There’s a lot you already know about LeVar Burton, everyone’s favorite advocate for literacy and books. We watched him play Kunta Kinte in the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots. We saw him explore space as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. We didn’t have to take his word for it when he was the host of the PBS television show Reading Rainbow. We listened to him read us stories in his podcast LeVar Burton Reads. And of course, in 2021, we all rooted for him to become the new host of Jeopardy.
For us, the fans of LeVar Burton, the American actor, director, TV host, and podcast host has been a source of positivity and encouragement. Some of us have been lucky enough to meet LeVar Burton in person. But there are plenty of us who would probably react just like Troy Barnes in Community if we ever came face-to-face with our hero. Yes, LeVar Burton’s fans love him this much.
But even if you can sing all of the words to the Reading Rainbow theme song, there’s probably a lot you don’t yet know about the host of the show. So in honor of LeVar Burton’s birthday on February 16, here are 12 things you might not know about one of our favorite people.
1. LeVar Burton Sees A Connecting Thread Between All of the Roles He’s Played
In an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, Burton said, “I know I’m here to tell stories…Theres a through-line from Kunta at one end of the spectrum and Jeordie LaForge, the chief engineer of the Enterprise, at the other end of that spectrum. And LeVar, the Reading Rainbow guy, is at the middle of that continuum. So I’ve been able to represent the Black experience from slavery to the future and everything in between. And what an honor that is.”
2. LeVar Burton Was Born on a Military Base in Landstuhl, West Germany
On February 16, 1957, Burton was born to American parents on a military base in Landstuhl, West Germany. He full name is Levardis Robert Martyn Burton Jr., and his parents were Levardis Robert Burton, a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and Erma Jean, a social worker and educator.
In multiple interviews, Burton has credited his mother for fostering his love for reading. He also says his time spent on the military base helped him form an appreciation for books — especially comic books. In a blog post, Burton explained, “American cultural items were currency to a military child, and the most valuable of that currency was comic books. When you lived on base, weekdays were for school, Sundays were for family, but Saturday mornings would find every kid out in the stairwells of the multi-story building we lived in, bartering and trading comic books…It was this experience as a child in a military family, and the excitement, comfort, and escape the comics provided, that helped spark my lifelong love of reading. Years have passed since those mornings spent trading comics on base, but the memory is as strong as ever.”
3. Before Becoming an Actor, LeVar Burton Considered Priesthood
At the age of 13, LeVar Burton entered St. Pius X Minor Seminary in Galt, California. In an interview with The Atlantic, Burton explained, “I had a calling. I felt like that’s how I was destined to spend my life, and so I took steps as early as I could in that direction, and my mom was very supportive. I entered the Catholic seminary at the age of 13 in Northern California. I began my formal training as an initiate into the order of the Society of the Divine Savior. I was there for four years.” But when Burton was 17, he realized he had questions about the Catholic church and left the seminary to explore other options.
4. LeVar Burton Was the Host of 155 Reading Rainbow Episodes Over the Course of 23 Years
LeVar Burton was cast as the host of Reading Rainbow in 1983. The show was produced first by Lancit Media Entertainment from 1983 to 2001, and then by On-Screen Entertainment from 2002 to its final year of production in 2006. The series — and LeVar Burton as a host specifically — have collectively won 250 awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award, Telly Awards, Parent’s and Teacher’s Choice Awards, and a total of 26 Emmy Awards, including ten for outstanding series.
5. When LeVar Burton Joined the Cast of Star Trek: the Next Generation, He Was A Better-Known Star Than Patrick Stewart
In 1986, LeVar Burton was approached to play the role of Lieutenant Junior Grade Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. While we now think of Sir Patrick Stewart as having a lot of star power, at the time LeVar Burton was much more well-known for his roles as Kunta Kinte in Roots and as the host of Reading Rainbow.
Not only was LeVar Burton a well-known figure on the series, but there was a certain part of Geordi’s costume that was particularly memorable as well. Geordi La Forge is a character who was blind since birth, and he famously wears a visor over his eyes to help him see.
But LeVar Burton wasn’t always a fan of Geordi’s now-iconic visor, especially because it made it difficult for him to see while on set. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Burton said he talked to the show runners about why Geordi needed a contraption as clunky as a visor to see when the show was set so far into the future: “I had that conversation with the powers that be. They always maintained that Geordi’s visor was a shorthand language of communicating the technological sophistication of the 24th century. It served its purpose…Geordi’s visor is iconic. You know exactly what you’re looking at when you see it. The idea that young people, male and female, put headbands over their eyes and play Geordi La Forge, is proof positive that it is an iconic image.”
So there you go. Fun fact #5B: LeVar Burton is aware that we all put headbands over our eyes and pretend to be Geordi La Forge.
6. LeVar Burton’s Daughter Mica Burton is Also an Actor
LeVar Burton married professional make-up artist Stephanie Cozart on October 3, 1992, and the couple has two children: son Eian Burton Smith and daughter Michaela “Mica” Jean Burton. Mica Burton has become a cosplayer, host, and actress. In an article published in 2020, Essence talked to Mica Burton about what it’s like being one of the few Black cosplayers (according to the magazine, only 2% of cosplayers are Black, and even fewer are professional cosplayers). Mica is also very active in the world of gaming. She does voice work in the 2016 game 100ft Robot Golf. Want to check out Mica Burton’s acting work? You can see her acting debut in 2015’s Lazer Team.
7. LeVar Burton is on the Board of Directors for the AIDS Research Alliance
In 2012, LeVar Burton joined the Board of Directors for the AIDS Research Alliance, a year after Burton became a national spokesperson for the organization. “As someone in show business, I was very much aware of the AIDS epidemic,” said Burton. “So when [CEO of ARA] Carolyn Carlburg explained the work of AIDS Research Alliance and really broke down the ongoing need to shine a light on AIDS and AIDS research, as well as the unique position ARA has in the AIDS research community as an organization working on an HIV cure, I couldn’t say no to joining the Board. I realized there was such a need.”
8. A Feature-Length Documentary About Reading Rainbow is Currently in Production
A feature-length documentary about Reading Rainbow — entitled Butterfly in the Sky after the theme song from the show — was announced in September 2021. The documentary will include new interviews with Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton, along with archival footage. Directing the film are Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb (GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, Jasper Mall). Both directors have been fans of the show since childhood. “As a Mexican-American growing up in Houston, I was always surrounded by diversity,” said Thomason. “More than any show on television, Reading Rainbow reflected the cultures that surrounded me…I didn’t know it at the time, but the show’s mission statement was manifesting itself in me. I devour books to this day, and I know Reading Rainbow had a hand in that.”
9. LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow Kickstarter Campaign Broke Records
In May 2014, LeVar Burton started a Kickstarter campaign to bring back an online version of Reading Rainbow. Only a month later, the campaign had over 100,000 supporters and broke the Kickstarter record for most individual donations, previously held by the Veronica Mars movie campaign. Due to copyright issues, however, Burton had to change the name of the program to Skybrary.
10. In 2021, LeVar Burton Was Named the Inaugural Literary Champion by PEN/Faulkner
In February, 2021, PEN/Faulkner announced that LeVar Burton would be named their first Literary Champion, an award to “recognize devoted literary advocacy and a commitment to inspiring new generations of readers and writers.” On accepting the honor, Burton said, “I come from a family for whom service to others is the highest possible calling…Whatever efforts I have made toward advancing the cause of literacy, give honor to my mother, Erma Gene Christian, my first teacher and from whom I have inherited my love for books and reading. As we move forward out of a time when alternative facts and mendacious propaganda shaped public opinion, the work you do through the PEN/Faulkner Award, and your committed investment in D.C. schools, has never been more important. I couldn’t be more honored to be the inaugural PEN/Faulkner Literary Champion.”
11. LeVar Burton Was Named the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade This Year
At the end of 2021, LeVar Burton announced via a tweet, “I am thrilled to named Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. Thank you Tournament of Roses for this high honor!” And on January 1 of this year, Burton did the coin toss at the Rose Bowl, where the Ohio State Buckeyes faced off against the Utah Utes. Burton tweeted images from the parade and wrote, “Happiest of New Years, Y’all! How did you bring it in? I had quite simply one of the best days of my life…so far!#bydhttmwfi Eternal gratitude for my family, friends and fans who made this ride of a lifetime possible…Thank you @RoseParade @rosebowlgame @PasadenaGov.”
12. LeVar Burton Didn’t Land the Jeopardy Gig, But That’s OK!
Yes, Jeopardy made the biggest mistake ever by passing on hiring LeVar Burton as the new host of the game show. But Burton has moved on to bigger and better things. Burton has now accepted the hosting role on a new Trivial Pursuit game show, which will give him more creative control and which he will also executive produce. Burton is also working on designing his own book-themed game show, which seems like the perfect fit for him! Long story short, it’s Jeopardy‘s loss.
What else does LeVar Burton have in store for the future? Only time will tell, but whatever it is, count us in. And Happy Birthday, LeVar Burton!