The star of “Roots,” “Star Trek,” and “Reading Rainbow” opens up about his experience auditioning for “Jeopardy!”, his new book, and William Shatner’s flight to space.
“I am thrilled. I am literally over the moon—well, not literally, but virtually,” exclaimed LeVar Burton, about his latest achievement, post-Jeopardy!: The Rose Parade in Pasadena last week named Burton its 2022 grand marshal. And he spoke about it on a day two of his fellow Star Trek stars also reached new heights, one quite literally: “The Shat went to space and came back safe. It’s a good day!”
Burton told The Daily Beast he was moved by actor William Shatner’s first words upon returning to Earth from the flight aboard Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket to the edge of space.
“And wasn’t he eloquent upon returning?” said Burton. “People don’t understand: Bill feels shit, deeply. When he said ‘I hope I never recover,’ that was awesome.”
Burton wouldn’t say whether he’d be willing to follow Shatner into space, or close to it, as he’s focused on helping children here on Earth reach their own stars through his second book, just published, A Kids Book About Imagination. His first book, Aftermath, was a prescient 1997 science-fiction novel depicting the United States being torn apart by civil war and racial strife.
“This is the story of my take on the importance of imagination to the human being, and I’m sharing that in in a way that a child can really understand,” said the former host and executive producer of Reading Rainbow. He added that one of the things he’s most proud of in a career that’s spanned 44 years so far, beginning with Roots, is being able to speak to different audiences.
“Wildly disparate audiences, simultaneously, and an audience of children being one of them,” he offered. “I don’t think that can be overstated how difficult that is, because if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. So, I love speaking to kids, especially in a way that can help them form and formulate, know who they are and where they’re going in life.”
With illustrations by Duke Stebbins and the help of A Kids Book About publisher Jelani Memory, Burton directly addresses some of the biggest questions society still grapples with in 2021: “What if you lived in a world that was fair for everyone? What if prejudice or racism didn’t exist? What if everyone you cared about felt safe and loved? What if every kid felt like they belonged?”
“We cannot have a just and equitable society unless we can imagine one,” Burton said. “My intention with this book was to get the information in the hands of those who can use it most, as early as possible. ‘Your imagination is a muscle.’ You got to use it, and it is unlimited. So, don’t be afraid to use it often and in big and exciting and unexpected ways.”
Burton also pays tribute to his mother, Erma Gene Christian, “an avid reader,” he wrote. “She introduced me to the world of books.”
“Every time I have the opportunity to speak my mother's name, I do,” he told The Daily Beast. “I am the man I am because she was the woman she was, and that’s the truth. So, everything that I’ve ever done in the field of literacy is done in her name and in her honor because she was my first teacher.” Burton recalled his mother not only read to him and his sisters, but also read in front of them.
“That was really important modeling,” he said. “I grew up in a house where it was expected that you read. We read three daily newspapers when I was a kid. Reading was important, and it was communicated as an important activity, an important thing for us to do, by my mom.”
Burton, who is perhaps most famous for playing Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, recently collaborated with his co-stars on the audiobook for Brent Spiner’s debut novel, Fan Fiction: A Mem-Noir. Last year, Spiner, the actor who played the android “Data,” created a make-believe feud with Burton for a short film. Burton assures fans it’s all an act.
“We genuinely love one another,” he said. “I think that without really trying we’ve demonstrated over the years how much we mean to one another.”
Spiner and Jonathan Frakes appeared in the first season of the Paramount streaming series, Star Trek: Picard, and Whoopi Goldberg is expected to appear in season two next year, but Burton has no immediate plans to reprise the role of La Forge. “I don’t think the contact lenses would work anymore,” he said of the prop used in the films that allowed the blind character to see. The “ocular implants” replaced a remanufactured banana clip used in the series called the VISOR. “We’re not going back to the VISOR. That’s definitely a part of my past.”
Speaking of the past, one of the most popular Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes of all time paired Burton’s character with actor James Doohan, who played “Scotty” on the original series. In “Relics,” Chief Engineer La Forge was, to put it kindly, not at all patient with the original Enterprise’s “miracle worker.”
“I had a great time with Jimmy,” recalled Burton. “The storyline had nothing to do with how we got along, I have to say. You know, I tend to forget how much of a dick Geordi was in ‘Relics!’ But then, there’s the argument that at the end of the day, he was kind of a creepazoid on the holodeck with Dr. Leah Brahms,” in the episodes “Booby Trap” and “Galaxy’s Child.”
“I guess the real legacy of Geordi La Forge is that he's a little darker than we ever suspected,” laughed Burton.
The actor reunited with several Star Trek costars at the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A. last month for a celebration of the 55-year-old franchise. “Star Trek Day a few weeks ago was wild because I recognized immediately there are a lot of people who have joined the family that I don’t know! So, I just kept introducing myself to people,” he said.
Burton remains tight-lipped about his next project, but whatever it is, he’s closed the door on ever hosting Jeopardy!. “Even if they called with a new offer?” I ask.
“I’d say, ‘No. You’ve got to be kidding me! You’re out of your mind. Goodbye!’” And then Burton clarified why he would hang up: He’s moved on.
“I want to make it clear, for the record, that I’m really happy with the way things worked out,” he said. “I was disappointed to not get the job, but I’m the sort of person, I believe that everything happens for a reason. And if I didn’t get that job, that meant it wasn’t supposed to be for me, and I accepted that almost instantly and willingly. I know that the opportunities that are in front of me right now wouldn’t have come my way had I gotten the job, so I’m certain that this has worked out better for me than I could ever have imagined.”