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The "Reading Rainbow" theme song assured its young viewers they could "go anywhere" or "be anything" with the help of a book, but it's LeVar Burton's personal campaigning that landed the longtime host of the PBS show a spot on the "Jeopardy!" podium.
The actor, first nominated for an Emmy for his role in the 1977 miniseries "Roots," expressed his desire to host the quiz show in a tweet in September: "Not gonna lie, I feel like I’ve been preparing my whole life to occupy the @Jeopardy host podium when Alex retires." He contacted the show's executive producer, Mike Richards, to lobby for a guest-hosting spot and tweeted his appreciation for an online petition to make him the show's permanent host that has garnered more than 250,000 signatures since November.
Burton, 64, begins his weeklong stint Monday, and there are two more hosts to come before the season finale Aug. 13. A longtime viewer, the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" actor says he's invested in how the quiz show evolves after Alex Trebek's death in November. Burton sees "Jeopardy!" as "a natural, logical extension of what I've been doing for 45 years," combining entertainment and education.
The "Celebrity Jeopardy!" winner says he chose to lobby to ward off any remorse about a missed opportunity.
"I don't want to look back on my life and tick off all of the things that I wish I had said or done," he says. "I just knew that if I let the opportunity pass without speaking my mind and my heart and going after what I've wanted, that I would be filled with regret, and I don't want that for myself."
Burton, who teaches the recently launched Power of Storytelling course on the online educational site MasterClass, talks about the moment he learned he'd received a guest-host spot, why the job was so challenging and how he'd handle not getting the gig. (Edited for length and clarity.)
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Question: What was that moment like when you learned that you were going to finally get your chance to guest host?
LeVar Burton: I was ecstatic! "Yes! Yes! Yes! I'm going to get the opportunity. I'm going to get in the room. I have an opportunity now to compete for what I want." That's the best feeling imaginable. And then the reality set in: "Oh my God. Now I have to deliver."
Q: How did you prepare?
Burton: There's no preparing. I found myself on the "Jeopardy!" stage not more than two weeks later. I had one day of rehearsal, and the following day, I shot five episodes. So it was terrifying. It really was. Alex made it look easy, but it's not. Mike Richards says it's the most stressful job in game shows, and I believe he's right.
Q: "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts (who guest-hosted last week) said the same thing, that "Alex made it look a lot easier than it is!"
Burton: That was his mastery, and he had time to perfect that. I have such a high standard for excellence that I hold myself to. My desire was to be as seemingly effortless at the job as Alex was, which was an absolutely unreal expectation to have of myself. Once I got over that, then it was a matter of "How can I put as much LeVar into this as possible?" knowing, of course, and understanding that the show isn't about the host. The show is about the game and the contestants.
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Q: Many guest hosts had 10 episodes. You were given five. Were you disappointed you didn't get more?
Burton: I was happy to get an opportunity to compete to get five episodes. Would I have liked five more? You know, I felt at the end of the fifth one I was just beginning to get it, and it was time to go home. But that's a part of it. I got what I wanted – I got in the room.
Q: How was guest-hosting different than you expected?
Burton: I wasn't prepared for how awestruck I was by the point of view of looking at the contestants, the board and the audience from behind the podium. Because as an audience member, we never see that ... It caught me off guard. It was a really powerful, world tilting on its axis moment for me.
Q: What was the most challenging part?
Burton: The whole thing! I've jumped out of airplanes, I've walked over hot coals. Standing at that podium and hosting five shows was scary. It was really a challenge, and it was a good challenge. I was out of my comfort zone and stretching myself.
I came home from the day of rehearsal with my tail tucked between my legs. I was convinced I had blown it. And then I had to go back the next day and shoot five episodes. My family pulled me off the drapes and got me grounded, and I went back, and I did my best. And what I know is that more than my best I cannot do.
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Q: After guest-hosting, have your feelings about the job changed?
Burton: I still want it. I still think I'm right for it. I have to figure that I've got a shot. For all of these guest hosts, it serves as our audition. It's a great job!
Q: Have you received any feedback from Sony or anyone associated with "Jeopardy!"?
Burton: They're so tight-lipped. This is one of the most closely guarded secrets I've ever encountered. They have been absolutely unhelpful.
Q: If you aren't asked to be the permanent host of "Jeopardy!", how do you think you will handle that?
Burton: I expect that I will handle it like any disappointments. I'll be disappointed, and I will move on with my life. That's the nature of having an opportunity to mature in life is that your past experience informs the present, as well as your future. I am a firm believer in it's not what happens to you in life that determines who you are, it's what you do with what happens. So I know that whatever the outcome is, it's the perfect outcome for me. I will be perfectly OK. I will embrace whatever that outcome is.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Jeopardy!' guest host LeVar Burton on 'scary' gig, 'blown' rehearsal