Why LeVar Burton spoke up about wanting to host 'Jeopardy!': 'I would've never forgiven myself'

LeVar Burton just knows that he's meant to host Jeopardy! — not just temporarily like he is this week, but permanently. And not in arrogant way, but in the way of a man who's spent the past 45 years on TV projects, from Roots to Reading Rainbow to Star Trek: The Next Generation, that he describes as "entertainment that's more than entertaining." So Burton has been very public about wanting the job, which his fans demanded and have wildly supported, but which is not at all guaranteed.

"What I'm happy about is that I had an opportunity to compete for the job. That's really what I wanted," Burton tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I really believe — and this is something that I've learned over time — if I believe that strongly in it, then I would have never forgiven myself if I didn't take whatever measures were at my disposal to try and get an audition. That's what I wanted. I wanted to get up to bat. Then the chips will fall where they may, but had I not gotten up to bat, I would've regretted it for the rest of my life."

He adds, "It was a big risk, admittedly."

But, as he sees it, better to speak out than to get to a place where the moment has passed and you can't do anything.

It's why he's now working with biopharmaceutical company Incyte to urge people to catch up on the doctor's appointments they might have missed during the pandemic, especially to stay vigilant against one of the rare blood cancers known as myeloproliferative neoplasms that are invisible and often misunderstood. Burton's late mother, who died in 2018, could have used that nudge to stay on top of her health. He says she missed some of her many appointments toward the end of her life, and it cost her time.

LeVar Burton remembers his mother with a throwback photo. (Photo: Twitter)
LeVar Burton remembers his mother with a throwback photo. (Photo: Twitter)

Burton was close to his mom — he gave her his kidney more than 20 years ago — but he chose to open up about her experience to to pay tribute to her and to help others, reminding them to be an advocate for themselves, when it comes to their health.

"It's an opportunity, really. To turn tragedy into triumph," he says. "I think that largely that's a good part of the value of human experience is being able to share the benefit of that experience with others. I think that’s why I'm a storyteller because, you know, sharing that experience so that we can find ourselves in others, right? That commonality leads to empathy, and empathy is what we need to change the world."

Burton felt a much different emotion when he finally had his turn at the Jeopardy! podium: terror. He's one of more than a dozen people to stand there following the death of longtime, beloved host Alex Trebek — whom Burton admired — in November 2020. The show is expected to make a decision ahead of the new season this fall.

"The biggest challenge was in not being overwhelmed by the enormity of it. I mean, it was scary," says Burton, a longtime fan of the game. "And as familiar as I am with the show, I found all of that knowledge just abandoning me. Because I was so focused on the process, getting the process right and being smooth. I had one day's rehearsal and then the next day I shot five episodes of Jeopardy!. So the standard that I apply to myself was absolutely unrealistic in this instance, because Alex did it for 37 years. He made it look like it was easy because that was his mastery at work. So the challenge then became to inject as much of myself into the proceedings as possible, to just show up as LeVar, and have that be OK, instead of showing up and having mastered the process."

Then he breaks it down: "I've jumped out of airplanes, I've walked over hot coals… standing behind that podium was really one of the most unnerving things I've done in my life."

Reviews have been glowing so far.

When asked, Burton also clarifies just what it would mean for a Black man to be chosen as the permanent Jeopardy! host. He was quoted in the New York Times last month as saying, "for a Black man to occupy that podium is significant."

"There were people who interpreted that as me saying that I believe I should have the job simply because I'm a Black man. And it's in no way what I was saying at all," Burton says. "My whole career has been about efforts like Jeopardy!, and there's only one of them. Jeopardy! is a singular cultural event. There's no other show like it on television. And it’s only had two previous hosts in its history. And it's locked in to the culture of modern society. And so to have a person of color, to have a woman, to have a marginalized person be... our sort of symbol in America for intelligence and erudition, it's significant."

Whatever happens with Jeopardy!, Burton's career will be OK. He's not sure what will come next, but that's not really any different than what's happened in the past.

"The real truth about my life, where my career is concerned, is that I recognized early on that there was a plan much bigger than my own. If you had given me the opportunity to sort of dream up my break into show business and the career that followed, I would not have been this generous to myself," Burton says.

"Between Roots and Star Trek and Reading Rainbow, I have been part of iconic entertainments that have really had impact on society and culture, and I don't take that lightly," he adds. "I am aware of the impact, and so it's not like I’m over here with a list of things I want to do. My motto is to show up, you know? Show up and see what happens. And I try and show up at every opportunity of my life and take what comes my way and do the absolute best to my ability to make it work."