LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen, and Louis Gossett Jr. on the ground-breaking miniseries

By Jennifer Armstrong
October 15, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
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For Leslie Uggams, 67, and Cicely Tyson, 76, the Roots experience is seared in their brains — and their bodies. ”My strongest memory is being scorched,” recalls Tyson, who portrayed Kunta Kinte’s mother, Binta. ”They built these huts to look like an African village, and the lamps inside were so hot. When I was giving birth to Kunta, those screams, believe me, they were real.” Says Uggams, who, as Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy, aged 40 years throughout the series: ”What I remember most was five hours of sitting in the makeup chair to age. Everything nourishment-wise had to be drinkable, because the makeup guy didn’t want the makeup to smear.”

Still, they can’t deny that their pain was worth the results. ”It was a history lesson for an America that had denied quite a few things,” Uggams says. ”What I loved was that it was an opportunity for people to see how many wonderful black actors and actresses were out there who could bring it.” The miniseries helped give both women’s careers serious staying power: Tyson recently appeared in Tyler Perry’s film Why Did I Get Married Too?, while Uggams, an acclaimed jazz singer, is taking her one-woman show to the Pasadena Playhouse this fall. But they’ll always be known for their groundbreaking work on Roots. ”It’s been 33 years, and the fact that we still remember it is quite something,” says Tyson. ”It is as it should be.”

Thirty-three years ago, three men — Louis Gossett Jr., LeVar Burton, and Ben Vereen — were the biggest stars on TV. In January 1977, an average of 80 million viewers were tuning in every night to watch them in a miniseries called Roots. ”People were leaving work early to watch,” recalls Vereen, 64, who played a slave named Chicken George. ”Bars were packed with people watching.” By the end of its eight-episode run, some 85 percent of the TV audience had seen at least part of the multigenerational historical saga based on author Alex Haley’s best-seller about his real-life African ancestry. ”In Las Vegas, they closed all the movie theaters the [final] night of Roots,” remembers Gossett, 74, who played the slave Fiddler. ”Everybody stayed home.”

Ironically, ABC was certain the miniseries was going to be a flop. The network scheduled it for eight consecutive nights — unlike Rich Man, Poor Man, which ABC had broadcast in weekly installments the year before — hoping to get the ratings disaster over with quickly, before sweeps. Burton, 53, explains the network’s thinking at the time: ”In a country where 80 percent of the population is white and [less than] 20 percent is black, how will America respond to a multihour story where the whites are the villains and the blacks are the heroes? But every night the audience grew. And the next day, it was the national conversation.”

It was the topic at 1977’s Emmys as well: Roots was nominated for 36 awards and won nine trophies, including Best Actor for Gossett. Each of these performers went on to other memorable roles. Gossett picked up another statuette, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman (he’s just published a memoir, An Actor and a Gentleman); Burton landed a job aboard the Enterprise, playing Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation (he’s currently working on opening an online bookstore for kids); and Vereen is still a TV presence, most recently with a role on How I Met Your Mother. But they all look back at Roots as a highlight in their careers. ”I just got back from Henning, Tennessee,” says Vereen. ”It’s the first time I’ve ever been to Chicken George’s grave. And as I kneel down to thank this man, a butterfly lands on my hand.” — Benjamin Svetkey

For more with Burton, Gossett, and Vereen, including the effect Roots had on their careers, go to ew.com/reunionsvideo

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