LeVar Burton became one of television’s most adored icons by exploring the final frontier, encouraging kids to take a look in a book, and forcing Americans to confront their country’s dark history with slavery from the comfort of their living rooms.
When he was just 19 years old, Burton was cast in the 1977 miniseries, Roots (via The Hollywood Reporter). His portrayal as Kunta Kinte, a proud and courageous young man who was forced into slavery, would turn out to be a star-making role. However, that same year, Burton told Ebony that embodying the now-iconic character was painful at times. “It was the psychological effect, not to mention the physical anguish and discomfort that we experienced,” he said. Burton later reflected to NPR how Roots‘ success taught him that television is “a very powerful medium,” and he eventually helped turn it into a tool to encourage children to read. From 1983 to 2006, Burton hosted the popular PBS series, Reading Rainbow. At the same time, he was securing a spot as sci-fi royalty by portraying Starfleet officer Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
These days, Burton’s status as a beloved pop culture figure has his die-hard fans trying to help him get hired — they’ve started a petition to have him cast as the new host of Jeopardy! in the wake of Alex Trebek’s tragic death. In February 2021, LeVar Burton himself told CBS Sunday Morning that he’s “lived an amazingly charmed existence,” but he’s also dealt with plenty of sadness throughout his life.
As a child, LeVar Burton had few memories of his father
When LeVar Burton was born, he shared his full name with his father, Levardis Robert Burton Sr. — but sadly, the father and son’s matching monikers did not help them forge a strong bond. As a teenager, the future actor decided to shorten his first name, later telling BuzzFeed that he liked how “LeVar … rhymes with ‘star.'”
Burton Sr. was a United States Army sergeant, and the family was living in Germany when LeVar was born (via Ebony). In a blog entry shared on The White House website, he wrote, “It wasn’t always easy living on base, where we didn’t have access to the most recent American movies, books, T.V. shows — all those pop-culture staples so important to schoolchildren.” LeVar’s father and mother, Erma Gene Christian, separated when he was young. Explaining to the Florida Courier that their marriage “imploded” when he was in the third grade, LeVar and his two sisters were raised by his mother afterward. As a child, he had so little contact with his father that he could remember nothing of the man except through photographs.
However, Burton Sr. sent his son a “congratulatory telegram” after the success of Roots, and the two eventually reconnected. According to The Sandspur, he attended one of LeVar’s literacy lectures for the first time in 2015, and the younger Burton paid tribute to his father’s military service on Twitter in 2019, revealing that his dad had become a deacon.
LeVar Burton became a sci-fi fan for a sad reason
Long before Star Trek fans watched LeVar Burton go where no one has gone before, he became a young Trekkie himself for a reason that was rather sad. In a 2014 Parents magazine post, Burton explained that he first developed a love for the sci-fi genre as a teen because it allowed him to dream of a better world. “It also encouraged me, as a young man faced with the realities of racism, prejudice, and tremendous social upheaval, to imagine a future as I hoped it would become,” he wrote.
However, Burton later told EdSurge that he rarely encountered protagonists who looked like him in his favorite sci-fi novels. This helped him learn early on just how damaging it can be when a young person “does not see themselves represented in the popular culture.” The lack of diversity in literature and entertainment media was why Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek series of the ’60s was so important to him. Revealing that he saw a glimmer of hope for the future after watching Nichelle Nichols break barriers with her portrayal of Lt. Uhura on the series, Burton said, “As a storyteller, Roddenberry was saying: ‘When the future comes, there’s a place for you.’ It was a representation of the future that I could project myself into.”
The actor realized he'd made a wrong, life-defining choice at a young age
LeVar Burton’s life almost took a much different trajectory. When he was just eight years old, he decided that he wanted to become a priest (via Ebony). The future star was so passionate about his faith that he told his mother that “he was going to be the first Black pope,” and the outlet noted how he once caused a “commotion” in church when he was “refused communion because he was too young” — he had even memorized the catechism. Speaking with The Atlantic, Burton explained that he felt like he “had a calling” and was “destined” to become a priest, adding, “I took steps as early as I could in that direction.”
Indeed, when he was 13 years old, Burton began attending St. Pious seminary. However, he eventually started feeling uncertain about the future that he’d chosen for himself. “I had a lot of questions that the Catholic saints and the dogma of the Church could not answer,” Burton told The Atlantic. “So I decided that I needed to find some other focus for my life at the ripe old age of 17.”
At this point, Burton found himself taking a personal “inventory” of his abilities and passions — which is how he determined that he wanted to be an actor. The switch worried his mother, whom Burton recalled to Ebony had told him, “For God’s sake, major in something that you can make a living at until you’re discovered.”
LeVar Burton had a terrifying encounter with police
While he was attending the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, LeVar Burton had multiple encounters with police, even though he was doing nothing wrong. In the first installment of his YouTube series, This Is My Story, Burton recounted how he was “stopped almost nightly” by Los Angeles Police Department officers as he was walking to and from a coffee house. He was told that he matched “the description of someone stealing car stereos,” and he would use his student ID to prove that he lived in the area.
On one particular evening, a police cruiser blocked his path, and Burton “suddenly [found himself] staring down the barrel of a shotgun at point-blank range.” He described “what happened next” as “a defining moment in his life.” He “recognized” one of the officers, who had detained him at least twice before. He came to the realization that the police “only saw the color of his skin, and to them, that meant that he didn’t belong there.”
Years later, Burton would teach his son the specific set of actions he takes to avoid being viewed as a threat when he gets pulled over by the police. He also shared another painful lesson he has learned about racism in law enforcement with the Record-Courier in 2013: “As a Black man in this culture, it is a given that you will attract more attention from law enforcement than your white friends.”
He missed out on the first few years of his son's life
For the first three years of his son, Eian’s, life, LeVar Burton had no contact with him. However, it wasn’t by choice. According to a 1983 article by The Washington Post, Burton learned that he was a first-time father in a somewhat joyless way: The Los Angeles District Attorney shared the happy news with him. Burton was 26 years old at the time, and he was completely unaware that he had gotten a woman pregnant during a one-night stand three years prior. After tests confirmed that he was the father of her child, he filed what the publication called an “unorthodox paternity suit,” asking for joint legal custody and offering to pay child support.
Burton explained how growing up without a father inspired him to do the right thing as soon as he learned of Eian’s existence. “I grew up in a broken home, raised by my mother,” he said. “I would like for (my son) to have the benefits of both parents.”
Unfortunately, co-parenting turned out to be no cakewalk for the actor. A year later, Eian’s mother accused Burton of kidnapping him (via UPI). Eian had accompanied his father on a two-week trip, and his mother claimed that the boy was supposed to be returned to her afterward. However, Burton’s agent disputed this, saying that Eian’s mother had asked the actor to take him for “an indefinite period” because she was having a tough time “handl[ing] him.”
LeVar Burton has a big regret about his Star Trek character
It was a dream come true when LeVar Burton was cast as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the longtime Trekkie had one big regret about how the blind Starfleet officer was portrayed.
During a 2012 interview with Gizmodo, Burton said that he wished Geordi’s sexuality would have been explored on the show. He also revealed that he would have liked for his character to evolve beyond the stereotype of a “nerdy guy” who is awkward around women. “We just never had the opportunity — we ran out of time, I guess — we never had the opportunity to evolve beyond that,” Burton said. “And I believe with the core of my being that Star Trek is better than that. Star Trek is better than stereotypes.”
Burton later told BuzzFeed that he believes Geordi’s race was the reason he was never given a love life, and he some choice words for TNG‘s white writers. “You all are white men and have no clue about the sexuality of a Black man and how that dynamic has been bashed in white normative culture for over 200 years,” he said. “And the fact you are unwilling to see the sexuality of Geordi only tells me that you have bought into that bashing and I want you to open your eyes and see beyond your own conditioned limitations.”
Reading Rainbow ended due to an initiative meant to help kids
For over two decades, LeVar Burton helped instill a love of reading in children by hosting the PBS series, Reading Rainbow. Those who grew up watching the gifted storyteller were devastated when the Emmy-winning show was cancelled in 2009 due to a lack of funding. During an interview with NPR, Burton shared his own sadness over the series’ unhappy ending. “Truthfully, I’m sad because I believe that the job is not done yet,” he said. “Every couple of years, there’s a new generation of kids that are learning how to read, have cracked the code, and are now making that decision. And it’s sad to me that Reading Rainbow won’t be there for them.”
While speaking to Mediabistro in 2012, Burton explained how an initiative meant to help children learn how to read, the No Child Left Behind Act, actually played a role in the demise of his popular show. He said that the initiative’s aim was “to teach kids how to read,” while Reading Rainbow was all about “foster[ing] a love of reading.” Because of this, it could not receive any funding. Burton shared his belief that the United States is spending too much on the “machinery of war” and not doing enough to help its children. “We are having to make really ridiculous choices, and we’re sacrificing our kids,” he said.
LeVar Burton wrote his first children's book for a tragic reason
While LeVar Burton spent over 20 years reading to children on TV, it wasn’t until 2014 when he published a children’s book of his own. The book, The Rhino Who Swallowed A Storm, introduces the character, Mica Mouse, who was named after Burton’s daughter, Michaela. Mica is terrified of storms due to her past experience with a hurricane, so her father reads her story about a rhinoceros who finds himself in a dark place after his home is destroyed by a storm. The book explores how he and those around him deal with the aftermath of the tragic event.
However, while speaking with EdSurge, Burton revealed that the book was born out of tragedy, recalling how he had been filming Reading Rainbow in Central Park when he heard that there had been another mass shooting. “It had come on the heels of a couple of natural disasters, including a hurricane,” Burton said. He then began to think about what his late friend and mentor, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood star Fred Rogers, would say if he were still around to help children learn to cope with the tragedies that plague America today.
“It’s a book that deals with recovery and loss,” Burton told Tulsa World in 2018. “And in the America in which we live today, I think that we really need to give our children the resiliency to deal with recovery and loss.”
The beloved star was accused of 'theft and extortion'
Long after Reading Rainbow was cancelled, LeVar Burton continued to be an advocate for children’s literacy. However, his hopes of reviving the show met a major setback when he and his company, RRKIDZ, became embroiled in a long legal battle with WNED, a public broadcaster that owns the rights to the Reading Rainbow brand.
In 2017, WNED sued Burton and his company, per The Hollywood Reporter. The broadcaster’s lawsuit accused the defendants of “theft and extortion,” as well as deception, further alleging that Burton was secretly negotiating with Netflix to create a Reading Rainbow reboot and that he was falsely claiming ownership of Reading Rainbow intellectual property. The lawsuit also sought to stop Burton from using his famous catchphrase from the show, “But you don’t have to take my word for it,” on his “LeVar Burton Reads” podcast. According to the outlet, he and his company were additionally sued for alleged “copyright infringement, conversion, cybersquatting, violations of the Lanham Act, breach of contract and interference with customer relations.”
A few months after the lawsuit was filed, Vulture reported that Burton had won the right to keep saying his catchphrase, and that he and WNED had reached a settlement without going to court. Burton said that the public’s support influenced WNED’s decision to drop the lawsuit. “There was an amazing outpouring of love and support of fans,” he said. “It was very heartwarming. I didn’t have to say anything.”
LeVar Burton's sister and mother died in the same year
In July 2018, LeVar Burton took to Twitter to share the tragic news that he had lost his mother, Erma, and his younger sister, Valencia, that year — revealing that “complications from diabetes” had caused both of their deaths.
Burton hasn’t spoken much about Valencia in the past (although he once described her as “camera shy,” so perhaps she preferred it that way). However, he can’t seem to speak about his family without mentioning how his mother went the extra mile to help him succeed. Erma was a social worker when her son was in college, and she took on a second job so that she could send him some extra money (via Ebony). Burton also told EdSurge that his mother was an “avid reader,” so she deserved some credit for his Reading Rainbow success. “My mother didn’t just read to me — she read in front of me,” Burton said. “That modeling was really critical to my understanding of the role that literature played.”
Erma’s legacy lives on through her son, whose soothing voice can still be heard bringing stories to life on his “LeVar Burton Reads” podcast. And if thousands of Jeopardy! fans get their way, perhaps LeVar Burton will soon have another platform at his disposal to educate television viewers.
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