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Burton speaks of 'Roots,' other strong influences

Actor appears at Shippensburg U. minority scholarship dinner

Actor appears at Shippensburg U. minority scholarship dinner

February 22, 2008|By DON AINES

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. - In his three decades as an actor, director and writer, LeVar Burton told the audience at H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center of three great influences on his career - "Roots" author Alex Haley, "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and Mr. Rogers.

It is easy to see why those three figure so prominently in Burton's life. He explained their roles, and that of his mother Erma Jean, as the guest speaker at Shippensburg University's 23rd annual Gifted Minority Scholarship Benefit Dinner & Program.

"'Roots' was part of a cultural awakening in the country," the 51-year-old actor said of the book, which was made into the most-watched miniseries of its time. Burton's career began with the 1977 epic when the University of Southern California drama major was plucked from obscurity to play Kunte Kinte.

Burton later played Geordi LaForge on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," but Roddenberry's influence reached back into his 1960s boyhood when black actors were a rare sight on television and Nichelle Nichols, as Uhura, shared the bridge of the Enterprise with Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Sulu and Chekov.

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The host of "The Reading Rainbow" on PBS also noted the influence of Fred Rogers, the late host of that network's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," was notable for his being as kind a person in real life as he was on the small screen to millions of children.

"The power of the written word, the power of literature, is so important to my background and my upbringing," Burton said when asked what was his most important role. "I'm going to say 'Reading Rainbow.'"

Burton frequently harked back to the influence of his mother.

"For everyone of us ... it is our parents who are, by default, our first teachers," he said.

Erma Jean was a strict disciplinarian who made him "as equipped as she could make me for my journey, and her weapon of choice was education."

"Take the step right in front of you and the next step will reveal itself," Burton said when asked about the important steps in his own career.

He said his goal had been Broadway, but "Roots" was an opportunity which presented itself and took him in another direction.

"Roots" was a gift that keeps on giving for Burton, opening unexpected doors in his career and taking him to dozens of countries where its story of progress from slavery to freedom strikes a universal theme.

"As you can imagine, February is a very busy month for Kunte," Burton said, referring to it as being Black History Month.

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