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Original Cast Members Remember 'Roots'

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LeVar Burton (The young Kunte Kinte)

Immediately following the airing of Roots, it became a part of the fabric of the culture and the consciousness of America. The word itself became shorthand for where we come from and who we are. Pre-1977, when you talked about roots you were talking about somebody’s hair or a tree. But the miniseries brought with it a new context that everyone had in common. Even as we moved further away, from the 10th anniversary on, there were young people, who were clearly not old enough to have seen it during its original airing, fired up about Roots. Kids who grew up watching Reading Rainbow suddenly wanted to talk to me about it because they had seen it in school. The miniseries had a whole other life. We felt that we were doing something very special at the time. I didn’t know why – I was 19 years old, I was a kid – but it was clear to me from the enthusiasm and passion of all these actors who I had watched for my whole life that this was something different. However, no one had any inkling how it would be received.

Leslie Uggams (Kizzy)

There was a whole aura on the set that I’ve never experienced before and I think it was because of the author Alex Haley. I loved him. The story was extraordinary and the whole production was full of love.

After Roots, it was like all of a sudden people were saying ‘You can act.’ I had been trying to tell them that forever. It was an incredible role. It didn’t get me jobs but it got me respect. And of course, I never realized the impact I was going to have on the television audience. That was extraordinary. At the time it played, I was rehearsing for a musical in Vegas. It was just amazing to see the gambling casinos empty. When Roots was on you couldn’t get room service unless you ordered four hours before. People were glued to the sets.

Lou Gossett Jr. (Fiddler)

Roots changed my life in a lot of ways. I did win an Emmy, but it didn’t begin there: All the good parts were taken so I had to play the Uncle Tom. But completing the anatomy of Fiddler well it gave me the insight of what Black Americans had to do to stay alive. He was smart. On his deathbed he said something like “I’ve been playing music for everyone else all my life but now I am going to play me a tune that I want to hear.” After he played that tune, he died. Even though I got an Emmy and an Oscar (An Officer and a Gentleman), there was something in me still mad at the injustice. I couldn’t grow until I got rid of the rage, the envy. Some of us don’t know we have it, but some of us know we still have it in our system. We have to do something everyday to get rid of it – whether it’s a prayer, meditation or reading a spiritual book. If you know you recognize a kind of anger and resentment because of inequity than make sure it really exist. You have to get rid of it within yourself and then the walls will come down.

John Amos (Toby Reynolds)

As a child, I was one of four African American students to integrate the elementary school system in my hometown of East Orange, New Jersey. The textbooks that we had at the time were insensitive with regard to accurately portraying African history, and, subsequently, any African Americans in the classroom were humiliated on a regular basis. So it was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and vindication for me to do Roots. People of all races come up to me after they saw the miniseries. Some were in tears, some joyful because the reality of slavery had been presented to the American public for the first time. Others were ashamed of what their ancestors had done. The most humorous encounter I had was when I was driving on the Santa Monica freeway and a very large Black gentleman in the other lane indicated that he wanted me to pull over. He got out of his car, approached my vehicle, and said, ‘I gotta tell you, I got so upset watching Roots that I got my pistol and shot my TV. I just wanna tell you that, man!” Obviously it had a great effect on people. It also encouraged all of us to research our own family backgrounds and where we come from.

George Stanford Brown (Tom Harvey)

When I think of Roots Alex Haley comes to mind first. I met him when I was doing my first film called The Comedians, which was shot in Africa and France. James Earl Jones was also in the picture, and while we were in southern France he introduced me to a friend who was passing through on his way to Africa to do some research on his family. His name was Alex Haley. Eleven years later I got a chance to be part of the cast for Roots on television. I worked with some of the most amazing actors of the time and with extraordinary material that I’ve seldom had such a strong affinity for. It represented slavery with some modicum of truth. Certainly slavery had been presented before, but never from the perspective of the slaves, and not with the historical backing that Alex was able to bring to the piece. It spawned not just pride, but also the possibility that we all came from somewhere, that we had a history and a past. I’ve never had an experience like that since.

What are your memories of Roots? Share them here.

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