LeVar Burton, Mr. Cultural Touchstone. Off-Ramp for December 8, 2012

LeVar Burton: from Roots to Reading Rainbow to "Magical Negroes"

Mark Wolfe

Actor Levar Burton and announcer John Rabe

"It must have been an incredible burden for you as an actor," I said, "to be the son of Richard Burton." Without batting an eye, LeVar Burton responds, "Well, he is what we referred to as the white sheep of the family, and so we don't talk about him."

But then, LeVar Burton goes immediately into a story about how, growing up without a father, he'd pretend his father was Peter O'Toole, one of those actors who at that time (the 1960s), embodied civilization.

Burton has added a lot to civilization. He played Kunta Kinte in Roots, the epic miniseries. He brought depth and humor to the role of Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the thing he's most proud of is hosting Reading Rainbow for some 25 years, a show that's become a cultural touchstone for generations. It explored books and connected lit to the real world.

The show went off the air a few years ago, the victim, Burton says, of No Child Left Behind, which favored teaching the fundamentals over engaging them further in literature.

But Burton isn't wallowing in the past. Just as there probably won't be another Roots, a nation-uniting media event, he's embraced the idea that maybe Reading Rainbow can thrive best in the new media atmosphere. To that end, this year, Burton and business partner Mark Wolfe revived Reading Rainbow as an app, where it quickly became the fastest growing educational application.

In our wide ranging conversation, Burton and I talk about early influences, his respect for St Augustine, what he learned from comic books, and much more, including "Magical Negroes."

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