to be not OK. So this friend of mine helped me go to Twitter and let them know I wasn’t OK with that. This was three years ago. Twitter was the beginning of my emergence in the world of tech. I’d always been a fan of technology for a long time. I’ve been going to CES for a couple of years just on the downlow. I quit smoking through Twitter. I got a lot of support and it held me accountable. People would be asking, “Are you smoking? Are you not smoking?”

PKD: You used your fame and success from “Roots” and became a children’s TV host on “Reading Rainbow.” Seems like an unusual choice for an actor in his mid-20s.

LB: It made a lot of sense to me. 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. I didn’t become executive producer until years later.

PKD: Having been host of the show for over two decades must have given you some weird experiences when you meet fans.

LB: If by weird you mean they come up to me and say, “I now have children who watch you.” That’s pretty weird. Constantly. Every day of my life somebody comes up to me or in some way the role that show had in someone’s life is pointed out to me. I’m reminded. The new generation is wildly excited about the prospects of “Reading Rainbow” coming back. Because there’s nothing like that for their kids. And it’s kind of a sweet spot in their childhood. It’s a positive, evocative memory.

PKD: Any notable fans?

LB: Jimmy Fallon is a big fan of the show. He does all of these singer impersonations and a couple of months ago he did Jim Morrison singing the “Reading Rainbow” theme song. It’s really good.

PKD: Was it a challenge to keep it on the air that long?

It was a challenge from the beginning to the end. In the beginning nobody knew who we were, so nobody wanted to play. Publishers, author, illustrators, nobody wanted to play. Then once we got a little traction, everybody started wanting to play. But we were in an era where Congress was continually putting PBS on the chopping block. Then the PBS model itself changed. PBS shot itself in the foot. Then there was No Child Left Behind. The emphasis from the government’s point of view went from the idea of approaching children and reading from a multipronged approach to just teaching them the rudiments. There was no room in the philosophy to encourage kids to read. The writing was on the wall and there was just no more funding.

PKD: It seems like “Reading Rainbow” has reached that cultural critical mass where everyone is instantly familiar with it. Are you aware of how much it’s penetrated the culture?

LB: I’m not. I don’t spend much time thinking about the impact “Roots” had on America. I’m aware of it. I know about it. I love talking about it. I have my own personal relationship to it, but it’s not something I focus on in my everyday life. It’s not like I’m filling up the gas tank and thinking “Man. ‘Roots’. That was some serious ….” I take it for granted, I guess, in the sense that I’m aware of it. But that’s not my point of focus. I know “Star Trek” has a huge fan base but I don’t meet people expecting that they know it. But I can sort out in the first few moments of conversation where they’re coming from in terms of the fan base. Is it “Reading Rainbow?” Is it “Roots?” Is it “Star Trek?” Here’s something I do think about from time to time. Look at the history of children’s television as it’s evolved in this country. And then ask yourself, what do Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby and LeVar Burton have in common? All were involved with children’s television shows. Not just tangentially.

PKD: You’ve recently played yourself several times, on “The Big Bang Theory” and “Community.” Are you following in the footsteps of William Shatner?

LB: William Shatner has gotten really good at playing himself. He’s gotten so good at playing himself that he was able to reinvent his own image while playing himself. That’s a real cool trick. He was able to change people’s perception of who he was by first trading on their idea of who he was and then taking them someplace else and getting them to associate with a whole other side of his personality. He went from pompous to cool. On “Community,” I play a version of me that’s the “Reading Rainbow” guy.

PKD: You’re currently a voice for the cartoon series “Transformers: Rescue Bots.” It seems like the series has a more positive message than what you’d normally associate with “Transformers.”

LB: I’m acutely aware that kids watch a lot of TV.  It’s one of my favorite sayings, that I invented, that I believe that all television is educational. The question is what are we teaching? So “Rescue Bots” is a show aimed at a young demographic of kids that really has pro-social values at its core and you don’t find that all the time in commercial television and certainly not in the world of animation.

[For the record, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 27: A photo caption in a previous version of this post misspelled Mae Jemison's last name as Jamison.]

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