When the miniseries "Roots," based on a novel by Alex Haley, first aired in 1977, the series' huge ratings success hinted at the cultural phenomenon it would become. The series included veteran actors Lou Gossett Jr. and Leslie Uggams, and virtually created the career of newcomer LeVar Burton, all of whom helped tell the epic story of African-Americans' journey from slavery to the lives they built after the Civil War.
Those three stars joined TODAY's Al Roker in the studio Monday to discuss the show's enduring history, as it is set to be featured on an upcoming installment of PBS' "Pioneers of Television," but Burton wanted to make sure it was clear: "Roots" was not just about slavery.
"People forget that the title of Alex's book is 'Roots: The Saga of an American Family,'" said the actor, who was 19 when he took on the key role of Kunta Kinte. "Roots is the American story."
Uggams was most affected by the subject matter: "It was very painful," she said, of a key scene in which her character was ripped from her family. "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.... It was gut-wrenching for me."
But Gossett Jr. (who won an Emmy for his role) likes to look at the long story: To him, the series' success was a "miracle" that presaged the direction America has taken in the ensuing decades regarding race relations. "I've seen this wonderful growth in this country," he said. "Look at you (Roker), look at us, look at our president. It's a better day."
"Pioneers in Television" airs on PBS stations; the "Roots" episode is slated to air Tuesday, Feb. 5. Check local listings for times.
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