Hey everybody, how's it going? I'm Chase Jarvis, welcome to another episode of Chase Jarvis Live on Creative Live. Specifically the 30 Days of Genius. If your tuned in to the 30 Days of Genius for the first time. It's where I sit down with the world's top creatives, entrepreneurs and thought leaders. And extract actionable insights for you to apply to yourself to help you live your dreams and career hobby in life. If your new to the series go to creativelive.com/30daysfo genius. The number 3-0 days of genius. All you got to do is press that blue button and then we'll drop one of these inspiring interviews in your inbox everyday. My guest today is going to blow your mind. He was the host. Sorry, he was the star rather of the mini series Roots. You also know him from Star Trek the Next Generation and most recently PBS's Reading Rainbow. He is no other than Mr. Levar Burton. Levar, thank you so much for being on the show.
Chase, it's my pleasure. (upbeat band music) (clapping)
Levar, thank you very much.
Again, appreciate it.
All the way down here in Los Angeles to talk to you. I opened our meeting just a few minutes ago with a reminder that you and I have met once before.
And Sundance 2012, 11, 12. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I think he was exploding on the scene. You were talking a lot.
He recorded Joe. I think it was the official launch of it.
It was literally, your right. And I remember Adrian Grenier who is also a friend.
It was the very first public demonstration of square.
It was, yes you're right. And Adrian Grenier is also a friend, sent his first Tweet that day.
That's right, that's right.
He's probably got about a gillian followers by now.
He does I know. He went from zero to a hundred and fifty thousand in like two weeks or something. He's a good guy, also been on the show before. But this show in particular I was very motivated to have you here because your re-releasing Roots.
Yes we are.
We were talking about this again before the camera started rolling. I have a very young memory of Roots but it was very impactful because I didn't understand the depth of the story as a young person. I've since come to know it as a classic. I think as a lot of the people who were my age or maybe older was impactful. You're bringing it back and it's dropping on May 1st.
May 30th. The Memorial Day weekend. May 30th is the first of four consecutive nights. Eight hours in total. We made four two hour movies with four different directors. On two continents simultaneously. And I'm really, really proud and excited for people to see this new interpretation. This new version of Roots.
You've spent so much time on this side of the camera. I understand you're also producing or executive producing?
Yes, I'm on the producing line. On the executive producing line for the new Roots. It was ultimately a creative decision for me to not be on camera and I really felt that my experience as well as my connection to the material was best served behind the camera this time around.
What in particular led you to that decision? Cause I mean you lived the original. You have lived through as we talked earlier, race relations specifically in America. Do you feel like you can bring that point of view to bare mostly behind the camera?
Oh without question. Number one having played the original Kunta the first time around. My experience has been that Kunta has become an international symbol for the indomitability of the human spirit. That character and that portrayal is so strong that there was no way I could really get away with playing any one else. And like I said it was just. I believed I was able to make better contributions for instance in the casting of the new Kunta. And as sort of the elder in the mix this time around and the connective tissue to the original Roots. Producer was a much. It gave me the access that I needed. It gave me the opportunity to be involved with the project at the DNA level. And to really give my. Give voice to my creative concerns and desires for the project. Having such an emotional connection and attachment to the original.
Powerful. How old were you when you did the first one?
I was nineteen. I was a sophomore at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Roots was actually my first professional audition. (laughing)
That crazy. The first thing you ever do just wins all kinds of awards and Emmy's. It's so impactful to so many people. Oh powerful.
It was an extraordinary experience and having returned to that experience 40 years later has been an amazing journey for me on a personal level. Because until now I really believe my experience was that life is really linear in nature and this year I have experienced that life is actually circular. That it is possible to come back to the same place you were on the wheel but different, right. I'm very different than I was 40 years ago. Forty years ago I was the kid. I was the new kid on the block. My first day as an actor Cicely Tyson played my mother. Maya Angelou played my grandmother. I worked with Lou Gossett and Moses Gunn and Harry Rhodes and all of these people that I had seen all of my life on screen. And read about in books. This time around I was the elder statesman. I was the guy when I walked on the set people were like oh my God, he's here he's here. So if you live long enough, right. You get to experience the circular nature of life.
One of the things that we've got a handful of different audiences that are on the other side of this camera. I roughly put them into two buckets when I'm talking about their personal creative journey. There are people who are really excited and interested the way I describe it to go from zero to one. To leave something that is unfulfilling that doesn't really them fulfilling their dreams. And the folks who have already started on that journey and then wanting to sort of maximize it. So for the people who go from zero to one the way that I talk about it is do something instead of nothing. Start making, start creating. Start participating in the world. But what I'm interested in is for the people who are trying to go from one to ten. How do you decide what creative projects to pursue?
Great question. Great question.
So to me there's a lot of gravity in that and a lot to be learned. Cause no one talks about this stuff so help us understand how you have made so many wise decisions?
Well, I don't know that all my decisions have all been wise, however. I can state unequivocally that all of the decisions. At least the major decisions in my life as well as in my career have been guided by one thing.
Passion. Find out that which you are passionate about and you have a key to what's gonna make you happy.
I love when you said that you've been doing this for 40 years. To me that's a. Like you can't do anything for 40 years unless.
Unless you love it. And there have been times throughout the course of my career when I have been absolutely stumped, stymied. Up against the wall. Depressed, comatose you know. In my inertia and at the end of the day I've always found a place inside of me to reconnect to that which I have passion for.
So let's go back to, let's call it your first decision to pursue this roll. You're 19 years old. I can't even fathom being on set with all the people that you just named. Let alone in your first, literally your first role. What got you to go from zero to one?
I left the catholic seminary in 1974.
Yes, I studied for the priesthood for four years.
How did I not know this? That's my bad on the research. (laughing) No way.
Well I come from a family. My mother was an English teacher and a social worker. All the women on my mom's side of the family are teachers or social workers. All the men on my dad's side of the family tend to be soldiers or ministers. So it was not unusual for me to have that calling, really. My mom as a teacher raised me Catholic because that was the best education available. My mom's an extraordinary human being and over achiever. Graduated from college at the age of 19. First person in her family to go to college. Recognized that I would as a young black male grow up in a world that would often times be hostile to my presence simply because of the color of my skin. So she moved our family to the west coast which was more forward thinking than the Midwest where she was from, Kansas City Missouri. And she educated, she made sure that my sisters and I had a parochial school education because that was the best education available and the best thing she believed she could do for me as my mother was to provide me with an education. The leveler of the playing field. So that I could compete on an even footing with what I referred to as my melanin challenged classmates.
Without skin pigment?
I like that.
That's very solid playing field right there. Very solid playing field.
So having been immersed in that culture of parochial school education. Priest then became my most constant exposure to male role models. And then when you factor in my mother had a second career as a social worker. I just grew up in house that number one, where reading was stressed. My mom was an English teacher. Speaking in the King's English and reading voraciously was emphasized. And not just by mandate but by example. My read in front of me my whole life. So I got the example that reading is as much a part of the human experience as is breathing. And so then when my mom became a social worker it was like oh I get it. We are supposed to dedicate our lives to some sort of service. And when I decided not to become a priest I was looking around for so what am I going to do now? And you know. One thing that had always had a major attraction for me was theater arts. And I'll never forget I was standing in the mirror in the bathroom. I'm not the only one. I think a lot of key personal decisions for people happen in the bathroom.
Alone time, yeah it's awesome.
It's honest time. It's honest time. So looking in the mirror in the bathroom I was like well. You know what? I think I can do this. I know I have some talent and I know that I love it when I'm on stage. I feel very much alive. And I also, part of the appeal for the priesthood for me was really. I used to have this dream as a seminarian of my first sermon as an ordained priest. And the setting would change. Sometimes it was in a small church in a parish. Sometimes it was in a fairly larger grand cathedral but the feeling was always the same. I had the feeling on the pulp that I was reaching people. That whatever it was I as saying the message was landing. And I think that that part really appealed to the actor in me. Being part of a spiritual community or representing the spiritual aspect of the nature of community made sense to me.
Cellularly though you can feel it.
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
That's the intuition, the gut, that's the passion.
Absolutely. And so I pursued it. I won a full scholarship to USC, University of Southern California, here in Los Angeles to study theater. And as a sophomore I auditioned for this thing called Roots.
Did you know what you were auditioning for?
No not at all. Although I'm a firm believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason and that there are always signs. There are clues right. My freshman year at USC I did a term paper on Malcolm X and the autobiography of Malcolm X is co-written by Alex Haley.
Who if you don't know is the writer of Roots.
So when I first heard of Alex Haley in connection to Roots. I know who he is. I know who he is, right. So that was a clue for me looking back. Didn't feel like it then. It was just ha. But looking back on it I recognize that as something. A piece of information. Feedback from the universe that you should pay attention to.
They say you you can only connect the dots looking backwards. And it's so strange when we have a culture. I think it's evolving, not as fast as I would like to personally. I much like you am a believer in intention but also being open to a lot of things. You can dismiss things as coincidence. You can try and shush them but just openness to me is a very, very powerful thing. I think tapping into that passion. So Alex Haley's name you recognized. You leaned in and you're like this could be a great thing because I know this guy. And then you get on set.
Then I read the material. I read the signs right. The short excerpts from the script that the actors are given to audition with. And everything that the character of Kinta Kinte said, did and felt I knew. I mean I had a immediate visceral instinctive reaction. I felt I knew who this kid was. One thing led to another. March 27th 1976 I was screen tested for the role and several weeks later. After that screen test went back and forth from the offices ABC was the network that aired it. Offices in New York and Los Angeles. They kept bouncing the decision back and forth and no one wanted to go on record as higher the kid who had no previous professional experience.
Are we taking a risk on this kid.
Right, and finally one day I was brought to the offices of ABC in Century City here in Los Angeles. and Alex Haley was there. David Wolper, the executive producer of Roots. And Stan Margulies the line producer were there. And I talked to the executives for a little bit. We had just closed. Every spring at USC the drama school does a musical and we had just closed Oklahoma the night before. And I had the part of Ali Hakim, the Persian rug dealer in Oklahoma. And my mom had come down. She drove down from Sacramento and asked me if I wanted her to wait until after this meeting at ABC. Cause they had postponed this casting decision several times. We were like weeks into the process now and I was like no ma. They're not gonna make a decision today. Go ahead get on the road. I'll call you when you get home. This is April of 1976, there were no cell phones then. So it was like I'll call you when you get home. But they brought me into the office and they talked to me for a few minutes and then they excused me and Stan Margulies came out and I'll never forget the moment he said pack your bags kid you're going to Savannah. And that's where we shot the first three hours of Roots in seven weeks.
I just did some quick math. That was 40 years ago yesterday that you auditioned.
Wow. Wow, March 27th. Yeah 40 years ago yesterday. And yet it doesn't feel like 40 years.
That's my next question.
It doesn't, I mean there are days when it does. You know there are days when I do feel like I've been around for a long time. But for the most part I. It hardly seems possible that that much time has passed. I know that I'm a different person and I know that I have the value and benefit of lots of experience and experiences in my life and career that have formed who I am today. I would much rather be the person that I am today then that 19 year old kid of 40 years ago. I believe that as I sit here with you I am much better off having had the experiences that I have had including those that are painful. I feel like I've learned more from my failures in life than I have from my successes.
Let's go there for a second. So the last question was really about what guided you to make a? What guided you to make the decisions that you've made along the way creatively and I think if I was to characterize it to summarize your last answer. Very much about listening to you gut and the universe is delivering being open to things like that. But as you look back you said very clearly just now that your failures. You've learned a lot more from them. So what kind of failures did the nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year old little Levar Burton make that informed the twenty-three, four, five, forty-five, fifty-five year old Levar Burton? What are some of those? The reason why I want to shine a light on that stuff is what we get today in the media. Even online, there's not a lot of vulnerability. A lot of chest beating, a lot of people are at home comparing their real lives to everybody else's highlight reel on social media. So let's talk about some things that are off your highlight reel that aren't talked about in that sort of young when you were sort of trying to make your way in the world and struggling.
Yeah, becoming world famous at the age of 19 is not a journey I would recommend to anyone.
I could imagine.
I was on the cover of Time Magazine when I was 19 years old. And I have learned since then that becoming successful at any age will take you through changes. Achieving that kind of success that early in life before you really have an opportunity to cement who you are as an adult is tremendously challenging.
I can't even fathom.
And add the additional pressure of having to figure out who I was in full view of the public eye. And having said that I would not want to be a young person today with the amount. The number of different lenses that are on you. That kind of scrutiny is really, it's challenging. So all of the mistakes that I made it seemed like they were all magnified and amplified. Because of that public lens.
So in a way it's like what I'm thinking about putting myself in the shoes of the people on the other end of the camera. There's a little bit to be grateful for by not being on the cover of Time Magazine when you're 19. Like put in your time.
Do the work.
Yeah, do the work.
Do the work. Do the work. It's an interesting thing. I find that a lot of kids today who want to get in the business want to be famous. They don't necessarily want to be artist. The don't want to be an actor or an actress. They want to be famous. My focus was on the work, right. I was a bachelor of fine arts major in college. My goal was to graduate with a BFA. Go to New York and hustle my way onto the Broadway stage. That was my dream. I wasn't thinking about television or film at all. But even then I recognize that it was important to have a plan but be flexible within that plan. So when the Roots opportunity came along I totally went with it. And that one opportunity certainly led to others and right after Roots I did a string of TV movies. And then in the beginning of the 80's. About 82,83 sort of the TV movie market dried up. And the phone stopped ringing. And that was excruciatingly painful.
Now what age were you when that happened?
I was in my early 20's. So the challenge became so. Right out of the bat. Right out of the gate my first job blew up world wide. How do you top that? I had to come to terms with the idea that I may never achieve that kind of success again in my career and I had to make peace with that. But I also had to make peace with myself and what I discovered is that I hated sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. Have that giving the power to other people in terms of my ability to do that which I loved to do. There was a disconnect there.
Bad dynamic there. So what did you do about it?
I got busy, right. Looking for opportunities. I became my own advocate.
That's huge, that's amazing advice right there. So many people, even in today's world where. In that era, correct me if you think I'm wrong, there were a lot of gate keepers right? You had to be selected to be the film.
To have an agent, right. Just to get in the door. To have an agent, to get in to see a casting director. To get an audition to see a producer. I mean there were gate keepers all along the way.
And for folks at home now is a time that's different from any other. We don't require permission from anyone to go out and make something. And yet I would say one of the things that I. One of the questions that I get more that any is it's very much about being one's own advocate. Like no one's picking me, no one's reading my scripts. No one's, I mean as simple as liking my photos on Facebook which kills me to say. But the reality is that people are looking for validation. Any advice to give to those people?
You know we live in an era. You eluded to it, that is unlike any other that we've ever experienced in the history of civilization and as much as we are experiencing a genuine democratization of content creation. And what's happening is that through technology we all have the where with all and the ability to tell our own stories. Stories of our own choosing or even sharing our personal story. They say when you're training yourself to be a writer they say write what you know. We all have a remarkable story in ourselves and as you said. There's no one that can stop you from creating. From sharing your story or your art, your creativity. And if you pour your heart and soul into it then you just have to have faith that you will find an audience. And it is incumbent upon you to be your own advocate. You have to not only be the artist and the creator. You have to be the promoter too.
The distributor, the chief bottle washer. You have to sweep up. You have to hustle. You have to hustle. And I believe one's hustle is a sign of the degree to which one is really passionate about getting it done.
You can not deny that. You can not deny that.
So where is your hustle game, right?
So did you have a hustle game?
I felt one, I built one from scratch. Absolutely, absolutely. And it was simply a matter of taking stock in that which I knew how to do and then finding out those things that I didn't. At one point in my career I had a real difficult time auditioning. I thought I'm Levar Burton, right. Why should I have to audition? And walking in the door with that kind of attitude was death, it was death. I was killing myself before I was really fully in the room. That was a hard lesson to learn. And it only began to turn around when I undertook the job of introspection and dissecting. So what is going on? And I discovered that it was me. That I was blocking. I was producing the blocking energy. And it was incumbent upon me to turn it around. So when I then made a decision that walking into those rooms was an opportunity for me to do that which I loved. Act, right. Boom.
Yeah and often times it's nothing more than sitting down, getting some mirror time with yourself. And being really, really honest. Am I doing everything that I talk to myself? We do a lot of self talking.
It can be dangerous.
Well not only dangerous, we can be very disingenuous with ourselves. We lie to ourselves all the time. We really need to be brutally honest with ourselves sometimes and ask ourselves the tough questions. Are you doing everything you think you're doing? Is your hustle as strong as you say it is? And if it's not then adjustments must be made. Otherwise you're just screwing around.
It's so powerful to sit next to someone who's been doing this for 40 years. Because we can talk about so many different challenges, inspirations come out and just naturally when you talk through a career. Like successes, failures, what's going on, the self talk. Brene Brown has been a guest on the show before. Talks very much about vulnerability, honesty and let's talk about that self talk for a second. One of the things that I'm motivated to try and help people understand is that there are. Generally we are our own worst critic and what if we can change that. And have the same loving compassionate voice to ourselves or towards ourselves that we have to other people. How much better we could? How much more effective we could be? How much more caring, more open to success? How much of a part in your personal turn around was your self talk?
Oh it was essential. Absolutely essential and continues to be. With just that one example and there are certainly others. It's in relationships, you know. Just being my own worst enemy and you know they say sometimes you don't understand. You don't fully get the value of something until you successfully push it your way. And that certainly happened to me.
What's an example?
Oh I was madly in love with a woman. And did not know how to talk to her in a language. I didn't know how to communicate with her in a language she understood as loving. I was using a language that I had developed over time and it was the language I was using but I wasn't successfully communicating.
Sometimes those are very different things. I find myself sometimes I got a script that going on in my mind telling me what's happening right here. And sometimes there's something a rare smell like how real is that script? And I come to find out that the script is completely not based on reality and it goes back to the point that you made. We are so often our own worst enemies. So you were your own worst enemy for some time heading into. As you were heading into auditions and you managed to pull yourself out of it. Positive self talk, a little bit of recheck. Go ahead.
Creating a circle of friends that I could really trust became critically important to me. Creating within my life trusted voices for feedback.
Was is personal feedback, creative feedback, all things?
Mostly personal because it was that experience that really sort of propelled me on a journey of self discovery, you know. I recognized that there was still a lot that.
A lot of work to do. (laughing)
There was a lot of work to do, absolutely. It was a lot of work to do. And in my early to mid 20's I committed completely to learning as much as I could about how I operate as a human being. And that involved everything from fire walking with Tony Robbins to different healing modalities. Jumping out of airplanes, I mean. I'm sort of a energy junky anyway. I like experience. But I would go, I would just. I was open to whatever could bring me more information about me. And how I operate. And how to better maximize what instinctively felt was a really good person who had great intentions. But kept getting in his own way.
I'm a huge advocate of self care. When you look at artists. The Jim Morrison's, the Janis Joplin's who had such a. Oh this romantic notion of creativity and yet.
And suffering going hand in hand and self abuse being a part of that creative process. I suppose for them that was true on some level but look, I'm in my 40th year of doing this. I by definition I want to make a lasting impact. And in order to do that it takes energy as well as presence to change the world. You can't change the world from a absentee point of view.
I think that might be something that we might see on a quote somewhere. (laughing) That might make the internet go boom. (laughing) Well said, well said. So you reclaim yourself.
Yes, that's a great way to put it.
What's the next phase?
The next phase is to continue to be open to what comes next, right. By reconnecting with the self it gave me an opportunity to really reconnect with my creativity. And right around that time Star Trek the Next Generation came into my life.
How does one just fall into Star Trek? I mean that's like one of the most iconic things in our culture.
That's a funny story. Again I believe everything happens for a reason. Many, many years ago it was 1980. The mid, early 80's. I guess 82,83 I did a TV movie called Emergency. And one of the producers of. And it was not a very good movie at all. But one of the producers on the project was a man named Bob Justman, Robert H. Justman. Now I'm a huge Star Trek fan. I watch Star Trek all the time when I was growing up. The original series that is. Because I'm a science fiction fan and as I was growing up it was very rare for me to encounter heroes on the pages of those novels who look like me, right. Gene Roddenberry's vision however was one that embraced people of color so I embraced Star Trek. I was a huge fan. So I recognized that Robert H. Justman was an associate producer on the original Star Trek. So every day I would find a reason to sit next to him and just pump him for stories about Star Trek. And he remembered years later. He remembered my passion for Star Trek.
That's crazy how it all comes back to passion.
It does, it absolutely does. And when he was working with Gene Rottenberry at Paramount to launch the Next Generation. They had this character Geordi Laforge and Bob remembered how passionate I was about Trek and called me up. And said would you be interested in coming in and seeing us about a Star Trek series. And I said one question. One question only. Is Gene Rottenberry involved? He said yes, I said I'm in. Absolutely, absolutely.
So you presumably.
Absolutely, oh yeah.
Even though you're Levar Burton.
But by then I had learned my lesson. I couldn't wait to get in the room.
That's the difference.
I couldn't wait to get in the room.
That energy is contagious.
Oh my goodness, absolutely. So I wanted to compete for the role. I wanted to show people what I could do. And I got the part.
Not only did you get the part but you knocked it out of the park. So again, now take us through. This is a different world, right. You're now playing. I don't know, rather than me putting words in. How do you look at the role?
Well I look at the roll.
Cause you're a science fiction nerd. Is this like your coming home? What is it like?
Very much, very much coming home. I mean walking into. Becoming a member of the cast of Star Trek the Next Generation. I don't know that I have actual words to express what that means to me on a personal level given my love for the franchise. And showing up for people, dealing with physical challenges is the very same way that Michelle Nichols showed up for me as a person of color on the bridge of the Enterprise. The original Enterprise, you know. So for people dealing with physical challenges of all kinds. And Geordi represented for the nerds too. Geordi represented for those of us who are maybe a bit socially awkward. Who do relate more to inanimate objects than we do other human beings. And I think that in the mix of that family Geordi was probably the most relaxed in terms of his confidence. Geordi knew he was a great engineer. And he knew that he was in the tradition of great star fleet engineers. And I like that about Geordi. I like the fact that he was. That he never talked about the fact that he was blind.
There's some connection between the blindness of the character? Did you feel like when you stepped into that role? That there was some. That you were.
There was a real.
Cause you can't see with the visor. Is it visor, is that what they called it?
The visor yeah, there was a real challenge. There was a real gift of challenge in that roll for Levar. For me as an actor. Because I had come to really rely on my eyes acting on film as my go to.
Yeah, it was my strong suite. It was the first tool in the bag that I would go to. Having my eyes covered for several years. What seven eight years plus four movies.
How is that real? (laughing) That's crazy. Who has a career like that? That's nuts.
It really caused me to have to learn how to communicate without my eyes. And so I know that the time that I spent on Star Trek made a much better actor out of me. And forced me to communicate without people being able to see my eyes.
Did you have a sense that you were sort of facilitating an understanding for people who had physical disabilities or was that something that was very? Like was that a conscience?
I knew from the beginning based on my knowledge of the original Trek and how much it had impacted me. This young black kid growing up in Sacramento California. I knew that the potential existed. I knew that if we did our jobs right and if we told the kinds of stories that the original Trek did. The original series that we could have that very important social commentary in our story telling. And yeah, it was unconscious but is was definitely there.
That's the thing that I am maybe most hopeful for of anything in the world right now is this new levels of empathy. I still think we've got a million light years to go to maybe make a science fiction reference. But I am encouraged by a new level of empathy and I don't know if it's the millennials or it's the speed at which information is moving. I don't know, I'm just wanted to put a feather. Or put a pen in that. I like where it's going but when you're now looking back in that seven, eight years and four movies. We said earlier you can connect the dots looking backwards. What dots do you connect after having played Geordi for that long?
Well, Geordi for me in the years on Star Trek were on a professional level about the eyes and communication. On a personal level it was about the relationships. I was gifted with an unbelievable wealth of relationships during that time. The cast of the Next Generation. We are an incredibly close knit group of people and we have seen. We've been together, next year, 30 years. So we've seen each other through marriages and divorces and the passing of parents and family members. And the births of our children and passage after passage after right of passage. We have share with on another. When I got married in 1989 Brent Spiner was my best man and my groomsmen were Michael Dorn, Johnathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart. Which makes for a pretty good cast wedding photo. (laughing)
Good looking people right there. (laughing)
I met my wife during the hiatus between seasons number one and number two of Star Trek the Next Generation. Some of my closest associations. Some of my closest and deepest and most cherished relationships came to me during that period of my life.
How much of that is about just the openness that you have to have in the creative process? You go to work with. I mean I look at the people we've been traveling all over the country producing these and I feel a lot closer to them. You know when you like sort of.
You're in the trenches with them everyday.
You're in the trenches everyday. How much of that do you feel like was you were open to relationships because you were actually putting it out? Doing the work, being open. You know, is it a connection there?
There absolutely is a connection. You know, where you are in your life can be a mirror for what comes back to you. But I also believe that in the case of the Next Gen cast there's something chemical about us in combination. Just those personalities together. When we're together we make one another laugh more than anybody else in our respective lives. And when we're together it's like being with your high school best friends, right. And you just slip right back into that rhythm and all the old jokes and it's just.
Yeah, absolutely. It's really is like that with us. So yeah I believe that it was that time in my life when I was in my 30's. And I had learned a thing or two and I had really begun to place my values and my emphasis on what I really wanted in life differently.
You talked about earlier about building community and having people close to you personally that you can lean on. It seems like that's one thing. I feel like it gets a bad rap. All the internet, we're always on our phones. But there is this sort of connection now that. I don't know if it's. I'm struggling for words obviously.
I think that every generation tends to invent themselves as they go along. And this generation is no different.
You can find a community for anything that you want literally. If you want to paint pictures of deceased Presidents on Tuesday and sell them for five grand. There are 10,000 other people like that.
So what that means is that the idea of what community is and how one connects to community is being expanded. And it's difficult for the previous generation to be okay with that because we've only been able to experience community in this limited narrow band width of expression. So there's a lot of judgment about you know.
Or the Apple commercial where the kid's sitting on his phone the whole time and everyone's judging him and at the end he plays the movie he made for the family.
Boom. Alright so you're on the backside seven, eight years. Four movies. You said it earlier. How do you top that? Cause you already couldn't top Roots. And now we got another thing that you can't top.
Well the thing that I learned immediately post Roots was. In terms of my career was that it was gonna be impossible to top it so the thing that I could really commit myself to was finding a way to do my best work with every opportunity. And that's when I found Reading Rainbow. And that became a place for me to really sink my time, effort and energy into. And it was the Roots experience really that sort of led me into Reading Rainbow. I watched our nation become transformed. In eight nights of television around our idea of slavery. There was an America before Roots, I like to say. And the America after Roots and they were not the same country. Before Roots we talked about slavery as sort of this economic engine. And after Roots you couldn't talk about that engine without considering the enslaved. The people involve in that equation and the damage that was done to generations of human beings. And so it really opened my eyes to this very powerful medium of television could be a really dynamic tool for raising consciousness.
I love that, I love that terminology.
And so when the idea for Reading Rainbow was originally pitched to me. It was actually counterintuitive. Let's to go to where our kids, this was in the 80's, are spending an awful lot of the time. Especially during the summer vacation. And teachers know about the summer slide. When a child is learning how to read and they take that three month vacation and go sit in front of the television. Their reading and comprehension skills plummet. So let's use that opportunity of access and steer them back in the direction of the written word. Through story telling. I thought, yeah.
It's like hacking.
Right, hacking the system. To get an unintended outcome. But we had an intention. We had an intention to make the connection to turn the kids who could read into readers for life. That was the thing.
That certainly had something to do with your mom.
Is that what drew you to the project?
It was that, it was the knowledge that I certainly in my life had been immeasurably uplifted by being a reader. And engaging in my imagination. And that if I could pass that passion on to kids out there. And get them excited about reading and the written word that perhaps their lives might be enhanced as well.
I love, it's gonna be natural when I say this, that I love learning beyond the school. Beyond I mean that's the game of creative life is all about is providing a different and I think maybe in many cases elevated experience that transcends the four walls of the school. Or the mentality that school brings. I talk about if our parents had one job we will have five and our next generation will have five at the same time. And we need a school system that can prepare us for that and that's not what we have now. So we're gonna have to expand.
Our idea of what educating our kids looks like.
For sure. But this was a long time ago, Reading Rainbow.
Really it was an early attempt at using prevailing technology to promote learning.
It is, it's the same thing that we're doing right now with the net.
And it's the same thing that I'm doing now with Skybrary and moving the Reading Rainbow franchise online.
Talk about that.
Well so in 2009 Reading Rainbow was taken out of the ready to learn line up at PBS. It was in essence canceling the series.
After how many years?
26 consecutive seasons on PBS. Third longest running children's show on PBS behind Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.
That's a pretty good third place.
Pretty proud of that.
That's incredible. So 26 years in, they say hey.
They say hey we need to move on.
And I thought wow. This is an opportunity. I mean it was a very sad day for one because obviously I had a huge emotional investment in the show. But we hadn't done a new episode of Reading Rainbow since 2006 and it was sort of inevitable. But when you finally get the pink slip it doesn't hurt any less. That you've been anticipating it for some time. But there was a piece on MPR about the cancellation of Reading Rainbow and they had people calling in. And I was sitting in my business partners back yard. We were listening to the radio and there were people calling in and saying I can't believe that Reading Rainbow is not gonna be there for my kids. That's not okay. And a light bulb went off. It was like this is an opportunity. Let's see if we can't get the rights to Reading Rainbow and so that began a process. A year long process. We made a deal ultimately with WNED. Buffalo Public Television Station for an exclusive license for the original 150 some odd episodes as well as creating new Reading Rainbow content as long as it wasn't a new television series. And I thought well now we don't need. We've done TV. There's a whole new generation of digital natives that need to be served by this idea of using technology to promote a connection to literature. When the iPad came out is was like. (snap) Boom okay here we go. Story telling, that was always the hallmark of Reading Rainbow when it was a television series. Taking a book, a story and telling that story and then allowing a theme or a subject matter brought up in the book to inform an experience. A place that we visited. An experience that we had connecting the real world to the literature giving kids an idea that the world is full of experiences and you just have to expose yourself to enough before you find out. (snap) Where you land. And so we raised a little money. Built a team. Built the Reading Rainbow app and released it and shot to the top of educational apps.
That was when we were at Sundance.
That was when we were at Sundance. That's when we first met.
And that as it turns out was just the beginning of a journey that has taught me so, so much about being an entrepreneur. About staying the course. About you can never predict the end of the story in the first chapter, right.
And it's been a real, real journey of process and perseverance. Continuously trying to raise money. Getting no traction from traditional venture capitalists and those that were interested were interested in building the company to flip it. And that's not what I'm doing here. I'm trying to be a part of the solution to how we educate our kids in America and I'm not really interested in flipping this company. I want this company to make a difference. So it was some of that desperation that led us to Kickstarter in 2014. We weren't getting any love from the VC world and so we thought. Well, let's do a crowd funding campaign.
So bold. But you said something I want to latch on to for a second. And that's it made you capable of things you didn't know that you were capable of. It's something you're passionate about and the folks out there. The founder, myself. I say shit gets hard. You better go back to your passion comment.
You'll be challenged.
If you were doing a start up where you start your own company based on market opportunity you are F'd. Something's gonna come up and it's gonna get real hard and if you don't care about it like it's your child.
You're gonna get crushed.
Yeah, you're gonna get crushed. Because there is someone out there who's on the other side of the fence. Or your neighbor or something who's working on something that they're passionate about and deeply passionate about such when shit gets hard that when there this.
That passion will sustain you through difficult times better than anything else.
It will and you have to care so deeply and you have to care deeply enough to get told no for a venture and decide we are going to yet again.
Do it anyway.
We're gonna find a way.
And not only did you find a way but you guys again. Was that the most, one of the most?
At the time it was the most.
Well Oculus has come along now.
Well at the time and I think in May of 2014 it was the most backers ever for a campaign. 105,000 people donated to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign.
It's like an Obama campaign.
It was crazy.
Money from everywhere.
And in the Kickstarter world there are obviously other crowd funding platforms but in the Kickstarter world. It was really the first cause oriented campaign. Wasn't a product, it wasn't an Oculus Rift. It wasn't a Pebble Watch. It was really about a cause. If you believe that Reading Rainbow deserves to be there for another generation come and join us in this effort.
How could you not, how could you not?
What was it a hundred, how much?
A 105,000 people.
And how much, what was the cash number?
We were looking to raise a million dollars in 35 days. We raised a million dollars in eleven hours on day one. The campaign itself went on to raise 5.4 million and then Seth McFarland came in at the very end and gave us a matching million dollar grant. (laughing)
And this is.
This was 2014. Yeah 2014.
So the people have spoken in that case.
They did, they definitely did. And it was overwhelming and wonderful. And at the same time then we had to figure out how do you fulfill rewards for a 105,000 people? How do you keep a 105,000 people happy? (laughing)
Well the real answer is it's hard.
It's hard, it's hard. However we have been absolutely committed and the fans have been really patient. And we have figured it out. We have figured it out. And a lot of it is personal fulfillment on my part. Signing autographs, signing books, Skype calls. Recording outgoing voice mail messages.
Oh that was one of the.
These were all rewards.
Can you record an outgoing message for me just on the air right now? You've got my voice mail, I'm Chase and I can't get to the phone. What does Levar Burton from Reading Rainbow say on these messages?
I this is Levar Burton. Chase can't come to the phone right now but leave a name and number and he'll call you back. But you don't have to take my word for it. (laughing)
I'm gonna take that. (laughing) I'm gonna pull that. (laughing) You got me. So you're fulfilling.
We two years later we are still fulfilling. So we still have some dinners here in LA and in New York we still have some school visitations. I think all of the T-shirts and all of the coffee cups and all of the you know the refrigerator magnets and bookmarks I think all of those are done. But we still have some experience rewards that we are fulfilling. And then there was the job of making good on the promise. The Kickstarter campaign was called Every Child Every Where. And the money that we raised on Kickstarter enabled us to take what was first an app. And then port it to the web so now we're available on tablet computers on the iPad platform, on the Kindle Fire, on Android. We're also now on the web. 80% or more of the country has access to the world wide web or 20% of our audience has tablet computers. So it's about every child every where. And then we discovered that teachers were taking the consumer service and sort of rigging the system. You can have five profiles on the consumer version and they were loading up five and six kids on a profile so they could use the Reading Rainbow content. Our digital library of books and videos with their students and we thought. Well, we can do better than that. So we used again the Kickstarter opportunity to develop and build and then deploy just this month a version of our product. The Reading Rainbow library. A thousand books, over 250 video field trips that we call Skybrary. School for teachers to use in the classrooms with their students with 40 lesson plans and the ability to roster 35 kids. And it's a turn key solution. We've got printables that can be downloaded. Print it out and distribute it. I mean it's the whole kit. All of our books are common core aligned. And it's the Reading Rainbow magic. It's matching the literature and the real world experience for the video field trip. And communicating to kids, you know. Go anywhere.
If we could ask the folks at home to take some action that would support you in this endeavor. Is there a particular action?
Go to ReadingRainbow.com and check it out. If there are kids in your life that need to reach their full potential. See I believe that you can't reach your full potential I life without being a reader. You could be successful. Many people have become incredibly successful without being literate. But you won't reach your full potential in life.
Most of the people that I know that run at an RPM that I like and been really influential to me are feracious readers. Like a book a week kind of people.
Right and here's why. I believe it's because it is the act of reading that connects us to our imagination. The imagination is the super power of the human being. No other animal in creation that we know of is able to apply their imagination in a way that humans are. We can invent something out of thin air.
Everything in this room.
Everything in this room began as a thought. An idea, right.
By a creator.
By a creator, exactly right. So it is reading that connects us to that super power. That facility for imagining, right. And that is our uniquely human super power.
Is there, I don't want to put you on the spot too much here but outside of children's books. Speaking of books, are there some books that you are expressly passionate about? I hate getting asked this question cause I'm like where do I start. There's a thousand different one's.
Lots, I mean lots, lots, lots, lots, lots. You know for anyone interested in self discovery, right. There's a wonderful book by M. Scott Peck M.D. called The Road Less Traveled. It's a powerful, powerful book. Tony Robbins is a friend and a powerful speaker and a damn good writer. Tony has some real powerful things to say.
He's doing a lot of good stuff online too.
About energy and passion and following your dreams and maximizing your potential. And science fiction.
My wife she's like. I'm not as into science fiction as she is and I feel bad for it all the time. She's always reading. I mean I know of names like Isaac Asimov. But she's like the covers are up over her head and I'm like what are you reading? And she's like oh just another science fiction. The people that are into that are into it.
Here's the thing. Just look at Star Trek. Look at all of the technological innovation that we have today that was inspired by Star Trek.
The flip cell phone. Blue Tooth ear piece. The iPad, right.
Right, Facetime. We're working on geosynchronous systems architecture. A way to maximize computing power in real time. That will in the next five years get us really close to the haulin deck, right. That which we imagine is what we tend to manifest in this realm. It his how creativity works. Human beings are the filter as well as the delivery system for inspiration. That's as simply as I can put it.
I think that might be quotable as well.
We are the medium through which inspiration becomes real.
Well you are an inspiration to many. And I want to switch to a little speed round here and ask some Levar Burton specific questions.
Alright, here we go.
What's something that people don't know about you that if they found out they would be surprised?
A lot of people are surprised I studied for the priesthood.
I'm very surprised. I feel like I should know that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I mean have you been open about that?
Yeah, yeah. A lot of people are surprised my children are 35 and 21.
That's not possible.
A lot of people are surprised my granddaughter is 14.
You have a granddaughter that's 14?
I do, yeah yeah.
Wow. So there's also a line like what would you tell your 20 year old self then you go back. But I don't want to go there. What can you tell yourself from yesterday? What did you learn yesterday? In an attempt to share that everyone. We're all always learning, even at your level.
Yesterday I learned that I share this country with a lot of people who do not agree with me politically. And yet what I learned yesterday is how important it is for me to be open to their points of view. Because if I shut them out simply because we think differently then I'm ignoring a voice that's crying out for expression. And I would never want anyone to automatically dismiss me for a silly reason. As simple to remedy as that.
Wow, thank you. That's an important thing. I'm gonna pull on that string a little bit more. You talked before and before we started rolling the cameras. I brought up the concept of race relations is something I feel like having this platform it's something that I need to elevate as much as possible. And you, I'll say corrected me, cause I think it's a really interesting. It was helpful for me in that moment when you said it's not about race relations it's about America. Big difference there. Can you talk to me about that for a second?
Yeah, having been in Roots and Roots having been my first job.
How impactful, I can't even like.
And these last 40 years of my life being a journey where I have really tried to identify where I could be affective. A tool for change in this world. And again our efforts to make Roots this year and the timing. The sheer timing that here 40 years later we have so much unrest. So many opportunities to see where injustice still lives in America. And that the seeds of what we're experiencing today really did begin 200 years ago. And our institutionalized to the point where it is difficult sometimes to see them because they are so much a part of the fabric of what happens in this country. So I genuinely believe that if you are an American. If you are alive and part of this experiment called democracy. Then Roots is your story because it is the story of how this nation was founded. It is the story of how we harnessed the power that this nation became and rose to the level of world power. And we did that on the backs of people of color and with the blood, sweat, toil and tears of my ancestors. And to come from a people where only three generations ago it would have been illegal for me to know how to read. And to have grown up and become a symbol for childhood illiteracy.
That's flipping the script.
That's only in America could that kind of journey be possible. So we do live in a country that provides great opportunity for its citizens. And we are still in an experiment and it's not a perfect one. We get it wrong everyday. As much if not more than we get it right. But it doesn't mean that we stop striving and unless we are willing to have that. Take that honest look at ourselves as a nation. And recognize where we're getting it wrong and have the courage to make course corrections. Self corrections and we're only going to continue to trip ourselves up.
I had a conversation not too long ago with Anthony Ray who also goes by the name of Sir Mix O Lot. And he's been a friend for a long time. And I'm trying to at the same time not pretend that we can talk about something that has the gravity this has. And five minutes on an internet talk show host. An internet talk show but at the same time don't let that be the reason not to have the conversation when it's appropriate to have it. So I'm trying to navigate that as best way that I can. One thing that Mix said and I'm gonna offer this to you for comment. It's about the conversation. So talk to me about the conversation that we're not having that we should be. Or that we are having and we need to accelerate. Just in the context of conversation tell us something that how we can continue on this path and talk about it.
Here's what I know. 40 years ago Roots really initiated a national conversation about race in America. It was the first time that the story of slavery was told from the point of view of the people of color. It was revolutionary, it had never been done before. 40 years later it is clear that we need. That we must continue that conversation and I'm hoping, I'm praying that Roots once again can give us an excuse to have this much needed conversation. Where we can sit across from one another in honest meaningful respectful dialog. And figure out what is it that continues to hold us back so that we can make a choice to whether or not we want to release it. Let it go or not.
Well thank you very much for producing that series. Or co-producing or co-exec producing it. I'm very much looking forward to it. I didn't know it was so soon. I had heard when it was announced and then I also heard that you were a part of it which seemed very natural to me. Gifts that you want for your children? Like what kind of a world are you trying to create for them? Your children and your children's children. You mentioned having a 14 year old granddaughter.
I want to be a part of creating a world for them that is just and fair. And lives up to the promise of America. This is a nation that was founded upon the principle of all men being created equal. And all men and women being free. To pursue life liberty and happiness. I want to make that a reality for generations to come and I believe that the key is literacy. At least one of them. If you can read in at least one language then you are free in my definition. Because no one can oppose their will on you. You really have the power to pick up a book, take a look. You can find out yourself. You can self educate. No one then can dominate you with their point of view. Being a learner for life is the antidote to slavery and an informed populous. And an informed populous is essential for a healthy democracy.
That's a beautiful cycle that you just painted for us there. Is there something that was a part of your daily routine. I try and utter things that any person who's listening can pick up and do on a daily basis. Not necessarily just to get closer to Levar but you've clearly unlocked a lot of things for yourself and for the people around you. Are there some habits that you?
Taking care of myself. Yeah I've learned how important it is to take care of myself. I travel a lot. I'm on the road quite a bit.
I can imagine.
With speaking engagements and work and what not. I've learned how important taking care of myself is and that I can not be an effective tool for change in the world if I'm not operating at maximum efficiency in my body and in my mind. So mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally my job is to make sure I'm healthy.
What are some things you do?
Stretch, breathe. I used to practice yoga. I used to meditate, I used to do all of these things that have served as foundation for what I do actually do do. So I try and stretch and breathe everyday. I spend a lot of time in water. There's a place here in Los Angeles that gives me an opportunity to go and soak, right. I'm a big fan of sauna and steam. And immersing myself in water. I like to sweat and I like to breathe. So I try and make sure that I do that several times a week.
Isn't it weird those things are like known to be healthy thousands and thousands of years old and we're just sort of rediscovering them now.
I drink a lot of water. And I enjoy myself, you know. I believe in moderation in most things.
Except moderation. (laughing) So I like food, I like beer, I like wine. I like whiskey. I try not to over indulge in any of it. That way I get to keep doing it.
Fair. But what questions. I'm guessing with your new project. With the new Roots project coming out that you're a busy guy. Very sensitive of the time. We've been going for a long time here and I want to know. I want to give you an opportunity. Is there anything that you can tell us that you want us to do around the Roots release other than watch it? And where should we look for it?
Yeah I want to let everybody know that Roots, the remake of Roots airs this coming Memorial Day weekend, May 30th. And it will be simulcast on the networks of A&E. So it will be simulcast on History Channel, Lifetime and Arts & Entertainment.
Wow, how'd you pull that off?
That was their commitment. History channel really stepped up and supported our desire to tell this story again for a new generation. And they have brought. They've really brought it. They've brought their support and financially as well as their ideas and creativity. So we're really, really grateful. All of us on the producing line for the networks of A plus E. They've really stepped up. I'm really proud of it. Our cast is phenomenal. Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Anika Noni Rose.
Crazy cast it's incredible.
Anna Paquin, Jonathan Rhyes Meyers, Derek Luke. I'm very excited and Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte is gonna blow your mind. This young man is phenomenal.
Well if the man who originally played him had a roll in casting him something tells me you took a little bit of pride in being careful with that choice.
Very careful and I believe at the end of the day we chose right.
You said the word gratitude for all the things that the networks have done for you. I would like to express some gratitude on behalf of myself. The folks who tune in to Creative Live. Personally it's been a treat to reconnect with you after a few years of blazing Sundance. And just thank you very much for being with us here today.
Thank you sir.
This is a once in a long lifetime to get to sit down with this man. I hope you took many things away and stay tuned for another one of these in the not too distant future. Like tomorrow. (laughing) (mysterious music)