The Bookish Life of LeVar Burton

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If I say (or sing) “Butterfly in the sky” to you, will you answer with the next line of the Reading Rainbow theme song? If you are an American of a certain age, I bet you will.

Levardis Robert Martyn Burton Jr. was born on February 16, 1957, in Landsthul, Germany, where his father was stationed as a photographer with the United States Army Signal Corps. His mother raised him and his sisters in Sacramento, California, and at 13, he entered St. Pius X Minor Seminary with the intention of becoming a Catholic priest. He left the seminary to pursue acting at age 17, attended the University of Southern California, and made his film debut at 19 in Almos’ a Man, based on the story “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” from Eight Men by Richard Wright. The same year, he was cast in another adaptation, one that would change his life…and the world.

On August 17, 1976, Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, based on his own family history, was released in hardcover in the United States. It debuted at #5 on The New York Times Best Seller list (categorized as nonfiction despite being fictionalized) and was immediately optioned for a television miniseries. Roots stayed on the NYT list for 46 weeks, sold 15 million copies in hardcover in seven months, and earned Haley a Pulitzer Prize special award.

The book tells the story of Kunta Kinte, a young man stolen from his home in Gambia and enslaved in the United States, and of seven generations of his descendants. LeVar Burton was cast as Kunta Kinte, and the miniseries aired over eight consecutive nights in January 1977, a month before Burton’s 20th birthday.

In a 2018 interview with Lola Fadulu for The Atlantic, Burton looked back on it, referring to his first day of filming as the first day of his acting career:

My life was changed forever. My first day as an actor, Cicely Tyson played my mother, Maya Angelou played my grandmother. I was 19, and they embraced me as a peer. They schooled me. They certainly taught me what it meant to be a professional, but they assumed that because I was there I belonged there, and they treated me as such. It was an extraordinary experience for a young person.

From those strong bookish beginnings, Burton continued living a bookish life, taking on his most long-lasting (and arguably biggest) bookish role in 1983 when he became the host of PBS’s Reading Rainbow. For 23 seasons — until 2006 — Burton and various celebrity guests read stories for children of all ages, taking them on a journey through reading by animating illustrations and visiting bookish locations.

After the series ended, Burton and his business partner licensed the rights to the brand, and in 2012, launched an app for iOS; two years later, Burton raised $6.5 million on Kickstarter to relaunch Reading Rainbow — $1 million in the first 24 hours. Skybrary by Reading Rainbow, a website with similar features to both the app and the show, launched soon after, and in 2016 WNED, the PBS station that owned the rights to Reading Rainbow, sued. They eventually settled out of court, with the rights to the brand reverting to PBS and Skybrary and the Reading Rainbow app rebranded as LeVar Burton kids.

Undeterred, Burton started another podcast in 2017, LeVar Burton Reads, in which he narrates short stories for an adult audience. 

Over the years, Burton has appeared in (and directed!) many book-related movies and TV series. Among them are the CW’s Nancy Drew, based on the Carolyn Keene books; Looking for Mr. Goodbar, based on the Judith Rossner novel; Dummy, based on the Ernest Tidyman nonfiction; Parallel Lives based on the Plutarch; the voice of Black Lightning in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies; and a guest appearance on the Murder She Wrote episode “Death Take a Dive.”

Of course, I have not even mentioned Star Trek, which has been not only a long-running television and movie phenomenon, but has a tremendous number of books. In 1987, Burton was cast as Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a role he played for seven years and has since reprised in four movies and two additional Star Trek television series (the second of which, Picard, airs next year).

In 2021, Burton was a guest host on Jeopardy! after a fan petition netted over a quarter of a million signatures. When the show decided against hiring him in the role permanently, he took it in stride — and not too long after that, it was announced that he will be hosting a Trivial Pursuit series.

And if you don’t want to wait for that, he’s hosting this year’s Scripp’s Spelling Bee!

I personally believe that education is the key to freedom. Actually, literacy is the key to freedom because you can educate yourself.

—LeVar Burton, The Atlantic

LeVar Burton, we salute you and your bookish life!

Can’t get enough? Here’s 12 things you might not know about LeVar Burton.

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