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The Untold Truth Of LeVar Burton

Whether you know him as Star Trek's Geordi La Forge, Roots' Kunta Kinte, the host of Reading Rainbow, or just Lance Reddick's idol on The Eric Andre Show, odds are that LeVar Burton has a big presence in your consciousness. He's become a true American icon, whether as the soothing voice of our childhoods or the fiery rage of a rebellious slave. It's no wonder, then, that around 85,000 fans signed a petition in hopes of having Burton replace the late Alex Trebek on Jeopardy! 

In other words, LeVar Burton is beloved by pretty much everyone, and he's had a long and accomplished career that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. After all, as he explained to Best Friends with Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata, if you're passionate about what you're doing, why should you retire? There are a lot of stories to tell from Burton's decades-long career. Here are just a few of them.

LeVar Burton was born in Germany

He may be an American icon, but Burton was actually born way off on the other side of the Atlantic. His father, Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, was a photographer for the US Army Signal Corps. Like most military families, he and his wife, Erma Gene Burton, didn't stay in one place for long, so they were far from home when little LeVar was born. As part of the United States' postwar occupying force, the elder Burton was stationed in West Germany, and his son was born in the area's biggest military hospital, in the Rhineland village of Landstuhl. 

LeVar Burton's parents separated after they returned to the States, so he was raised by his mother, who was determined to give her son all the tools he needed to succeed in the harsh environment of segregation-era America. That meant taking his education seriously, and Burton credits his mother for teaching him the lifelong love of reading that he's passed on to generations of other kids on Reading Rainbow.

He wanted to be a priest

Many of LeVar Burton's performances are so memorable it can be hard to imagine a world without them. But that came very close to happening because Burton spent most of his youth planning to go into the Roman Catholic priesthood. In fact, he began studying for the vocation at St. Pius X Minor Seminary when he was only 13 years old.

When Andy Richter heard the news on his podcast, The Three Questions with Andy Richter, he joked that the whole celibacy thing might've played a role in Burton's career change once his teenage hormones kicked in. Burton admitted that played a part in it, but he chalked up his decision more to a general crisis of faith.

He also said that his interest in certain aspects of the priesthood ended up leading him to acting. As he explained, "The Catholic mass, the liturgy itself is really theatrical. You know, the vestments, the raiments — what the priest wears — the old Latin mass, there was mystery and circumstance, for high ceremony, the incense, and candles — there's just a lot that I was drawn to in terms of the show biz! I was attracted to the play!" So when Burton was 17, he dropped out of the seminary to go into show biz full time.

Burton studied Alex Haley right before working with him on Roots

After leaving the seminary, Burton went to study acting at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He was only in his second year when he got his first big role, and one of the biggest of his whole career, as the star of Alex Haley's groundbreaking miniseries Roots. Based on Haley's novel, the series follows the history of a Black American family from their abduction from the African country of the Gambia in the 18th century all the way through to the aftermath of the Civil War. Burton stars as the family's forebear, Kunta Kinte, in the first two episodes, delivering a classic performance that's still synonymous with Black power to this day.

At the time, young LeVar Burton didn't realize this role would make him a star. But he told CreativeLive that the signs were there when he first went to audition. "I'm a firm believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason, and that there are always signs, there are clues, right? My freshman year at USC, I did a term paper on Malcolm X, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X is cowritten by Alex Haley. ... So when I first heard of Alex Haley in connection to Roots, [I thought,] 'I know who he is!'" And thanks to Alex Haley, soon most of the country would know who LeVar Burton was.

He made a cameo with Cameo

Roots made LeVar Burton a star, but it took a while for him to begin reaping the benefits. There were many lean years between his appearance in the miniseries and his next high-profile parts in Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation. More jobs began trickling in once Reading Rainbow debuted in 1983, and one of them gave Burton a role in a great but sadly short-lived pop phenomenon.

Cameo began life in 1974 when Juilliard-trained soul singer Larry Blackmon founded the New York City Players. However, their inspiration, the Ohio Players, didn't appreciate the tribute, so they changed their name to Cameo. The band honed the funk sound of earlier acts like the Players and Parliament for over a decade before finding success with their first major hit, "Word Up." Unfortunately, it was also their last, and while they followed it up with equally great singles like "Back and Forth" and "Candy," none of them got the same mainstream following.

Maybe that's because none of them had LeVar Burton. If you look closely at the music video for "Word Up," you might see a familiar face. The video begins with Cameo holed up and surrounded by the cops, with LeVar Burton as a trenchcoated police officer threatening them through a megaphone. You could be forgiven for missing him, though — the main focus is on Cameo, and Larry Blackmon's trademark red codpiece can be pretty distracting.

LeVar Burton got his role on Star Trek because he was such a huge fan

Long before he ever appeared on Star Trek, LeVar Burton had been a lifelong fan of the series, especially thanks to the strides the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry, took in diverse casting. So he fanboyed right out in 1983 when he made the TV movie Emergency Room and discovered one of its producers, Robert H. Justman, had also worked on Star Trek.

As he told CreativeLive, "Every day, I would find a reason to sit next to him and just pump him for stories about Star Trek. ... And years later, he remembered my passion. ... When he was working with Gene Roddenberry at Paramount to launch The Next Generation, they had this character, Geordi La Forge, and [Justman] remembered how passionate I was about Trek and called me up and said, 'Would you be interested in coming in and seeing us about a Star Trek series?'" Naturally, Burton had a hard time passing up an opportunity like this, but he did have one condition: "Is Gene Roddenberry involved?" Since he was, Burton took the part, and he stuck with the TV show for the next 11 years.

He had to develop a new style of acting to play Geordi La Forge

Burton's Star Trek character, Geordi La Forge, is the Enterprise's chief engineer. In Burton's words, he represented people with physical challenges, the socially awkward, and those who "relate more to inanimate objects than we do other human beings." And in the futuristic world of Star Trek, that allowed him to build a close relationship with the ship's mechanical resident, Data. Expanding the original series' inclusive spirit with a disabled hero, Geordi was born blind and can only "see" (including the whole spectrum of invisible radiation) with the help of a high-tech visor (actually called a "VISOR," short for "Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement") connected directly to his optic nerve.

The device became one of Star Trek's most iconic images, but it wasn't without difficulties for Burton. He explained to CreativeLive, "There was a real gift of challenge in that role for me as an actor because I had come to really rely on my eyes, acting on film, as my go-to. It was my strong suit, it was the first tool in the bag that I would go to. Having my eyes covered ... really caused me to have to learn how to communicate without my eyes, so I know that the time I spent on Star Trek made a much better actor out of me."

Burton's visor was a major pain

LeVar Burton threw himself into his role as Geordi despite the problems posed by his trademark visor, which went far beyond the acting challenges. The device might've allowed Geordi to see, but it covered so much of Burton's eyes that it made him effectively blind. He told Alibi, "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."

And that wasn't even the worst of it. The weighty metal visor needed some serious engineering to stay put on Burton's head. In fact, every time he began filming, he had to attach the big heavy thing to his temples with "a mechanism of flanges and screws." As you might expect, this meant poor Burton had a near-constant headache all through his long tenure on the show. Fortunately, someone on the crew seemed to have noticed what Burton was going through because the prop was phased out beginning with the movie First Contact, where Geordi started wearing implants directly within his eyes.

He popped up on Batman: The Animated Series

Burton showed his face in a number of memorable bit parts throughout his career, but there's one you may have missed — mainly because his face doesn't appear there at all. In 1992, Warner Brothers Animation premiered their innovative take on the Dark Knight with Batman: The Animated Series, which is still the definitive version for many fans thanks to its psychological depth and unique visual style, courtesy of designer/producer Bruce Timm. It also had a deep bench of voice talent, including Mark Hamill's defining interpretation of the Joker, Adam West's return to the franchise as the Gray Ghost, and, of course, LeVar Burton.

In "The Worry Men," one of the Gotham glitterati returns from a trip to Central America with "worry men," traditional dolls that are supposed to take away your anxieties if you leave them under your pillow. She hands the dolls out to her party guests, with suspicious results when Gotham's elite citizens begin gathering up money and giving it to mysterious figures without knowing why.

One player in this mystery is Hayden Sloan, with the familiar voice of LeVar Burton, who gets to have some fun as the red-herring suspect — a securities executive who gets arrested for embezzlement when his clients' accounts start drying up. Sloan turns out to be innocent, though, as Batman discovers his old enemy the Mad Hatter is behind the thefts. Burton apparently had so much fun that he decided to stay in the studio to record some more lines, as he also has a cameo as one of the Hatter's henchmen.

He crossed continents to be on Reading Rainbow

No project has been more important to LeVar Burton than Reading Rainbow. For 26 years, Burton went on PBS to teach millions of kids the love of reading. Every episode would encourage children to read along with Burton as he read through a picture book and then used the rest of the running time to further explore some subject that the story had covered. Reading Rainbow ran on almost no budget, and putting books on TV must've seemed like a losing bet to most actors ... but not Burton. If anything, he was even more excited to be on Reading Rainbow than he was to be on Star Trek.

Producer Larry Lancit told Mental Floss that they were originally considering Charles in Charge star and conservative activist Scott Baio, but as Lancit explained, "I remember [writer] Lynne [Ganek] called us and said, 'You really need to see this guy. He'll be on the six o'clock news.'" And when Lancit saw Burton on TV, he was thoroughly impressed. Another producer, Cecily Truett, added, "Lynne called [LeVar Burton's manager] when LeVar was doing ABC's Wide World of Sports on the Zimbabwe River." And according to Truett, the agent replied, "He's not even in the country, but he'll do it."

And the agent was right. Burton ran down to Buffalo, New York's local PBS affiliate, where he'd continue hosting Reading Rainbow for decades to come.

He broke Kickstarter's record

Unfortunately, some things are too good to last. With funds dwindling, Reading Rainbow filmed its final episode in 2006 and officially went off the air in 2009. But Burton wasn't done with Reading Rainbow just because Reading Rainbow was done with him.

He was inspired by an NPR piece that interviewed viewers who'd grown up with the show and didn't want their own kids to grow up without it, and he decided to make sure that would never happen. Burton bought the rights to the series and began gathering funds to create a new version for the internet generation. After many failures to get traditional revenue sources interested, Burton went to the then-new realm of crowdfunding with Kickstarter. This strategy paid off enormously, earning over $5 million, the most any campaign on the site had earned up to that point. All that money went into Skybrary, an app that gives kids access to online lessons, "video field trips," and a whole library of books to read, listen to, or interact with.

LeVar Burton is reading books to grown-ups

On Reading Rainbow, LeVar Burton taught children to fall in love with reading. Sadly, many of us lose some of that passion as we move into adulthood, but Burton's not about to let us fall by the wayside. In 2017, Burton launched a new podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, which delivers just what it promises in the name. Every week, Burton chooses from a selection of short stories from great literary and genre authors like Haruki Murakami, Ray Bradbury, and Toni Morrison, taking care to go beyond the accepted canon and to represent racial and gender diversity from around the world.

Burton's readings have taken on an added meaning during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Towards the beginning of the outbreak in April, he started a livestream on Twitter, calming the United States' frazzled nerves with his soothing voice and combining his usual adult fare on Fridays with both Wednesday shows for young adults and children's time on Mondays. Plus, several of his favorite writers got in on the act, with Sandman author Neil Gaiman volunteering the rights to his stories, inspiring other writers and publishers to join in.

LeVar Burton once tried to microwave a phone

It must be pretty cool to have someone like LeVar Burton for your father, but even the coolest dad can still be a total dad sometimes. During her time as a host for Rooster Teeth (which ended recently due to what she claims was a pretty horrific work environment), Burton's daughter, Mica, told a story about daddish cluelessness of epic proportions. 

"He was outside, and he was talking on his phone, and it got sweaty. My father, the genius, decides, 'I should put it in the microwave to dry it off!'" It went about as well as you'd expect, with his daughter explaining, "I vividly remember walking past him and going, 'Oh, hey, Dad, what are you microwa...' And before I could get the word 'microwaving' out of my mouth, our microwave exploded into, like, this glorious Roman candle and scorched the ceiling of our kitchen!" Obviously, Geordi's mechanical expertise didn't rub off on his actor in real life.