What Fans Might Not Know About LeVar Burton

An entire generation of Americans literally grew up watching LeVar Burton hosting the beloved PBS show "Reading Rainbow." In fact, given that the show first aired from 1983 and ran for 26 years, many people will have watched the program in their own youth only to later see their kids tuning in as well. If hosting "Reading Rainbow" was all Burton had ever done, he'd still be a vaunted figure in the American cultural scene — the show won hundreds of awards, including more than two dozen Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, after all. But it was the whole of hardly Burton's oeuvre.

Because Burton's work spanned so many genres, from his turn as Kunta Kinte on "Roots," widely watched in American schools, his time playing Geordie La Forge on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," a favorite show with fans of all ages, and of course from his aforementioned stellar run as the host of the PBS show "Reading Rainbow," Burton became known to people from multiple generations and with a host of different interests. He is something of a cultural Venn diagram in that sense, and very much a household name in America.

All that said, there is still much about LeVar Burton that even those who grew up watching him likely don't know. A bit of good news right from the get-go: the more you learn about Burton, the more your impression of him as an all around decent human being will be confirmed.

LeVar Burton is 65 years old

LeVar Burton looks, at a glance, to be in his later 40s, maybe his early 50s, given the grayness of his usually present beard and his close-cropped but only partially receded hair. But in fact, Burton is, at the time of this writing, 65 years old. Burton was born on February 16, 1957, per IMDb, which makes sense when you consider that he has been active on the screen since the mid 1970s, with "Roots" first airing in 1977, but it's still hard to believe that he's a senior citizen based on how young he looks.

But a senior citizen Burton is by every common metric used in America. Some organizations begin to recognize people as senior citizens at age 55, but according to the Silverbell Homestead, the retirement age at which one assumes the title "senior citizen" is generally considered to be 62. Medicaid does not recognize someone as a senior until age 65, though, so by that program's standards, Burton is a newly minted senior citizen, but a senior nonetheless.

Burton has been married to his wife for 30 years

Celebrity relationships are all too often all too short, with marriages crumbling amid the challenges of fame and the ensuing scrutiny and wealth and other attendant pressures. But LeVar Burton and his wife Stephanie Cozart Burton will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary this year. And Burton remains deeply in love with his wife, as evidenced by a Tweet he shared out on a recent anniversary. He was 35 years old when he and Stephanie married on October 3, 1992, so within another five years, LeVar Burton will have spent half his life married to his wife.

Together, LeVar and Stephanie have a daughter named Michaela (or Mica) born in 1994, while Burton also has a son, Eian, who was born in 1980, according to ABTC, when Burton was briefly involved with a different woman (via ABTC), and he has long been recognized as a devoted husband and father.

LeVar Burton considered becoming a priest

As a young man, LeVar Burton was so filled with Christian faith that he felt a pull toward taking the cloth himself. In his teens, he decided we wanted to become a priest and, according to an interview he granted to The Atlantic, for several years he was well on his way toward doing just that. He entered a California seminary school at age 13, beginning what he called "formal training as an initiate into the order of the Society of the Divine Savior."

Four years later, though, on the precipice of committing to being a priest in the Catholic church, Burton abandoned his journey toward ordination and would instead enroll in a Bachelor of Fine Arts program, majoring in drama while at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He had chosen acting as a career that would in many ways become a calling, as so much of his work has given him a meaningful platform with which to connect to people. For most of his adult life, Burton has said he does not really identify with any specific religion, as he said during an episode of the podcast "LeVar Burton Reads."

Burton was not born in America

Though he may well be a great fit for the job, it's bad news for LeVar Burton if he ever decides he wants to be president of the United States of America: he is not eligible for the position, not having been born on American soil. Burton was born in Landstuhl, in what was then the country of West Germany, the USSR still extant and still holding East Germany as a Soviet republic.

Burton was born in Germany as a result of his father's job as a photographer with the Army Signal Corps (via ABTC). As Burton shared with The Atlantic, the family moved to America when LeVar was just 1 year old, but they would redeploy to Germany just a few years later. The Burton family lived back in Landstuhl, near a major American military base, for two years, those being Burton's third and fourth grade years. He would later credit his time overseas as a young man with inspiring his passion for reading. As Burton said in a blog post he wrote that is today shared by the archives of the White House of President Barack Obama, the fact of being physically distant from his American homeland made the reading — and trading — of American comic books a precious activity, as they brought a taste of familiarity. "It was this experience as a child in a military family, and the excitement, comfort, and escape the comics provided, that helped spark my lifelong love of reading," he wrote.

He really wanted the Jeopardy gig

The passing of the beloved longtime host of "Jeopardy!," Alex Trebek, left a void in the American cultural landscape that was always going to be impossible to perfectly fill. Though Trebek was not the first host of the Merv Griffin-created TV quiz show, Trebek was the calm, often witty, and occasionally incisive host for more than 36 years, having taken the gig in the year 1984 and hosting the show through the end of his life in 2020, per CTV News — in fact, episodes of "Jeopardy!" with Trebek as the host continued to air for several weeks after his death. Many contended to take over the vaunted spot left vacant by the peerless Trebek, but few seemed up to the task.

Except for LeVar Burton. Burton's name emerged early on in the running to find the next permanent "Jeopardy!" host — the show ran through a battery of temporary guest hosts for a time — with a huge number of fans clamoring for the former "Reading Rainbow" host to get the gig. Burton himself "openly campaigned" for the job for many weeks, according to The Wrap, but in August of 2021 the word came down that producer of the show, Mike Richards, and actress Mayim Bialik would take over as hosts. (Richards quickly stepped down amid controversy over earlier statements, per The New York Times, with former "Jeopardy!" super contestant Ken Jennings stepping in to help host part time.) Burton's fans were devastated, as he likely was himself, but he was magnanimous just the same.

Despite his level of fame and acclaim, he is only modestly wealthy

Let's be clear here: LeVar Burton is doing just fine, money wise. In fact, he's doing great by any reasonable metric. According to Celebrity Net Worth, Burton's net worth as of the year 2018 was $5.94 million. His annual income was estimated at just under a million dollars a year, he owns a beautiful five-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot home in Sherman Oaks, California, and so forth. But compared to the net worth of some actors, who have estates valued in the tens or even the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to The Second Angle, $5,940,000 might not seem like a treasure trove.

Now, to be even clearer, that's still a lot of money. The entire net worth of the average American in 2019, the latest year for which data is readily available (and, as it happens, therefore a good comp for the data on Burton from 2018) was about $122,000 according to The Motley Fool. That means Burton is (or was a few short years ago) about 48.6 times more wealthy than the average American, in terms of overall net worth. 

Burton has directed multiple films and TV episodes

You may think of LeVar Burton first and foremost as an actor, and that's an accurate line of thought. But he has actually done much more in film and television than only appearing before the camera. In addition to producing various programs, such as "Reading Rainbow," of course, Burton has also served as the director of many shows and movies. According to data sourced from IMDb, at the time of this writing, Burton has 18 credits to his name as a director. They include several made-for-TV movies, like 1998's "The Tiger Woods Story" and a few feature films as well, such as 2003's "Blizzard" and 2008's "Reach for Me."

But most of LeVar Burton's directing experience has come in the form of television episodes. He has directed more than 50 episodes of TV shows, including episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the show with which many "Trekkies" identify him, as well as hit programs like "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Charmed," and in recent years, "NCIS: New Orleans" and "NCIS: Hawai'i."

Burton faced a huge personal lawsuit as he sought to revive Reading Rainbow

As hard as it might be to believe that anyone would come after lovable, unsullied LeVar Burton, especially with an action that would muzzle — and in fact effectively kill off — the purely positive show untold millions associated with Burton, "Reading Rainbow," this is America, so it happened. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a few years after the Burton-hosted (and produced) "Reading Rainbow" went off the air in 2006, Burton sought to revive the program, largely with funding gained through grassroots efforts.

Claiming Burton and his partners had breached the terms of a previous deal that would lead to a revival of the show, a Buffalo, New York-based public broadcaster, WNED, filed a broad personal lawsuit against Burton. The suit sought to shut down progress toward a relaunch of "Reading Rainbow" that would be largely under Burton's control and without fair profit sharing, as per the suit's allegations, and even sought to block Burton from using the famous "Reading Rainbow" catchphrase "But you don't have to take my word for it" on his unaffiliated podcast "LeVar Burton Reads," (which, to be fair, Burton had positioned as "Reading Rainbow" for adults).

He has long served on the board of directors of the AIDS Research Alliance

LeVar Burton has been actively involved in the fight against AIDS for well over a decade, having made public appearances on behalf of research promotion dating back to 2010 and before. According to a press release from the AIDS Research Alliance, shared by PR.com, Burton had become the national spokesman for the AIDS Research Alliance in 2011, and then in 2012 he joined that organization's Board of Directors, serving as one of just seven members that would help guide the foundation. 

At the time of his joining the AIDS Research Alliance board, more than 8,000 people were dying as a result of AIDS worldwide every day. Though numbers have fallen — according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, some 1.1 million people died as a result of AIDS in 2010, while some 690,000 died of the same causes in 2019 — AIDS is still a deadly epidemic and is still a cause to which Burton dedicates a large amount of time and energy. "As someone in show business, I was very much aware of the AIDS epidemic," Burton said back in 2012 as he took his board position. His convictions never waned.

His Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign was a record setter

The grassroots fundraising efforts that LeVar Burton and his colleagues turned to when hoping to fund a revival of "Reading Rainbow" took the form of a Kickstarter campaign. But this wasn't just any Kickstarter drive: It was one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever at the time. According to Education Week, when Burton launched the drive in the spring of 2014, the goal was to raise $1 million. The love for "Reading Rainbow" and the man who had been the face of the show for a generation was evident when the campaign drew in more than six times the intended capital and set Kickstarter records. The drive brought in a stunning $6.4 million in all of about a month.

But as there were problems aplenty with the relaunch of "Reading Rainbow" (via The Hollywood Reporter), instead, much of the funding raised by the Kickstarter campaign was directed into a similar project, Skybrary, which is, according to its own about page, "a carefully curated interactive library of eBooks and real-world video explorations designed to engage young readers and foster a love of reading." Maybe it's not officially "Reading Rainbow," but Skybrary is rather like a 2.0 version of the program geared for the digital age.

He has done extensive voice acting

LeVar Burton may be known well for his on screen portrayals of Kunta Kinte (aka Toby) in "Roots" or Geordi La Forge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," but he has also done plenty of acting with his voice alone. Burton has leant his rich, familiar voice to numerous characters in animated programs going back three decades and more. He voiced a character in the kids' shows "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" in 1990 and in "Batman: The Animated Series" (1993). He did similar voice work for "Our Friend, Martin" in 1999, "The Super Hero Squad Show" in 2009, and "OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes" in 2017, and this is just a small selection of his voice work.

Burton has also lent his voice to video games, such as "Star Trek: The Next Generation — A Final Unity," and he has even voiced animated renditions of himself, such as he happily did for a 2009 episode of the animated comedy show "Family Guy," per IMDb.

Burton's love for the original Star Trek series helped him get a role on Next Generation

If LeVar Burton had not been a huge "Star Trek" fan, he likely never would have been a major part of the "Star Trek" franchise. As Burton shared during an interview with Chase Jarvis on the series Chase Jarvis LIVE, it was a series of conversations Burton had with producer Robert H. Justman while on the set of a TV movie called "Emergency" (which was, in his own words, "not a very good movie at all") that would land him his role as Geordi La Forge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Burton, a young, up-and-coming actor at the time, would sit with Bob Justman and talk to him about his love for the original "Star Trek" series from the 1960s, as Justman had been a producer on that show.

Burton relayed how several years later, when "Star Trek: The Next Generation" came together, Justman was again attached to the series as a producer, and he remembered Burton's passion for the franchise. Justman reached out to self-avowed science fiction fan Burton and asked him if he wanted a role. Which he did. As Geordi La Forge, Burton would secure his place as a favorite actor with a whole new group (or, in other words ... generation) of fans.