LeVar Burton On The End Of 'Reading Rainbow'

Actor LeVar Burton has been the host of The Reading Rainbow for more than two decades. The PBS show's run has come to an end. Burton talks about the show's impact, his long-running career, and what he plans to do next.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

We've all known LeVar Burton since his stunning performance in the enormously successful miniseries "Roots" back in 1977.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Roots")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) What's your name?

Mr. LEVAR BURTON (Actor): (As Kunta Kinte) Kunta. Kunta Kinte.

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Trek: The Next Generation")

Mr. BURTON: (As Geordi La Forge) Phase inducers are connected to the emitter array. The override is completely gone, and the pattern buffer's been locked into a continuous diagnostic cycle.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Reading Rainbow")

Mr. JIM HENSON (Actor): (As Kermit the Frog) Well, the real story is I like to pig out on books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: You know, that's actually a great idea, Kermit. And if you like to pig out on books, here are some that you might enjoy, but you don't have to take our word for it, right, Kermit?

Mr. HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) Absolutely.

CONAN: You also heard LeVar Burton in his role as Geordi La Forge, chief engineer aboard the USS Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and in his longest running role as the host of "Reading Rainbow." The PBS children series ended last month, a victim of a funding crunch.

If you'd like to talk with LeVar Burton about any of his roles, the number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us email: talk@npr.org, and join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today, LeVar Burton joins us from the studios of Audio Post in Philadelphia, where he's phoning another show for PBS, "The Science of Star Trek."

And nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. BURTON: Neal, I'm so excited.

CONAN: Oh, well, really? We're the ones who are totally excited.

Mr. BURTON: No, no, no. See, you don't understand. Your voice is one of the most recognizable voices in my head.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. BURTON: Yeah.

CONAN: I - well, I'm going to leave that right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But after listening to that tape, I have to ask you whether it was easier to talk about dilithium crystals or talk with a Muppet?

Mr. BURTON: It's much easier to talk to Kermit than…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: …than talking about pattern buffers and diagnostic cycles.

CONAN: That show, I think, people - you're still part, I guess, of the extended "Star Trek" family and always will be.

Mr. BURTON: Oh, yeah. Absolutely - and proud to be so. I was a huge fan of the original series. I read a lot of science fiction books. When I was growing up, it was my body of literature of choice.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURTON: And it was rare - not, never, but uncommon, certainly, for me to encounter heroes in the pages of those novels who looked like me.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BURTON: Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future was one where I was included. As a kid growing up in Sacramento, Gene Roddenberry's show, "Star Trek," said, when the future comes, there's a place for you, kid. So, to have grown up and become a member of that family is beyond the beyond.

CONAN: There was a place for you, but you had to see it through that weird little visor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: Yeah. Well, you know, the 24th century isn't all roses, Neal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: The sort of - the conundrum is, is that as an actor, I put on the visor because the character I played, Geordi La Forge, is blind.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURTON: The character, when he puts on the device, sees more than everybody else around him. Yet, as an actor, my vision was reduced by about 80 to 85 percent. So the first couple of years, I really - I bumped in to everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: Lights, the other actors, the furniture. And, of course, one of the rules of acting is don't bump into the furniture.

CONAN: No. Absolutely not. Especially those expensive sets, those could break easily.

Mr. BURTON: They were very fragile. And the producers didn't like me to, you know, kicking the sets and leaving marks and breaking things.

CONAN: Well, let me ask you about the even longer running role in which you've affected the lives of millions of people.

Mr. BURTON: Hmm.

CONAN: Twenty-six years on "Reading Rainbow."

Mr. BURTON: Yeah. Hard to believe, huh?

CONAN: Yeah. What attracted you to that project in the first place?

Mr. BURTON: The opportunity. My mother was an English teacher. So I grew up in a house where reading was like breathing, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURTON: And the "Roots" experience for me was one where I was really shown at close range the enormous power of the medium. And when the idea was presented to me: Let's take a half an hour on television during the summer months while kids are on summer vacation and create a television show that brings the child back to the world of the written word. It just made so much sense to me. It was the perfect use of this very powerful medium, I thought.

CONAN: And this was a series for those whose kids were not the right age to see it or who weren't the right age to see it themselves. This was a book - a series about the magic that you would find in books. It was not a series that taught you how to read.

Mr. BURTON: Yeah. "Sesame Street" was on the air and already doing the teaching the rudiments of reading - phonics and the beginning of spelling and cracking the code. "Reading Rainbow" was about the passion. The idea for "Reading Rainbow" was to be there during the time of the child's developmental cycle when they're making that decision that every human being makes at one point in life or another. That decision being, will I be a reader or not.

CONAN: Hmm. And it does change people's lives profoundly.

Mr. BURTON: Oh, my God. Yes. Absolutely. I mean, I am profoundly aware of the benefits I've received, how much my life has been enriched by the books that I read. And to be able to share that sort of passion with people was what kept me coming back year after year after year.

CONAN: And there are a lot of people who want to talk to you, and we'll get to them in just a moment, I promise. But I wanted to ask you how you feel now that - well, 26 years, of course, is a great run and anybody would be proud of that. But nevertheless, there have to be some mixed feelings, the show ended, well, not just as a result of a funding problem.

Mr. BURTON: Truthfully, I'm sad because I believe that the job is not done yet. Every couple of years, there's a new generation of kids that are learning how to read, have cracked the code, and are now making that decision. And it's sad to me that "Reading Rainbow" won't be there for them.

CONAN: Let's go to Pat. Pat, by the way, is with us from Hubbardston in Michigan.

PAT (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi.

PAT: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PAT: I didn't realize that "Reading Rainbow" was off. I'm so disappointed. My children are now 20 and 16. But they loved the program, they instilled in them along with - we as parents, of course, to read and write and draw. And they entered the local "Reading Rainbow" contests and our daughter won these wonderful books. And I just can't tell you - can't thank you enough for doing that program. I'm just shocked that that would be taken off.

Mr. BURTON: Hmm. You would be bowled over as I have been, Neal. The past couple of weeks - well, the last episode of "Reading Rainbow" aired, Friday before this past one.

PAT: Oh.

Mr. BURTON: And there has been such an outpouring of public sentiment.

PAT: It should be a public outcry because…

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAT: …our children need to read and write, as you know, and have something so refreshing as your program. Where, you know, my kids would, let's go to the library and get that book or, you know - and I'm certainly not alone, I know that.

Mr. BURTON: No, you're not. You're not. It's weird to me that, you know, we live in an age where - I've been just confuzzled these past few days about the flack and furor over President Obama's speech to - in our nation's classrooms. The message is stay in school. The message is your future is up to you. And how anyone could take issue with that, well, it is…

PAT: I don't understand why…

Mr. BURTON: …well, it's the same kind of thinking that would, you know…

PAT: In the political arena, I don't understand that.

Mr. BURTON: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BURTON: yeah. Oh, yeah.

PAT: You know, stay in school is stay in school, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: I know.

PAT: But I just wanted to thank you for…

Mr. BURTON: Yeah.

PAT: …what you did and…

CONAN: Well, Pat, thanks…

PAT: …I guess we need to rally around and get that back on. Thank you.

CONAN: Pat, thanks very much. We're going to another caller. Let's go next to Priscilla(ph) in Cape Cod.

PRISCILLA (Caller): Hi, LeVar. Thank you. I just wanted to say that I - my - I have children who are 18 and 20. And we - they grew up - we all grew up together watching the show, loved it immensely and particularly one episode where you reviewed a book about a king and pizza. That's all I can remember at the moment. And I think we actually own the book, somewhere in our house. But at the end of reviewing the book, there was then part of it where you then made a recipe of pizza dough and you instructed us all how to make pizza.

Mr. BURTON: Right.

PRISCILLA: Well, we did it. I made that dough. I have never been able to replicate it. I have gone online punching in, Googling "Reading Rainbow" pizza dough recipe to see if I could recreate it again, and I haven't been able to find it. It was fabulous. And I'm wondering, is there any way I could find that out from an old episode somewhere?

Mr. BURTON: Well, if you find that episode…

PRISCILLA: Yeah.

Mr. BURTON: …then you got the recipe.

PRISCILLA: Well, is it on a - is it - can I get it on YouTube? Is that possible?

Mr. BURTON: It is very possible. There are a lot of episodes of "Reading Rainbow" that are up on YouTube.

PRISCILLA: Okay. (Unintelligible).

Mr. BURTON: And for that reason…

CONAN: But please look for the ones with the messy fingerprints on them.

Mr. BURTON: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PRISCILLA: It was wonderful. I love the show. I actually was not aware that it was still on. I wish I had known. I'd have been watching it all along had that been the case. But we loved it. And I thank you as well for the work you did on it.

CONAN: Priscilla, thanks for the call.

PRISCILLA: You're welcome. Bye.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Valerie in Ventura, California. Mr. Burton, I'm 29 years old and there was a wordless exclamation of agony when I first read that "Reading Rainbow" was no longer going to be part of PBS Kids. I would definitely credit "Reading Rainbow" for helping foster a lifelong love of books and children's literature.

I work with preschoolers now. It's good to be able to enjoy that world again and I can definitely read a story well. Thanks to a long tutorial. I remember seeing an interview on "The Tavis Smiley Show" a few years ago where you lamented that it was a fairly constant fight to find funding for the program.

Thank you for all you've ever done over, really, my lifetime and at least one generation. But you don't have to take my word for it, I'm sure other listeners will also agree with me.

I guess, along with people expecting you to wear the visor, people expected to say, you don't have to take my word for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: And I love saying it. And it makes me laugh when I hear other people say it too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURTON: It's great, you know? People really do love the show. It is, for a couple of generations of Americans, part of - a treasured part of their childhoods. And that's not a bad thing.

CONAN: We're talking with LeVar Burton, the actor, director and producer today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Eric(ph). Eric calling from Grand Junction in Colorado.

ERIC (Caller): Hi. Am I on?

CONAN: Yep. You're on.

ERIC: Thanks so much for taking my call. I'm so excited to be online with LeVar.

CONAN: There you are. Go ahead with your question, please.

ERIC: I just wanted to call and just offer my condolences, really. I'm 22 years old, and I personally grew up watching "The Reading Rainbow" and "Star Trek." And I can honestly say that a lot of my, you know, well, definitely my love for literature has stemmed from "Reading Rainbow."

I can honestly say that, you know, ever since my mother read the "Lord of the Rings" to me when I was kid, is, you know, always tune in to "Reading Rainbow." So - and then, not - you know, not to mention, you know, we would all gather in my parents' room and sit on their bed and watch "Star Trek." And just, you know, seeing him with the visor and then seeing him, you know, with the books and it's just - oh, it's just great.

And I am just demolished that, you know, I'm not going to get that for my children, you know?

CONAN: Well, Eric, I'm sure he appreciates it. Thanks very much.

ERIC: You're welcome.

Mr. BURTON: I do appreciate it, Eric. I so much appreciate it. Can you imagine, Neal, as the son of an English teacher, what a statement like that means to a guy like me? My love for literature can be traced back to watching "Reading Rainbow" when I was a kid.

CONAN: It's interesting. There is something that ties these long careers together. At City Dock in Annapolis - and of course, people who remember "Roots," that's where Kunta Kinte, the ship holding him and the other slaves is landed where he's auctioned off where that first scene takes place.

There is now a statue at City Dock in Annapolis. And it's not a statue of Kunta Kinte. It's not a statue of auctioned slaves. It's a statue of Alex Haley…

Mr. BURTON: Absolutely.

CONAN: …holding a book and reading to children.

Mr. BURTON: Right. Right, because Alex was a storyteller and he came from a tradition of storytellers or a griots, in the West African tradition. And, you know, it is Alex's family story that he wrote down in the book called "Roots: The Saga of an American Family." And the greatest tribute, I think, that we can pay to Alex is to remember him for the great storyteller that he was.

CONAN: Let's get Nancy on the line. Nancy calling us from Buffalo.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. Thanks. I'm so glad I got to hear this memory. It was actually in my adulthood watching "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" with my infant daughter in my arms and watching the two of you read a story together.

Mr. BURTON: Mmm. Mmm.

NANCY: And what a tender and gentle moment it was. And, you know, I guess, everything passes and suddenly it's not just an end. It really is a loss to watch both "The Neighborhood" and "Reading Rainbow" come to an end.

Mr. BURTON: Hmm.

CONAN: Well, it's just not the same anymore, is it?

NANCY: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NANCY: Not for the kids that I have watching television. That's for sure.

CONAN: Nancy, thanks…

NANCY: (Unintelligible) "Sesame Street" has changed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, everything changes, Nancy.

NANCY: Yeah.

CONAN: And sometimes, regrettably. Thanks very much for the call.

NANCY: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: And LeVar Burton, give us some idea what you're working on now. We mentioned filming another series.

Mr. BURTON: Well, yeah. I'm here in Philadelphia doing a series for PBS on the "Science of Star Trek." And I've just formed a new company in Los Angeles. I have a partner now for the first time in my 30 plus year career in Mark Wolfe. Google Mark Wolfe or IMDB Mark Wolfe. This man is a real filmmaker. He is a filmmaker's filmmaker.

So, the company is called Burton Wolfe. And we see ourselves as storytellers. We are developing projects for film, for television and for the Internet as well. We want to tell stories that we feel are stories that are valuable to the human condition.

And that's what we do. That's what we are. And that's how I want to spend the rest of my career is as a storyteller and be able to bring whatever talents that I possess to bear in any given project as an actor, as a producer, as a writer, as a director. Whatever I can do in the service of telling a story is what I want to do.

CONAN: And we've gotten this lifesaving email from Mike. It starts: One cup warm water, one tablespoon yeast, one teaspoon sugar, one teaspoon salt, two-thirds cups flours. Mix ingredients together. Knead for two minutes. Let the dough rise until the double optional.

Spread dough on lightly greased pan, top with sauce, cheese and other favorite choices. Bake in a preheated oven, 500 degrees for eight to 10 minutes. This recipe makes enough dough for one large pizza, either a 16-inch round pizza pan or the more probable large - rectangle baking sheet.

So there you have it. We'll post that link to that - "The Reading Rainbow" pizza dough recipe on our Web site. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

(Soundbite of song, "Reading Rainbow")

LeVar Burton, good luck with your future projects. And thank you so much for all those 26 years of "Reading Rainbow."

Mr. BURTON: Neal, my pleasure to be with you. God bless.

CONAN: LeVar Burton joined us today from the studios at Audio Post in Philadelphia.

Tomorrow, after the president's speech night, did he say anything to change your mind? Be with us then. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Reading Rainbow")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) …and ways to grow a reading rainbow. I can be anything. Take a look. It's in a book. A reading rainbow. A reading rainbow.

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