Off Hollywood: LeVar Burton
In a world of ever-increasing cynicism, LeVar Burton continues to influence a better tomorrow. Born during the height of the civil rights movement, he pretty much seemed destined to make a positive difference from the time he was a teenager. At 19 years old, LeVar made a powerful television debut in the mini-series adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which helped cultivate a new understanding of the condition of the American slave.
In addition to his career as an actor, LeVar has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to fostering a love of reading in children as the host of Reading Rainbow. “Being the son of a school teacher,” he says, “I was raised with the notion you are what you read as much as what you eat.”
I recently sat with LeVar in his office—surrounded by healing crystals, sage, and his shiny gold Emmy—to discuss his career, Google Glass versus Geordi LaForge’s “Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement,” and if he ever feels like being an asshole.
VICE: You made your television debut in 1977 in the role of Kunta Kinte, a young man unwillingly brought to America, who—despite serving many years as a slave—never lost the connection to his African heritage. How did you prepare for such a weighted role?
LeVar Burton: I was a college student at the time, studying theater at the University of Southern California. In terms of my readiness as an actor, I was already living the actor’s life, busy dedicating myself to studying this craft. When I read Kunta for the first time, I knew who this kid was. I knew the innocence and the rage. I have no other way of explaining it: I felt like I’d been preparing to play Kunta my whole life.
Roots was a huge success. Today it remains the third highest-rated mini-series of all time. How did this affect you personally?
It was overwhelming to be a part of a piece of entertainment that holds that much power.Roots was weird for me specifically, because it was personal as well as public. With its success, my whole world shifted—I went from being a theater student to the cover of TV Guide. The reason it continues to have tremendous impact on the nation is that it speaks to the hearts of people who value the concept of freedom. Kunta represents the indomitability of the human spirit, and the idea that we are all born free no matter what the circumstance. So yeah, those aren’t the kind of shoes you fit into perfectly at 19 years old. You grow into them. It’s taken me my entire career to tap into the riches of that experience.
Why did it take a television mini-series to help create a better understanding of slavery in America?
It’s the power of moving pictures when they are combined with sound! Human beings are predisposed to gather the full spectrum of information in a shared experience. It gets our attention, and the information easily penetrates the deepest levels of our consciousness. The experience of watching Roots on television helped people develop empathy towards the condition of the slave. It was an awareness our country needed for genuine healing to take place.
Off Hollywood: Denise Crosby
Sometime in 1987 the talk amongst the lunch tables at my junior high school was, “Who is the cool new-wave chick inStar Trek: The Next Generation?” At the time we had a lot of interesting women to look up to in music, but this one was living in a future where a woman could be the head of security on a starship. The character was named Tasha Yar, and her backstory was even more inspiring. She was an orphan who had to scavenge for the bare necessities of life, escaped rape gangs, overcame a drug addiction, and through her bravery and determination made her way into a high-profile job aboard the Starship Enterprise. For a bunch of teenage girls facing an uncertain future ourselves, she was the ultimate heroine. Until she was killed by Armus, a malevolent life form made from the byproduct of human negativity and evil. Tragically, our heroine had becomea memory contained in a hologram.
But Denise Crosby, the actor who made Tasha Yar legendary, lives on and continues to appear in films and on television as heroines in all sorts of universes. I met her recently at a Star Trek convention, where I saw her walking down the hallway with a small group of admirers. My opening line was one of pure fandom: “You’re awesome!” Surprisingly, we hit it off like old friends, discovering we grew up in the same neighborhood and had a deep affection for anything Fiorucci. As we spoke, the fandom subsided, and I became very much inspired by her legacy. A month later I found myself in her backyard discussing her career over coffee and cookies.
VICE: Being the granddaughter of Bing Crosby and the daughter of Dennis, you were born into the entertainment industry. Was there ever a time when you thought you would not go into showbiz?
Denise: Absolutely. In my youth I had that rebel spirit in me that didn’t want to do anything people assumed I would do. Instead I would purposefully go out and do the opposite. I moved away from home and out of Los Angeles as soon as I could. I loved journalism and wanted to be like Christiane Amanpour or Diane Sawyer. I knew I wanted to be on camera, but I wanted to do investigative reporting or work in the field, so I studied journalism and drama at a college in Santa Cruz. On a fluke I auditioned and got the part in the spring production of the school play, which put me in touch with a part of myself that I enjoyed but wasn’t ready to embrace. I took a year off and bummed around the world, scored a few modeling jobs in London and Paris. Eventually I came back home to my parents’ place in Los Angeles, and it was there that I was contacted by a casting agent who had seen some pictures of me in Playboy.
I’ve seen the Playboy photographs! They are incredible. I don’t think I have ever seen a Playboy model with a punk-rock hairstyle!
It’s true, and no one has looked like that since. What happened was I originally did some test shots with a photographer who had me dressed up like Little Bo Peep. I had ruffles and bows and I thought to myself, This is a mistake—this is not me, and I never want to be this. On an off day I went down to Vidal Sassoon on Rodeo Drive and said, “Cut all of my hair off.” I had shoulder length hair at the time, so the stylist said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Just give me a short, short cut. Buzz it off.”
The next day I showed up to continue the photo shoot, and the photographer flipped out! He pulled me into the photo editor’s office to show her what I had done. They just thought Hefner would never go for it. But another photographer named Phillip Dixon was in the office and interrupted: “I like the way she looks, it’s very modern. Let me do some test shots.” So they gave him a chance, and it was the tests with Phillip that wound up going to print. Playboy is kind of what started my acting career. Thankfully I did it on my own terms, not Little Bo Peep with her boobs showing.