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Levar Burton Biography


Home > Actors > B > Burton, Levar > Biography


Birth Name: Levar Burton
Born: 02/16/1957
Birth Place: Germany


Born Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, Jr. on Feb. 16, 1957 at the U.S. Army Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in West Germany, he was the son of Levardis Burton, a photographer with the Army Signal Corps, and Erma Jean, a social worker and educator. Raised with his two siblings in a deeply religious household in Sacramento, CA, Burton entered the Saint Pius X Seminary at the age of 13, with the intention of becoming a priest. However, he had a change of heart by the time he graduated from Christian Brothers High School, and went on to enroll in the Drama Program at the University of Southern California on a scholarship. As a sophomore at USC, Burton - who had previously only acted in high school stage productions and one short film - screen tested for his first professional role in an audacious television adaptation of author Alex Haley's sweeping ancestral history, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. At the age of 19, he was cast in the central role of Kunta Kinte, the maternal 4th great-grandfather of Alex Haley who was captured by slave traders and brought to America in the mid-18th Century. The groundbreaking miniseries would not only launch Burton's nascent acting career, but would have a lasting effect on television programming, and most importantly, on race relations in America for years to come.

Spanning more than 100 years, and recounting the lives of four generations of enslaved African-Americans, "Roots" (ABC, 1977) traced author Haley's ancestry back to Gambia, West Africa and the Kinte clan of noble Mandika warriors. The miniseries would garner the highest ratings in television history at the time, and spark a nationwide interest in genealogy for people of all ethnicities. Upon the unprecedented success of "Roots" and Burton's pivotal role in it, the young actor became a nearly ubiquitous presence on television and film. That same banner year also saw him guest star on the variety special "The Paul Lynde Comedy Hour" (ABC, 1977), snag the title role of the made-for-TV urban melodrama "Billy: Portrait of a Street Kid" (CBS, 1977), and nab a small part in the controversial psychosexual drama "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (1977), starring Diane Keaton. Other leading roles at the time capitalized on Burton's ability to convincingly portray troubled characters who persevere through adversity in TV movies like "One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story" (CBS, 1978) and "Dummy" (CBS, 1979). He also had a smaller role in the devastating docudrama about the largest-ever recorded mass suicide, "Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones" (CBS, 1980), which starred newcomer Powers Boothe in the title role of the demented cult leader.

Although his star had risen with blinding speed, substantial roles - especially in feature films - soon became difficult to come by for Burton. A bitter illustration of his dilemma could be found in his supporting role alongside film icon Steve McQueen in the action adventure "The Hunter" (1980). In the film, Burton played Tommy Price, friend and sidekick to bounty hunter 'Papa' Thorson (McQueen), a role that was later revealed to have been originally written as a dog. Although the actor continued to land smaller roles on series and made-for-television movies throughout much of the '80s, his tenure on a children's educational show would be one of his most fondly remembered projects during this period. For more than two decades, Burton would serve as host and producer on "Reading Rainbow" (PBS, 1982-2005), the acclaimed series dedicated to instilling an interest in reading in young children. For his work on the long-running program, beloved by an entire generation of literature-loving fans, Burton would win several Emmy Awards.

Finally, after years of existing in the network television doldrums, Burton regained widespread celebrity late in the decade as a member of an intergalactic ensemble on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (syndicated, 1987-1994). In a reboot of the "Trek" franchise, supervised by original creator Gene Rodenberry, Burton played U.S.S. Enterprise engineering whiz Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge. Although completely blind, La Forge was able to attain a semblance of sight via a high-tech visor, which ironically covered Burton's expressive eyes, one of his most reliable tools as an actor. At the time, Burton enjoyed even more name recognition than that of the series lead, Patrick Stewart, and early on was touted as "the new Spock." "The Next Generation" proved to be a huge success, and enjoyed a much longer run than its predecessor, spawned several spin-off shows, and once again placed Burton prominently on the pop culture landscape. In the year following the debut of "The Next Generation," he revisited the role that started it all, when he appeared as Kunta Kinte in the made-for-TV sequel "Roots: the Gift" (ABC, 1988), along with fellow alumni, Louis Gossett, Jr. As the next decade began, the happily busy Burton took on voice work as the character of Kwame in "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" (TBS, 1990-96), an ecology-themed animated adventure series.

Broadening his creative horizons, Burton also directed several episodes late in the run of "Next Generation." He continued in the role of La Forge for the highly-anticipated big screen outing "Star Trek Generations" (1994), which brought Enterprise captains Kirk (William Shatner) and Picard (Stewart) face-to-face for a cinematic passing of the torch. After leaving his regular post on the bridge of the galaxy's most famous starship, Burton took a recurring role on the period family drama "Christy" (CBS, 1994-95), in addition to publishing the science-fiction novel Aftermath in 1996. As expected, he returned to the role of La Forge twice more in the features "Star Trek: First Contact" (1996) and "Star Trek: Insurrection" (1998). Seeking new challenges, Burton branched out of the sci-fi genre to direct the golf biopic "The Tiger Woods Story" (Showtime, 1998), followed by the futuristic family comedy "Smart House" (Disney Channel, 1999). In one of his rare non-"Trek" feature film projects, he had a brief cameo as Martin Luther King, Jr. opposite Will Smith in the Michael Mann biopic "Ali" (2001). Although the franchise was clearly in need of recharging its dilithium crystals, Burton signed on once more to play La Forge in the subpar effort, "Star Trek: Nemesis" (2002).

Burton continued to occupy the director's chair, working on "Trek" material that included episodes of "Enterprise" (UPN, 2001-05), as well as more earthbound, albeit equally fantastical, fare like "Charmed" (The WB, 1989-2006). He also picked up additional voice work in animated superhero projects, which included the direct-to-DVD movie "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies" (2009) as Black Lightening, and an episode of "The Super Hero Squad Show" (Cartoon Network, 2009- ) as Iron Man's armored partner, War Machine. Guest turns in 2011included on the popular sitcoms "Community" (NBC, 2009- ) and "Big Bang Theory" (CBS, 2007- ), where he appeared as himself on both shows.