As an actor, he's hit the trifecta. LeVar Burton has managed to be cast in three roles that played a major part in American culture: the young Kunta Kinte in Roots, himself as the host of "Reading Rainbow" and Geordi La Forge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
He says he loves sci-fi and rattles off a list of authors, Isaac Asimov and Octavia Butler among them. He recalls his time on "Star Trek" fondly and says the cast was like family. When he married in 1992, cast members were part of the wedding party. He even broke into directing with a couple of episodes of the show.
Burton spoke with the Alibi about his career, Catholicism and that legendary visor.
What do you remember about watching the original "Star Trek" as a kid?
The thing that stands out first and foremost is the presence of Nichelle Nichols. I was born in the late ’50s, so I grew up in a world where it was rare for me to see people of color on TV—very much unlike the world my children have grown up in. And the second thing I remember was Captain Kirk always reaching to some secret place on his hip, pulling out his communicator and calling Scotty.
So how did you begin acting? What drew you to it?
I think it would be the idea that I could express myself. I came to acting out of the Catholic seminary. I studied the priesthood for four years. And when I decided not to become a priest, it was kind of a matter of taking an inventory of what I could do, what I might be able to do with my life. There's so much performance involved in being a minister. For me it was a natural segue.
“Comfortable is not a word I would ever introduce into a conversation about the visor.”
Your first breakout role was in Roots, right?
Roots was my first audition, yeah.
Wow, how did you land the role?
I was in the right place at the right time. I was at USC studying theater. I really hadn't thought of working in television or film at all. I wanted to go to New York and hustle my way onto the Broadway stage. But they were beating the bushes, the producers. They had been to New York, Chicago and L.A. twice trying to cast the role of Kunta Kinte and had not found what they were looking for. So they decided to try to cast a wider net, and they called drama schools, CalArts and UCLA and USC, where I was.
Why do you think they had such a hard time finding the right actor?
What I found out later is they were looking for someone old enough that could work a full day—that was not a minor—but would look young enough to play 15. And they were looking for a quality that they could not really define but something that did not specifically reference having been brought up in America. And I don't know what that meant, but apparently they saw some of that in me.
Do you feel like "Reading Rainbow" had an impact on the country?
On a daily basis, somebody comes up to me and tells me something. They relate a story to me. They saw it as a kid. They learned English as a second language by watching it, or it inspired them to become a writer. I get that feedback on an almost daily basis that the show has had impact. So if you look at society, if you look at the country as just a group of individuals, I'd say yeah, we did have an impact.
How do you feel about "Star Trek" fans? Do they seem intense?
They can. I feel like I not only understand them, but I'm one of them. So I get it. I totally get it.
Let’s talk about the visor. Was that comfortable? What was it like to wear it all the time?
Comfortable is not a word I would ever introduce into a conversation about the visor. In fact, it was anything but comfortable. We screwed the visor into my head. In part, that's how it stayed on. Maybe I'll bring the visor to Albuquerque so I can demonstrate.
It's hard to get a clear sense of what I'm talking about unless you see the visual. It's sufficient to say there was pressure applied through a mechanism of flanges and screws that put pressure on my temples. So after about half an hour I'd get a headache.
People always ask me, Could you see out of that thing? And the answer is, no, I couldn't. It was always very funny to me because when the actor puts the visor on 85 to 90 percent of my vision was taken away, yet I'm playing a guy who sees more than everyone else around him. So that's just God's cruel little joke.
Do you keep the visor at your house? Do you still have it?
I have the visor.
You didn't angrily toss it away after the show was over?
Are you kidding? Hopefully that thing will help me put my daughter through Ivy League college. I'm serious.
You just did a cameo on "Community" as yourself. How did that come about?
I guess the writers are a fan of mine. And the same for "The Big Bang Theory." It's weird. The two shows happened kind of at the same time, and they aired in consecutive weeks. In both of them I played television's LeVar Burton. I guess if you stick around long enough, they ask you to play yourself. The problem with that is then, casting directors, they say, Well, get me a younger LeVar Burton!