|Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, Jr. professionally known as LeVar Burton, is an American actor, director, producer and author who first came to prominence portraying Kunta Kinte in the 1977 award-winning ABC television miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley. He is also well known for his portrayal of Geordi La Forge on the syndicated science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation and as the host of the PBS children’s program Reading Rainbow.|
Burton was born to American parents at the U.S. Army Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in West Germany. His mother, Erma Jean (née Christian), was a social worker, administrator, and educator. His father, Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, was a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and at the time was stationed at Landstuhl. Burton and his two sisters were raised by his mother in Sacramento, California. Burton was raised Catholic and, at the age of thirteen, entered a seminary to become a priest. He attended Christian Brothers High School and graduated in the class of 1974. He is a graduate of University of Southern California’s School of Theatre.
Burton played a role as a visitor to Fantasy Island, was a participant in Battle of the Network Stars, a guest of the Muppet Show’s televised premiere party for the release of The Muppet Movie, and a frequent guest on several game shows. In 1986, he appeared in the music video for the song “Word Up!” by the funk/R&B group Cameo.
Burton accepted an invitation to host Rebop, a multicultural series designed for young people ages 9–15, produced by WGBH for PBS.
Burton began to host and executive produce Reading Rainbow in 1983 for PBS.
LeVar Burton rose to prominence in 1977 when he played Kunta Kinte (Toby) in the ABC award-winning drama series Roots. Burton’s audition for the role of Kinte was the first of his professional career. As a result of his performance, he was nominated for the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama Series. Burton reprised the role of Kunta Kinte in the 1988 television film Roots: The Gift. When asked about the societal impacts of Roots, Burton is quoted as saying, “It expanded the consciousness of people. Blacks and whites began to see each other as human beings, not as stereotypes. And if you throw a pebble into the pond, you’re going to get ripples. I think the only constant is change, and it’s always slow. Anything that happens overnight is lacking in foundation. Roots is part of a changing trend, and it’s still being played out.”
In 1986, Gene Roddenberry approached him with the role of the then Lieutenant Junior Grade Geordi La Forge in the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series. La Forge was blind, but was granted “sight” through the use of a prosthetic device called a VISOR, which was worn over his eyes. La Forge was the USS Enterprise’s helmsman and, as of the show’s second season, its Chief Engineer. At the time, Burton had considerably more notoriety than Patrick Stewart in the United States, due to his fame from Roots. The Associated Press stated that Burton’s role was essentially the “new Spock.”
Burton also portrayed La Forge in the subsequent feature films based on Star Trek: The Next Generation, beginning with Star Trek Generations in 1994 through 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis. Burton also directed and appeared in the Season 5 episode of Star Trek: Voyager titled “Timeless”.
On television, Burton has helped dramatize the last days of Jim Jones’ suicide cult in Guyana, the life and times of Jesse Owens, and the life of the nine-year-old Booker T. Washington. He portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 2001 film Ali. He also portrayed Detroit Tiger Ron LeFlore in the television movie One in a Million, The Ron LeFlore Story.
In 1987, Burton played Dave Robinson, a journalist (sports writer), in the third season of Murder, She Wrote, episode 16 “Death Takes a Dive” starring Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher.
He has also lent his voice to several animated projects including Kwame in the cartoon series Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990–1993) and The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1993–1996), Family Guy, Batman: The Animated Series, and Gargoyles. Burton is on the audio version of The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Burton has been cast as voice actor for Black Lightning in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies DVD.
Burton appeared several times as a celebrity guest on the Dick Clark–hosted Pyramid, from 1982 until 1988. Burton also was the strongest link in the special Star Trek episode of The Weakest Link. He defeated his final opponent Robert Picardo and won $167,500 for his charity, a record for the show at that time and the largest amount won in any Celebrity Edition of the show (it was later surpassed by a $189,500 win in a “Tournament of Losers” episode).
He has made appearances in such sitcoms as Becker and Spin City.
Burton is the host and executive producer of a documentary titled The Science of Peace, which was in production as of 2007. It investigates the science and technology aimed at enabling world peace, sometimes called peace science. The film explores some of the concepts of shared noetic consciousness, having been sponsored in part by the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
He appeared in an April Fool’s episode of Smosh pretending to have taken over the channel and making various edits at popular Smosh videos.
He makes occasional appearances on This Week in Tech, where he is a self-proclaimed “nerd”, and also participated in the Consumer Electronics Show 2010.
In 2010, he made an appearance on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! as himself in the episode “Greene Machine”.
In 2011, Burton also made an appearance as himself on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory in the episode called “The Toast Derivation” and on NBC’s Community alongside Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, and Donald Glover.
On 25 February 2010, Burton was the answer to a trivia question on the ChatRoulette show, Boomsause and Boxer in the evening.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Burton directed episodes for each of the various Star Trek series then in production. He has directed more Star Trek episodes than any other former regular cast member.
Burton is on the board of directors for the Directors Guild of America.
Burton has also directed episodes of Charmed, JAG, Las Vegas, and Soul Food: The Series, as well as the miniseries Miracle’s Boys and the documentary The Tiger Woods Story.
His first theatrical film direction was 2003’s Blizzard for which he received a “Best of Fest” award from the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, and a Genie Award nomination for his work on the film’s theme song, “Center of My Heart.”
He also directed the 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie Smart House starring Katey Sagal, Kevin Kilner and Jessica Steen.
His most recent directorial project Reach for Me, in which he also played a supporting role, was released in theaters in March 2008. The film was produced by longtime producer and exec Mark Wolfe, whom Burton officially teamed with in 2010, forming Burton/Wolfe Entertainment. BWE will produce motion pictures, television, web content and more. Says Burton, “We are looking to tell stories everywhere there will be a screen, BWE will be there. That is our plan.”