TODAY | February 04, 2013
>>> television history. 1977 's "roots." we're in our own super bowl blackout here. based on powerful book, it traced the journey of ancestors from enslavement to eventual liberation.
>> what's your name?
>> kunta. kunta kinte .
>> kunta kinte was played by lee var burton and unt's daughter, kizzy played by leslie uggams and the slave that became kunta's confidante, fidler, played by louis gosset jr. it had to be, you know, pretty amazing in itself. did you have any idea how enduring and what a reaction this show would have?
>> none whatsoever.
>> not at all.
>> we were in our bedrooms and kitchens talking about it. we didn't know if the world would accept it this way.
>> we knew it was something special when we were filming it, but we had no idea what the impact was going to be. it was amazing. america stopped what they were doing to watch this television show .
>> and it also had people, not just african-americans, but everybody all of a sudden looking at their roots.
>> people forget that the title
of alex's book is called "roots: the saga of an american family ." it's not the story of black people in america. "roots" is the american story.
>> when you were cast in this, did you have any idea that this -- people throw around the phrase role of a lifetime.
>> but this truly was.
>> it was.
>> did you have any idea at the time?
>> not a clue. i was 19 and didn't know a whole lot about anything. it's true.
>> doing scenes with a young man like that because fiddler and kunta kinte had a kinship. so i saw levar being whipped. it really got to me.
>> it was one of those roles that you became so identified with. what was that feeling like, to know that you had something that was never done before really?
>> it's a miracle, you know. this is my 60th professional year. i've seen a tumultuous change. my relationship with kunta kinte and levar , apologized before he did the scene. i'm sorry, i have to go for it. i said go for it. i looked at that boy being beaten. i knew it was just felt and just makeup. your name is kunta kinte . that's what your name is. and i looked at him and said, you know, there's going to be a better day . that's what alex was talking b of course, there is a better day . look at you, look at us, look at our president. it is a better day .
>> beside being an amazing role, it had to be, i assume, emotionally draining day in and day out to act these scene.
>> it was very painful, especially the wagon scene.
>> i realized, my goodness, people were torn away from their families and sold and never to see their relations again. and just to have that happen. and you're totally helpless. there's nothing you can do, nothing your parents can do. and it was just gut wrenching for me.
>> levar , you have gone on to obviously some other amazing roles, but when you have something like that so early, does it put maybe some undue pressure on you, that you have to try to match something of this import?
>> there was a real challenge to me at the beginning of my career. and my decision was that i had no choice but to just do the best i could every time out because you just -- roles like that don't come along but once in every other lifetime. and so i'm just really grateful that 35 years later, i'm -- we're still here.
>> we're still here.
>> and working.
>> that's the best part.
>> that's the best part. and working.
>> levar burton , leslie uggams , louis gosset jr., thank you very much.
>> airing tomorrow night on pbs.