Recently, I had a chance to talk to LeVar Burton about Star Trek (the Season 4 Blu-ray is out) and Reading Rainbow, as well as the new Reading Rainbow app. Not only do I highly recommend Star Trek on Blu-ray, you should definitely check out the Reading Rainbow app, if you have kids it's a must. If you're interested in nostalgia for the show, it works for that as well.
LeVar was an incredibly nice and generous guy and it was a pleasure to take the time to talk to him. He has a lot of very cool things going on and of the interviews I've conducted, this one has been one of my favorites.
Bryan Young: First I wanted to talk about how you got into Reading Rainbow and why that was important for you. Was it just a job when you got it and then it turned into something more important to you after that?
LeVar Burton: No, it was a mission from the very beginning. Reading Rainbow was an idea that was presented to me in the, what I refer to as the “post sun-spot” that was Roots in my life. The Roots experience was one that really showed me the power that is the medium of television. …It was on television that I really watched the nation become transformed around the issue of slavery and its attendant legacy, racism, in a way that was incredibly powerful. So the idea, when it was presented to me, to use the medium of television to steer kids back in the direction of literature and the written word in the summer months when they’re sitting in front of the television set made ultimate sense to me. It was a no brainer. So I was enthusiastic about the idea of using the medium in such a devilishly good way.
BY: It certainly worked rather well, I think over the years. Every time I mentioned I was doing this interview, the two responses I got, invariably, were either a Star Trek response or literally someone singing the Reading Rainbow theme song to me. I’m sure you must get lots of that.
LB: It’s cool the way that Reading Rainbow has been embraced by those first couple of generations of kids that grew up watching it and the fact that it is still alive as a brand and it is something that they can look forward to their children experiencing. It’s been a great conversation to have with the public in this commercial field this past year because we raised money to market our effort. What we raised money for was to prove out our concept, that the brand still had value and that there was a place for the brand in the ever changing dynamic of how we consume the written word in society.
My business partner, Mark Wolfe, and I really saw the brand and acquiring the brand as an opportunity to have a voice in that conversation going forward. I think what we discovered over the past year is that there are a lot of parents out there, a lot of people who are eager to join with us in this conversation about how to we find the best stuff for our kids in this digital realm, in a culture that is becoming increasingly digital.
BY: That leads me to a question I had about what Reading Rainbow does outside of reading. When I was a kid, my favorite episode was always the Star Trek: The Next Generation behind the scenes episode, that was fascinating to me. When I found out it was going to be on the Season 2 BluRay, I was really excited to share that with my kids. I’m wondering, I wanted to talk about that experience of bringing those two things together; aside from your connection, it didn’t seem like the easiest fit.
LB: Well, Reading Rainbow was always trying to be “out of the box,” we were “out of the box” as much as we were a television show that was promoting reading! [laughs] There was nothing “inside the box” about Reading Rainbow, nothing at all. And we loved being out of the box, that was the whole point. And get out of the box, the box, the television, this is one way to experience the story but we were continually saying, “you don’t have to take my word for it.Go, get a book. Find out for yourself what’s out there in the world.” I think one of the things we did really successfully with Reading Rainbow, and the tradition continues with the Reading Rainbow app is that we tie the literature to real-world experience.
That’s what that episode, based on the book The Bionic Bunny show was all about. It was an effort, part of a continuing effort to tie the literature that kids read to real-world experience so that literature really does become its intended use, a portal to imaginative thinking. If you can dream it, you can do it. And science-fiction literature, and Star Trek in particular, is the most holistic example of that I can think of, if you can dream it, you can do it, because we literally have this science-fiction television series that is responsible for all sorts of technological advancement that we actually enjoy in our world today.
BY: Definitely. Funny, the Reading Rainbow app is on an iPad and an iPad is something that seems like it was dreamed up for Next Generation.
LB: How cool is that? Is that crazy, or what?
BY: It’s amazing to me, especially going back to watch them again to see how much of that we’ve integrated into our lives without even realizing.
LB: It is amazing. Here we are, just a scant few years later and we have this technology as a part of our everyday experience. It’s very cool, we live in a remarkable time, we really do. That link between the imagination and our reality is so, I guess the word is, quickened.
BY: I want to ask why that focus on literacy and education has been important to you personally throughout your career.
LB: Oh, that’s easy. I come from a family where education is the pinnacle of human experience. Historically, genetically, my people were denied the right of literacy… I come by that which I believe quite honestly. My family, and millions of other families like mine, having come from an oppressed culture where education was denied us, it’s something that we thirst mightily for. If you are a member of my family you are not only in favor of education, but you are in favor of the continuing nature that education should be. There are a lot of teachers in my family, my mother, my older sister, my son, two nieces, it’s like a family business. I believe that I come by that desire in myself really, really honestly, there’s a lot of proof and evidence for it in my bloodline, if you follow me.
BY: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve read that you were a great fan of the original Star Trek series and what it represented, both culturally for yourself and with the pop culture as well. It sounds like that provided an education experience for you, is that something you were interested in when you took the part for Next Generation?
LB: Yeah, absolutely! I did not come to the Next Generation experience a novice, I was really familiar with Gene Roddenberry’s vision, I was really familiar with Star Trek. I was, and continue to be a huge fan of Gene’s vision and of Star Trek. It meant a lot to me as a kid, and continues to mean a lot to me. To grow up and to be a part of that storytelling myth, it’s crazy. Are you kidding me?
[laughs] Come on, man. How good is my life, really?
BY: It must be gratifying then, it’s such a common experience of people, I’m in my early thirties and it’s extremely common in people of my generation, two of the primary influences of learning have been Reading Rainbow and Star Trek. What would you have to say to those people that should be reading books instead?
LB: I stand on my belief that the ability to read and to be literate in at least one language is one of the inalienable rights that I believe are granted to human kind. So if you are literate in one language, you can educate yourself and I think that a free society is the first step of a building block of a sustainable solution to being human. I think for all of these centuries and these millennia we have been looking for a sustainable solution to the problem of being human. Which is to say that we are naturally curious, and it seems, inherently violent. [laughs] So the sustainability of a society has to begin somewhere, and I believe it begins with freedom and not long thereafter comes higher education. Do you understand what I’m saying?
LB: You have to have freedom, you have to have equality. I feel like, in no small measure, I addressed those two elements in the beginning of my career with Roots, Roots being my first job. Then at some point you have to get onto higher learning, right, and then beyond that, beyond higher learning, you have to really have a functioning economy that’s based on everyone having their needs met. Once you have an economy where everyone’s having their needs met, that means that you are in the right relationship with your environment, you’re being proper stewards of the ecosystem in which you live. Then that’s where you get sustainability.
BY: That is very much, in my view, what Roddenberry’s vision that he’s been trying to establish over the years with Star Trek.
LB: I could not agree more. I think that Star Trek is one of those myths that point the way toward how we should be operating.
BY: Was it a thirst for knowledge that lead you to directing and telling some of those Star Trek stories yourself?
LB: I was out of an effort in my life to not feel powerless and not simply feel like I was an actor waiting for the phone to ring. I wanted to really develop a different skill set and give myself an opportunity to be the center of the creative process as opposed to be an adjunct to it.
BY: You’ve directed a whole bunch of television, not just Star Trek, you’ve directed more Star Trek than Jonathan Frakes, which is something...
LB: Only because I’ve directed more hours, that’s all, it’s just a function of numbers. Jonathan, I think everyone would agree, is the most successful, certainly in my view, the most successful director to come out of Star Trek university. There are a lot of good directors, I count myself among them, there’s a lot of us that got our start with Rick Berman’s support for us becoming more a part of the center of the story telling process. For that, I’m forever grateful.
BY: When I’ve talked to him [Frakes] he’s said that he said that when he expressed an interest in directing he said that Berman and everyone there sort of put him through the Paramount film school to know how to do that, is that something you went through as well?
LB: The model was created with Jonathan, the model of Star Trek university was created with Jonathan and it was Rick’s idea. Rick was all for it, but you had to prove your worthiness, you had to prove your mettle. You had to go to school, you had to get the education that was being offered to you, you had to take advantage of it which means you had to put in the time. That’s all it was, you had to put in the time, you had to come in on your days off. You had to demonstrate that you really wanted this.
BY: With Star Trek and Reading Rainbow, does it astound you at all that both of the properties that you were so involved in, and even Roots, Roots is something that I was made to watch in school, in elementary school even, then found enjoyment out of it as a story and learning later in my life as well, that all three things that you’re sort of most identified with are so enduring?
LB: I’m a lucky son of a bitch. [laughs]
BY: Is Jeopardy next, if that’s your track record?
LB: I hope so! I really do love Jeopardy, I’ve been watching it since I was in the third grade. I’m a big fan, I try to catch it every night. I badgered Alex for years, Trebek, to do a celebrity version of Jeopardy, he always argued that they never wanted to compromise the integrity of the game. Then I guess they one day decided that they would give it a try and they realized and recognized that there was a way they could do it and not compromise the integrity of the game and make it a genuine competition based on one’s general knowledge of trivia and world events. Lo and behold, I got my shot and I won on Jeopardy and now Alex is retiring and I think I’m the right guy for the gig.
BY: I know a whole bunch of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow fans that would agree with you.
LB: We’ll see what happens. I really believe in setting an intention in life and if you really put yourself out there, you have a better shot at achieving dreams than if you don’t have an expressed intention.
BY: Wise words, definitely. I want to thank you both for the time talking to me and really a lifetime of education I picked up on the side thanks to you.
LB: Thank you. Like I said, I really am lucky and I genuinely believe that there are some guys who are born with a silver spoon in their mouths and everything really seems to come to them. I don’ think I’m one of those guys, I’m not the guy who gets to do whatever he wants. I’m not a Russell Crowe or I’m not a Tom Hanks, but I am one of those guys who has made good with the opportunities that have come my way and I’m grateful every day for the opportunity to be in this game and for the opportunity to make a difference. It’s why I think we’re all here, to make a difference.
BY: Really quickly, though, what’s next for you that people should be looking for?
LB: Oh, I’m back on TV, the second season of Perception on TNT, we air Tuesday nights at 10:00. And the Reading Rainbow app now available on the iOS and Kindle Fire platforms, this is our first product. We’ve been on the market with this for a year, but the Reading Rainbow app is just the beginning, we’re looking to build a new brand for children and their families that is about enriching content, so that’s the intention that we set. Every day, it’s about the execution.
BY: Thank you very much again for everything.