An actor and director, LeVar Burton is best known as the star of Roots, one of the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the host of Reading Rainbow.
Levardis Robert Martyn Burton Jr. was born on 16 February 1957. His father was stationed in Landstuhl, West Germany, at the time, but the family returned to the United States when Burton was two years old. He attended parochial schools until the age of 13, when he decided he wanted to be a priest and entered a Catholic seminary. Four years later, Burton realized he would rather become an actor and enrolled at the University of Southern California.
Burton's first credited appearance was in Almos' a Man, a 1976 adaptation of a short story by Richard Wright that also starred Madge Sinclair and Henry Fonda. His breakthrough performance, though, is universally agreed to have been the 1977 portrayal of Kunta Kinte in Roots, the landmark made-for-TV version of Alex Haley's novel. Still in college at the time, he balanced schoolwork with other acting work, including the title roles in Billy: Portrait of a Street Kid and One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story, both also made for television. He continued taking film roles after graduating, and in 1983 was offered the opportunity to host a PBS program that would teach children the joy of books. "Reading Rainbow" became popular quickly, and Burton eventually became a producer for the series. He cut down his acting work to one or two films per year, until he joined the regular cast of a new weekly television series.
Burton had watched the original Star Trek as a child, but had never considered the possibility of being on the show himself. In 1987, he landed the role of Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation and received $100,000 for the pilot episode. Playing the blind engineer was often difficult for Burton, because the VISOR LaForge used to see kept him from using his eyes expressively. When the VISOR was removed, Burton had to wear opaque white contact lenses, so both character and actor were blind for those scenes. Still, he continued the role for seven years on television and into four movies.
In 1990, he added the title voice artist to his list of achievements, providing the voice for the Kwame character on "Captain Planet," an animated show promoting environmental responsibility for children. He would later use his voiceover experience in Star Trek video games and in Our Friend, Martin. Also in 1990, Burton received a star on Hollywood's renowned Walk of Fame. While working on two TV shows, he managed to find the time for an October 1993 wedding to makeup artist Stephanie Cozart, who in 1995 gave birth to their daughter Michaela. In 1994, Burton had his first nude scene opposite Ally Sheedy in Parallel Lives.
1997 was a busy year for Burton. He became a published author with the release of Aftermath, a science fiction novel that takes place in the post-apocalyptic United States in 2019. Acknowledging that it was unusual for an actor to write a novel, he pointed out that his parents had both been English teachers, and the choice to write science fiction came not from Star Trek but because he has always been a fan of the genre. The year also saw his development company, Eagle Nation Films, sign a production agreement with Paramount, and in October he served as chairperson for UNICEF's National UNICEF Month campaign.
Recently Burton has spent time directing, working with Eagle Nation Films, and making occasional guest appearances on TV shows and at Star Trek conventions. He has kept active in the Star Trek franchise by directing and appearing in some episodes of Voyager, and directing a few early episodes of Enterprise. In 1998 he directed the Showtime movie The Tiger Woods Story, and also directed a 1999 TV-movie called Smart House. In 1999 he received the NAACP's Image Award for "Outstanding Performance in a Youth or Children's Series/Special" for his work on Reading Rainbow; he won the same award again two years later. Also in 1999 he was nominated for a Daytime Emmy award for "Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series" but lost out to Fred Rogers; then again, two years later, won not only that Emmy but also the Emmy for "Outstanding Children's Series." At the end of 2000, Burton learned that his mother, a longtime diabetic, was starting dialysis and would require a kidney transplant. He immediately volunteered one of his own, and in early 2001 had his left kidney transferred to his mother at a hospital in Sacramento. In a late-August appearance on Larry King Live, Burton's mother said she was touched by her son's insistence on donating to her, and Burton himself said it was a very spiritual experience for the whole family.