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The power of 'Roots': Special celebrates 25th anniversary of landmark miniseries

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For eight consecutive nights in January 1977, millions of Americans watched the groundbreaking, history-making saga of an American family who did not come over on the Mayflower or pass through Ellis Island. "Roots," the story of Kunta Kinte, a West African enslaved in the United States, and his descendants, captivated the American television audience as no other dramatic program had done before.

LeVar Burton, who starred as the young Kuntu Kinte in "Roots," says he "had no thought or expectation of what it would lead to." (Warner Brothers Photo)

It was television at its best -- controversial, thought-provoking, entertaining and a ratings hit. At some time during the miniseries' eight nights, 130 million Americans watched "Roots," and the series went on to garner countless awards including nine Emmys and a Peabody.

Friday at 8 p.m. on NBC, the phenomenon that was "Roots" will be remembered with the airing of "Roots -- Celebrating 25 Years: The Saga of an American Classic." This anniversary special, hosted by miniseries star LeVar Burton, takes a look back at the television epic's impact and forward at its legacy.

It includes snippets from the series and interviews with series producer David L. Wolper and stars Ben Vereen, the infamous Chicken George; Leslie Uggams, who played his mother, Kizzy; Richard Roundtree, who was her boyfriend, Sam Bennett; Ed Asner, who portrayed Capt. Davies; and Maya Angelou, who was Kunta Kinte's grandmother. Celebrities such as Larry King, Will Smith and Michael Jordan discuss how "Roots" affected them, as do everyday folks of various ethnicities and ages.

ABC passed on the anniversary program even though it had broadcast the miniseries 25 years ago.

"I think they made a terrible mistake," said "Roots" producer Wolper during a press conference last week. "I was terribly disappointed. But thankfully, NBC was smart enough to pick it up."

LeVar Burton interview audio clips

This audio is from a dial-in press conference done by telephone with LeVar Burton, who portrayed Kunta Kinte.

Click to download an MP3 sample: LeVar Burton says issues of race in America make "Roots" as valuable today as it was in 1977. (FILESIZE AS 539K)

Click to download an MP3 sample:

LeVar Burton says blacks and whites reacted differently to what they saw in "Roots," and explains why. (FILESIZE AS 322K)

Click to download an MP3 sample: LeVar Burton explains why a story passed by word of mouth through Alex Hailey's family has such universal appeal now and 25 years ago. (FILESIZE AS 697K)

Visit the following sites to download players for Windows or Mac machines to listen to the file:

Real Player
Microsoft Windows Media Player

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The Hallmark Channel is airing "Roots" exclusively from 9 to 11 p.m. Jan. 20-25. There is also a three-disc DVD version of the miniseries being released today, which includes commentary from the stars and the producers and a documentary.

The television program was based on "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alex Haley that chronicled seven generations of his family. The series motivated African Americans and whites to dig into their own family histories.

It also made Haley, who died in 1992, and his ancestors Kunta Kinte and Kizzy household names. Some African Americans even named their children Kunta and Kizzy.

In addition to being a television event, "Roots" was a social phenomenon.

"The country watched 'Roots' together and then we talked about it the next day in schools, at work, in the shopping malls," said Burton during a break from filming the new "Star Trek" movie in Los Angeles. "That's unlikely to happen today. We don't live in the same world that we did in 1977."

The actor/director was a 19-year-old theater major at the University of Southern California with his sights set on Broadway when he won the part of the young Kunta Kinte.

"It was a phenomenal role for any actor to be handed," Burton said. "What was going through my mind was getting it right. I had no thought or expectation of what it would lead to."

He was more concerned about making up the final exams he missed while filming the series.

But if Burton was surprised by the way the show was embraced nationally, so were show business experts. He pointed out, as does Uggams in the special, the reason network executives aired it eight consecutive nights.

"They figured if nobody watches it, we'll be done with it," Burton said.

However, Wolper said, the cast and crew realized they were working on something very special after filming began.

In a printed interview provided by NBC, he talks about the impact of the scene where the Africans lay side by side, chained to the slave ship.

"It was so strong that the extras we had could not come back the second day to do it. In other words, they were so moved and overwhelmed by the experience that they actually couldn't repeat it."

No matter what those involved felt during filming, there was no way to predict the overwhelming response once it aired.

"I was in Las Vegas rehearsing 'Guys and Dolls,' and the casinos were absolutely empty while 'Roots' was on," said Uggams in an NBC interview. "And once 'Roots' was over, then everyone could come downstairs and gamble."

The program served as catalyst for intense discussions on American history and race relations. It gave African Americans a sense of pride and a knowledge that their heritage did not begin with slavery, Burton said. For white Americans, "Roots" was a history lesson they'd never been taught.

" 'Roots' pushed everyone's buttons," Burton said. "You couldn't be a part of that viewing audience and not be introspective."

Part of the point of focusing on the 25th anniversary is to realize that the program and the issues of race are as valid today as they were then, he added. Although it's not a pleasant issue to deal with, the dialogue of race is necessary.

" 'Roots' was part of an emergence of a new consciousness in this country," Burton said, "in terms of what our common and shared history is around this very central issue of race, which, in my opinion, is the most powerful issue that exists in this country and in this culture."

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