The star of Roots, Reading Rainbow, and Star Trek: TNG on seeking out new life and new civilizations, new business opportunities, and new Twitter friends.
Signing breasts is just another day at the office.
Catapulted to fame at 19 after appearing as the young slave Kunta Kinte in the 1977 blockbuster miniseries Roots, LeVar Burton hung his star on two little shows called Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation. “These days I’m most often recognized for Reading Rainbow,” says Burton. “There’s a generation of people who are now in their late 20s and early 30s that grew up on the show—they just seem to be everywhere.” Not that TNG fans are wallflowers, exactly. “I’ve signed a lot of arms and legs and breasts, which kind of loses its lustre after a while. I love my life, I’m the first to say it, but it does crack me up that this is normal to me. We were at a convention not too long ago and someone asked Brent [Spiner, who plays Data] to sign his name on her arm. She came back the next day with it tattooed. That’s an extreme example of how we coexist with this part of our lives that is completely ludicrous and bizarre.”
Being chief engineer is cooler than being captain, okay?
Over the 178-episode run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, everyone got more nookie than Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, including Data (an android). “It never rang true to me that Geordi was socially inept with women,” protests Burton. “In no other aspect of his life was Geordi not operating at peak efficiency. Geordi was a rock star! He made the words ‘coolant leak’ sound sexy.” Burton wouldn’t trade places with any of his former castmates (“Geordi was a shit-hot engineer and he never took himself too seriously, unlike Picard”), but he’ll give credit where credit is due. “We love being together. We make each other laugh and that’s never going to change. No matter how many years away from the work that we get, we will always be family.”
The cast that reads together stays together.
Three years after the long-running Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2009, Burton and his business partner resurrected it as an iPad app. “The technology and the format are different,” he says, “but the mission is still the same.” Burton’s not above calling in a few favours—just think of the children. “I read a certain percentage of the titles and then I handpick other storytellers to read the balance of the books. I’m hitting up everybody: the Roots cast, the Star Trek cast. We’re trying to change the world one children’s book at a time. Who’s going to say no to that? Besides, actors have huge egos—if you tell them they’re needed and they’re loved, they’ll be there.”
Optimism is where it’s at. And for dark nights of the soul, there’s always Twitter.
The creator of Star Trek was onto something with all that chatter about diplomacy and peaceful exploration. “Gene Roddenberry put forth a point of view that is hopeful about the outcome here on Earth where humanity is concerned,” says Burton. “You’ve got to admit, looking around from where we sit today, it looks pretty bleak.” That’s where Reading Rainbow comes in: Burton, an optimist by nature, claims he’s tried to “magnetize toward himself” opportunities to reflect and share his upbeat outlook. Still, it’s not always raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. “There are times when the idea of failing keeps the hamster running around in the cage,” he says. “That’s when I log on to Twitter. There are people there, 24/7. For the insomniac, it’s quite a blessing. There’s no agent, there’s no manager, there’s no studio, there’s no network, there’s no publicist; it’s just me and my voice, my authentic self. It’s what I want to say when I want to say it—in 140 characters or less.” In short, god bless the internet? “I think Jonathan Frakes said it best when he said without Star Trek and porn, there would be no internet.”
LeVar Burton appears at Toronto ComiCon on March 9 at 7 p.m. $49–$149. Metro Toronto Convention Centre, South Building, 222 Bremner Blvd., comicontoronto.com.