It was the summer of 1983. We children were expected to do yard work, if it wasn’t too hot—and my mother’s standards of “too hot” and mine have always been different. Still, Mom let us come inside for half an hour, because there was a new TV show on PBS that she’d heard of and thought we would quite enjoy. And we did. There were only a few new episodes every summer—my memory, incorrectly, insists that it was one week’s worth of new episodes a year—but the appearance of Reading Rainbow was a great highlight of the year for us. I remember a PTA meeting at a classmate’s house—a classmate I didn’t much like, as it happened—and all of us watching together because Reading Rainbow was more important than personal enmity.
Imagine the world where he became a priest instead. It could have been. He was in seminary, before he lost the faith. Instead, he went into acting. He was still a student at USC when he was cast in his first notable role as Kunta Kinte in Roots. It wasn’t his first role, but it very nearly was, and it is an astonishing breakout performance. One of the things the miniseries was remembered for was its casting—it was crammed with just about everyone famous who could possibly fit into it, it seems—and LeVar Burton is still one of the most frequently mentioned performances.
It’s a heck of an auspicious beginning. He was nominated for an Emmy for “Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series.” He wasn’t alone; all of his competitors, including winner Louis Gossett, Jr., were from Roots. (All but one of the nominees for Supporting Actor. Two for Best Actress. Three for Supporting Actress.) And honestly it’s a little disappointing that Reading Rainbow was his next big success, because there should have been so many more. Not that I’m not of a generation permanently grateful for Reading Rainbow, you understand.
As for Star Trek: The Next Generation, he did very nicely there. Geordi had some not-so-great moments, but at the same time, he was competent and funny. He was respected by his colleagues. Burton was thirty at the time, which seems, honestly, awfully young to be the chief engineer of the Federation’s flagship. And, of course, there was the blindness thing. He was young and black, and the character was blind, and it never stood in his way. He was good at what he did, and he is one of the characters who routinely saved the ship.
And, yes, the thing with Jeopardy! I haven’t watched his Daily Show interview about it yet, but it seems he’s kind of been broken by how that went. It doesn’t matter how good or bad he was as a host, because it turned out the whole thing was rigged. He’s no longer, he says, interesting in the hosting gig. It’s frustrating. He has taught so many children so much, and I’m afraid that what he’s taught us now, again, is that you can’t win in a rigged game, even if everyone wants you to.