Talk about Roots all you want, it definitely deserves it. But from my perspective, if you want to get a handle on LeVar Burton’s personality, style of acting and overall legacy, there’s only one place to look.
It doesn’t get commented on anywhere near enough that Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation were on the air at the same time. Having started Reading Rainbow four years before being cast as Geordi La Forge and continuing an additional twelve years after the television voyages of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D came to an end, Star Trek was LeVar’s night job, quite literally so in some cases. This makes him somewhat unusual among the Trek pantheon, and also means that between 1987 and 1994 he was arguably one of the busiest, most hardworking people in Hollywood. And consider what that was like for an entire generation that was at the age where they would have been familiar with both shows: Imagine how cool it felt to see one of your childhood heroes in costume onboard the Starship Enterprise on one of the highest rated and most talked about shows of the time.
One has to wonder if there wasn’t some element of design in this. Patrick Stewart’s later phenomenal acclaim tends to eclipse the historical reality that he was by no means intended to be the main attraction of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the beginning. He was hired because he’s a gobsmackingly brilliant thespian, of course, but, just like everyone else on that cast, he was an unknown in the United States and any fame he came to was the *result* of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s success, not a cause of it. Well…When I say everyone was an unknown, I mean everyone except LeVar Burton, that is…who *was* already well established thanks to both Roots and a beloved and award-winning children’s television programme he hosted. Yes, believe it or not, LeVar Burton was the one bit of celebrity casting Paramount allowed themselves, was wildly more known and popular than any of his co-stars at the time, and was likely somebody who was the main draw for Star Trek: The Next Generation to a lot of people in its early days, be they skeptical OG Trekkers, mainstream audiences, or kids who were fans of Reading Rainbow.
I know he was for me. I was one of those people who came to Star Trek through LeVar Burton, being a big admirer of his other work. In fact, the very first piece of Star Trek merchandise I ever got was the reissued Wave 1 Playmates Geordi La Forge figure. That’s not to say there weren’t other things that caught my attention about Star Trek: The Next Generation, there definitely were, but LeVar was a *major* contributing factor in my becoming a fan and as a result, when I first started watching, Geordi was the character I focused on almost exclusively. I mean, I liked everyone else just fine: I enjoyed the sense of dignity Patrick Stewart exuded as Captain Picard and I really enjoyed how dynamic and commanding Jonathan Frakes was as Commander Riker.…