Depending on when you were born, you will likely have different associations when you hear the name “LeVar Burton.” There was his groundbreaking role in the 1977 miniseries “Roots” that first put him on the map. You don’t have to be a hard-core Trekkie to remember his “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994) character Geordi La Forge, the visor-wearing helmsman of the Enterprise. And for 26 years, children went on educational adventures with him as host of the beloved PBS series “Reading Rainbow.” Since the kids’ show ended its run in 2009, Burton has been “gliding under the radar” he tells Yahoo! TV, but now he’s back in a big way with a guest role in “Perception” – and a re-imagined version of “Reading Rainbow.”
The 55-year-old makes his debut as a university dean on TNT’s new crime drama “Perception,” which stars Eric McCormack as a schizophrenic college professor who helps the FBI solve crimes, on Monday, August 20. The role – playing Deal Paul Haley – reteams Burton with show creators Ken Biller and Mike Sussman, who worked on “Star Trek.” “When I read this pilot, I knew Ken had something on his mind; he draws characters really beautifully,” Burton says. “Then I saw that he had gotten together with Eric McCormack – who I really respect as an actor, and he’s a producer on this – about this idea around mental illness and what our perception of reality actually is, it was just really interesting stuff that I thought deserved to be on TV and I wanted to be part of it.”
Burton’s role in the pilot was small, but the part was expanded and he appears in 6 of the 10 episodes this summer. He says a great part of starring on the show has been working with “Will & Grace” vet McCormack. “Eric is a great pro. He’s a great leader. He’s a joy to watch work, and he’s just fantastic to work with,” says Burton. “I think Eric just killed it in front of the camera – and behind. It’s just really, really good TV.”
Watch LeVar Burton and Eric McCormack in this "Perception" clip:
Since “Reading Rainbow” went off the air in 2009, Burton has racked up a slew of credits playing himself in various guest-starring TV roles. Two memorable ones were appearances on “Community” and “Big Bang Theory” last year. “To be at that point in my career where I get called and asked to play myself is a lot of fun,” he said of the guest gigs. “I absolutely love it.” Which shows are on his wish list for future guest spots? “I got very hooked on ‘Smash’ last year, so I would love to be on that – but so would everybody else in show business,” he laughs. “And my daughter is a huge Gleek. It would be the epitome of dad dudeness if I were to be on ‘Glee.’”
Another thing Burton absolutely loves is “Reading Rainbow,” as evident by the nearly three decades he spent as the show host. The son of an English teacher, he has a longstanding commitment to literacy and when the series went off the air three years ago he worked furiously behind the scenes to reinvent it, keeping today’s tech-savvy kids in mind. His labor of love was complete in June when he launched Reading Rainbow the iPad app, which offers children an enhanced reading experience with animations, videos, and games. Like the show, Burton hosts the virtual "field trip” videos and has been traveling extensively over the last 10 months to film them, recently visiting the White House. Unlike the TV series, the kids are in control of the experience and can select their own books from a collection of 150 – many of which Burton narrates. A very modern version of the TV classic.
“The TV show was all about providing a window into interesting, real-world experience for kids and connecting it to literature. The formula here is the same,” he says of the app. “We have what we believe to be a value proposition to the parents – and to the kids. We’re going to collect some of the finest children’s literature that we can find, we’re going to digitize it, and present it to your kids in a way that will engage them – just like these magical devices do. They engage us all. And we’re also going to give you the kind of video field trips that you, as a parent, remember when you were a kid watching ‘Reading Rainbow,’ and there’s a whole universe for them to explore and they get to select their own books and take ownership of the experience.”
Of the journey it took to get the “Reading Rainbow” app off the ground, he says, “We’ve been gliding under the radar the last couple of years, but we’ve really been doing this. It’s been silent work. Now that we’re releasing product and trying every day to make it a better experience for the customer, we need to be more visible to let people know we’re open for business.”
“Perception” airs Mondays at 10 PM on TNT. The Reading Rainbow app is available at the iTunes store.