When actor LeVar Burton was a little kid, he used to sit in front of the TV in Sacramento, California, watching the original Star Trek series. But not once during all the times he watched did he say to himself, "Someday I'll be on that show," even though by then he was harboring dreams of becoming an actor.
"When I was young, I used to fantasize about being famous. I even practiced my signature...for autographs. I wanted to be rich and famous. I asked for it. I created it. So now that it's here, I really can't say it sucks," offers LeVar, when questioned about his recognizability quotient. In the seven years since Star Trek: The Next Generation has been on the air, LeVar has gone from being, "Hey aren't you that guy from Roots?" to "Hey, there goes Geordi LaForge."
But the road to fame and fortune wasn't easy. LeVar tried out another profession before deciding to become an actor. When he was 13, he decided to enter a seminary and become a preist. But after spending two years there, he began to question his motivations and eventually decided to leave the seminary. Jumping from the frying pan right into the fire, he went from the rather secluded environment of the seminary to the wildness of living in a fraternity house while attending University of Southern California. "I wasn't actually in the fraternity," says LeVar. "But it was a cheap place to live, close to campus. I think they did ask me to go through rush once, though."
During his sophomore year, LeVar tried out for and won the part of Kunta Kinte in Roots. And from there, his career took off and hasn't come down to earth since.
But as Star Trek: The Next Generation enters its seventh season, one can't help but wonder how things have changed for the character that LeVar has been playing since its inception. "For one thing, his job," offer LeVar when asked. "When the show first started, Geordi was the pilot. It was this great line joke: here's this blind guy flying the ship. But we all know that the ship can really fly itself, so it made his job sort of superfluous. Now he's the chief engineer. He has expertise now. He can contribute."
Another surprising change (albeit a pleasant one) for Geordi is the appearance of a family. For a long time, Geordi was the only member of his history. But beginning this season, veteran actor Ben Vereen will have a recurring role as Geordi's father. "I found out Geordi had parents two seasons ago," says LeVar. "This season he gets to see his dad. It's great. I've learned that Geordi's mom is a Starfleet Captain and his dad is a doctor. What a family of over-achievers!" LeVar laughs and adds, "I think Geordi has a sister too." The development of a family for Geordi is one that pleases LeVar.
Another pleasing change is that his character has become much developed since the first season. "Geordi is more realized. He is more developed, so it makes playing him more fun. He's likeable, dedicated and has enthusiasm for his work. He has a relaxed point of view. He doesn't take himself too seriously. I enjoy being around him, being in his skin."
When questioned about the similarities between Geordi and LeVar beyond the obvious appearance, of course LeVar is quick to point out that there are more similarities than differences. "I know that LeVar loves being alive, he has a love for learning and exploration." He feels that he and Geordi have that personality trait in common. However, Geordi is blind, which has given him special insight , a unique sight that allows him to see things that others can not. LeVar though is always trying to see the world the way it is. "And sometimes that can be painful," says LeVar. "But it's real."
Something that has not changed in the seven years the show's been on the air is the physical manifestation of the VISOR, which causes LeVar some concern, for he would like to see it change. "I don't want to change how he sees," comments LeVar, "it's integral to the character. But if I had my druthers, I would change the basic apparatus." The VISOR, which impairs 80 percent of LeVar's vision when he is wearing it, is something he has become used to but not happy about. "Wearing it robs me of acting. It's robs me of how we, as human beings, communicate. Communication is done primarily through the eyes. We can't see Geordi's eyes, so it is like we are cut off from one part of him. That's something I would like to address. Besides, I would think that in the 24th century, there has to be something technologically better that what Geordi's got now."
Wearing the VISOR isn't the only discomfort LeVar has had to suffer lately. For a recently filmed episode of the show (one that was about virtual reality), LeVar was forced to wear a rubber suit that made his mobility limited, at best. Whenever he had to go to the bathroom, he had to enlist the aid of a male customer. It made him uncomfortable and embarrassed. "This is not what I had in mind," say LeVar dryly, "when I decided to become an actor." But that's show biz! something LeVar should understand after more than a decade as an actor.
While continuing his acting job on Star Trek: The Next Generation, LeVar has also tried out for another role that of director. Last season he directed his first episode of the series, one entitled "Second Chances," which featured Mae. C. Jemison, the first African American female astronaut. This episode was very dear to his heart, for many reasons.
"For one, it was my first time directing the show, which was great, but also very challenging. Directing is so much different than the acting. It's a whole different set of skills. For an actor in the seventh season of a show, you know you character," says LeVar. "Basically, you just need to learn your lines. It's more immediate. But for directing, there is more thought, more work. You're responsible for everything: sets, directions, coverage. You use different aspects of self. I love it and welcome the opportunity to do it again." (Rumor has it that LeVar, while being a dedicated professional, was also wonderful to the cast and crew, bringing in catered meals during the long hours of filming.)
Another reason the episode is so important to him is Mae C. Jemison. As a child, Mae watched the Star Trek movies, saw Nichelle Nichols and told herself that someday she too would go up in space. When LeVar learned of this, he knew it would be perfect to feature her in the episode that would be his directing debut. "I think it's a nice link in the legacy chain started by Gene Rodenberry. She became an astronaut because she watched Star Trek. So to put her on Star Trek, to bring it all full circle is really cool. Also, Star Trek has always been such a remarkable show because it speaks so much about hopefulness and hope it speaks about us reaching the 24th century. I find that to be very hopeful. And the Star Trek vision is very inclusive," meaning that everyone is there, regardless of race, color or creed.
LeVar plans to continue directing this season, with at least one or two more episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation planned. But directing episodes of the television series is not all that he has in mind. LeVar is busy cultivating his own projects. At his development company, Eagle Nation Films, LeVar and his assistant are kept busy reading, optioning projects and developing material of their own. Currently Eagle Nation has many projects in various stages of development.
"I will always want to act," LeVar supplies, "but I plan to do a lot more writing, producing and directing in the future. I want to be one of those people who always does some acting, but I don't plan to give myself the lead in every one of my projects, nor do I want to." Some of the projects in the works at Eagle Nation include Maladoma, a screenplay LeVar wrote himself, about a shaman priest whose destiny it is to bridge the gap between his tribe and Western Civilization, and Dancing in the San, about a black physician who has cancer and must come to terms with himself before traveling to see the Calahari bushman in order to dance in the San and be cured.
In between his obligations to Star Trek: The Next Generation and to his production company, LeVar also makes time for his duties as the host of the critically acclaimed PBS series, Reading Rainbow. The show just celebrated its tenth season and LeVar's second Emmy. "It's the most important work that I do," offers LeVar, " and I will continue to do it as long as there is a need." PBS has cut the budget this year, so there will be fewer new episodes produced than in previous years, but LeVar still feels that he has left a wonderful library of children's television. And of books in his own home! "It's amazing how much children's books have changed in the past ten years. At the beginning, it was tough to find books with minority kids as the heros, with girls as the heros. But times have changed, and now those things are easier to find." What hasn't changed are the price of children's books which, in LeVar's opinion, are too high. He would like to see the costs go down, so that these books don't become priced out of reach and so that they become more accessible to every child.
LeVar plans to continue with the Reading Rainbow for as long as possible, because he recognizes the need for a program like this. And he's not the only one last spring, he traveled to Washington to meet President and Mrs. Clinton during a special gala for PBS.
Between the demands of two successful series' and his own production company, LeVar still found time to get married last October, to a woman he had been dating for five years. Stephanie was a successful makeup artist (she worked on the TV show In Living Color), when they met on the set of a TV special, Roots Christmas. LeVar thought she was engaged because she wore a Superbowl ring on a chain around her neck, so he didn't make a move even though he wanted to. But after the movie wrapped, she asked him out. He was a little thick and didn't realize that she might be interested in him. "She asked me what was my favorite food. I told her swordfish and she said she would make it for me." Later she told him that she had broken of the engagement with the football star and wore the ring around her neck to discourage men from hitting on her on location.
"It took me weeks to realize that she was interested in me," LeVar says, "because I thought she was unavailable. But then we started dating and I realized that the potential for all my dreams coming true was right there looking at me."
When the two set a date, members of the cast of Next Generation were there to wish him well. Brent Spiner was his best man, and the other members of the cast were groomsmen. And no, contrary to a picture in a popular magazine, he did not need the VISOR to help him see what a wonderful woman Stephanie is he figured that out on his own.
"The people that I work with are great people. There is a lot of laughter on the set," says LeVar. "We aren't the kind of set that plays pranks on each other, but these are good people, witty people. Funny. We have a wonderful time together." It's a good thing too when a show gets into its seventh year, people better like each other. "We haven't gotten tired of each other yet."
The fans don't seem to get tired of them either. LeVar (and the rest of the cast of the show) gets a lot of fan mail each week. And LeVar sends a letter back to each one. Sometimes it might be a request for an autograph or a picture, but LeVar makes sure that every one gets answered.
One thing he doesn't have a lot of time for though, is conventions. He just doesn't have a lot of extra time in his schedule period. He tries to go to a few (usually two or three a year) because he genuinely likes doing the conventions, but other than that, he just can't find the time to squeeze them in. "It's a nice weekend trip for my wife and I, and it's a great time," he says. "I really enjoy them. It's a great rush, stepping out in to a room with thousands of people that love what I do. Who wouldn't enjoy that?"
Another thing he enjoys is meeting the fans on the street. He gets recognized a lot (depending on who it is and how old they are they either know him from Reading Rainbow or Star Trek: The Next Generation). And he genuinely likes to say hello. "People are usually very nice, very pleasant and respectful. It's a great job when you can do something as small as say hello and watch somebody change completely. By saying hello, you can see them light up. Just by being who I am, by doing nothing, I can change their energy. It's a great job. I love it."
When he isn't meeting the fans, he and his wife like to hang out, have dinner with friends, travel, and read. Right now LeVar is reading the teaching of Far Eastern philosophers. "I don't really understand it all, but I am learning new things," offers LeVar. "I enjoy finding out about different cultures...but I am not studying just any one philosopher right now."
Another new passion is exercise. He trains with a personal trainer, trying to get in shape, partly he claims for a healthier life ("I love to see my body change and develop as it gets stronger"), but mostly (I think) for a new, (and revealing) role in an upcoming Showtime movie special. Called Parallel Lives, it is about a group of sorority and fraternity friends who come together for a reunion weekend. Directed by the same woman who directed Chantilly Lace, the project is funded by the Sundance Film Festival and will feature LeVar's first nude/sex scene (with Ally Sheedy, playing his lover.)
"I have never done anything like this," LeVar comments, "and I am glad that a woman is directing it because it will bring a different sensitivity to the experience. Right now I am very excited about it. But I am sure that when the day comes, I will be quaking in my boots not that I will be wearing any!"
When asked if he thinks Stephanie will be jealous or uncomfortable about him "with another woman," he just laughs and says, "Stephanie knows right where she stands with me." Then, serious, he adds, "We have a wonderful relationship, built on trust. And we've both been in the business long enough to know that this is just a job."
As LeVar's career expands, one can't help but wonder when the Next Generation will make the move to the big screen. Rumor had been that there would be a voyage in time for Christmas of 1994. LeVar doesn't know if the Next Generation will be making the move or not. Though these rumors have been circulating on the set, all LeVar can add is that, "There is no official word about whether or not we will be moving into features. We have heard rumors but there is nothing official. So all I know is that we are in the seventh season. At the end of this year, we will finish the seventh season. This I know for sure. What happens after that is up to them."
Having lived, as Geordi, for seven years in the future, one can't help but inquire as to what LeVar thinks life will be like as we approach the millenium.
"My vision for the 24th century is this: my hope is that we will have...I see life as a journey of human evolution...we will have evolved to a place where we are much more self-realized, much more aware of what is available to us, what we are capable of as unique individuals. Unique beings. I hope that in the 24th century we are operating closer to the highest level of potential. We have come to terms with our concept of separation in ourselves, and that we will no longer look across the street, across the block, across town, or across geo-political borders to see someone who is now like ourselves. I hope to see ourselves reflected in others. We have to align ourselves." "If we really start maximizing ourselves to the total level, if we have total recall about who we are, we will be able to change the planet before our eyes. We can be effective in making change, in accomplishing what we desire."
He continues, now on a roll. "You know that phrase, love your neighbor
as yourself? My hope, as we head towards the millenium, is that we need
to take the message to the next level. My neighbor and myself are the same."