‘Roots’ stars reflect on the impact of the iconic TV miniseries 45 years later: ‘It resonates to this day’

'Roots' cast in 2007
The cast of 'Roots' actors Todd Bridges, LeVar Burton, John Amos, Ben Vereen, Cicely Tyson, Olivia Cole, Leslie Uggams and Louis Gossett Jr. at the 5th Annual TV Land Awards on April 14, 2007 Photo credit Getty Images

“Roots” -- the groundbreaking, ABC miniseries that told the history of American slavery through the eyes of one man, Kunte Kinte -- turns 45 this year.

Based on Alex Haley’s epic, bestselling novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the 1977 filmed version was notable not just for it’s then-unique scheduling – it played out each night over a week – but for its then-highly controversial subject matter.

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It told the story of Kunta Kinte (played by LeVar Burton), a slave brought over from West Africa. His history played as a metaphor for the generations of enslaved African Americans, from the beginning of the slave trade up to Reconstruction.

In a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment, two of the principal actors in the historic series – Louis Gossett Jr. and John Amos – talked about their memories of making the the series and how the network was hesistant about its release.

“Their response was to initially want to burn it off,” said Amos, who portrayed the adult Kinte, and has also appeared on TV shows like “Good Times” and “The West Wing.”

“That is,” Amos continued, “show every episode over consecutive nights to get rid of it and get it out of the public's mind, as opposed to realizing the depth of the novel by Alex Haley.”

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“Roots” ran on eight consecutive nights in January, 1977. It is hard to impress upon modern audiences how rare it was then to see a mostly all-Black cast in a top-tiered, period piece, free network television production – never mind that it dealt seriously and fairly graphically with the country’s slave history, and would no doubt be met with derision in many parts of the country.

So controversial was the production that Gossett – who played Kinte’s father figure, Fiddler – claims ABC was practically forced to air “Roots” just to fulfill their contractual obligations to Haley and executive producer David L. Wolper.

“They said, ‘We're going to lose the south if we do it once a week. Let's put it all [out there] and get rid of it.’ That's what Fred said. And he said that in our presence, and to Wolper,” said Gossett. “‘Let's get it on. Because I owe it to you. And let's get rid of it. Because we're gonna lose the south if we keep it going.’ That's what he thought.”

Nevertheless, the ABC project was a huge hit. To call it in today’s parlance “buzzworthy” would be an oversimplification. This was an era of only three major networks, with cable TV just beginning to inch into the major coastal cities.

In that environment, “Roots” reportedly drew a live audience of between 130 and 140 million viewers — more than half of the U.S. population (221 million) at that time. As another reference, this month’s Super Bowl drew 112 million viewers.

Network miniseries were pretty popular at the time, though they were often somewhat fluffy, melodramatic prestige projects – like “The Thorn Birds” or “Rich Man, Poor Man” – running over three or four nights, and meant to help networks power through the usually soft TV-watching periods of the year.

They were rarely anything nearly as intense as “Roots.”

“But then,” as Gossett Jr. stated, “you see what happened. The rest is history.”

That history includes the fact that this mere television miniseries sparked a nationwide discussion about long-suppressed truths. And it further, as Yahoo Entertainment noted, “encouraged African Americans to trace their own genealogy and triggered wider discourse on race relations. For many white Americans, it opened their eyes to the lasting effects of slavery on all generations of Black Americans who descended from the enslaved.”

“It was revelatory on so many levels,” added Amos. “Nobody anticipated the response that the world was going to have to 'Roots' at that time.”

Beyond such famously popular TV touchstones -- like the last episode of “M.A.S.H.," the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and “Who Shot JR?” on "Dallas" -- “Roots” solidified broadcast television’s powerful influence on American culture.

While the actors remain to this day incredibly proud of their participation in the show, it was an extremely trying shoot, physically and emotionally.

“To make the transition from a contemporary American citizen, living an affluent lifestyle, to portraying a slave with all that that encompassed, was not an easy transition,” said Amos. “And you had to make it on a daily basis. So it called for you to do your homework and to never totally divest yourself of the character, which I did not. The character stayed with me, and to this day I have of flashbacks of Kunta Kinte and what he went through. I only have to see it manifested in today's latest headline to realize that we still have a ways to go. So that's the bottom line. It resonated on a daily basis, and it resonates to this day.”

On a career level, Gossett Jr. was just hitting his stride at that moment, on his way to becoming one of his generation’s most busy and respected actors. He won an Emmy for “Roots;” and five years later an Oscar for “An Officer and a Gentleman.” But that Emmy might’ve been faint praise, as making “Roots” was a personally more impactful reward.

“I was highly sensitive to the fact that I was Black and accorded less respect and less treatment,” said Gossett. “No matter how many awards that I would win, it still was not enough in the society I wanted to belong to. I used that very strongly in everything that I did as the first African American that Kunta Kinte saw. And I had to talk myself out of that in order to show him how to survive. It's one of the things we have to do on a daily basis, and happening less and less these days, but no matter [how many] awards we've won, we still got something to prove to society.”

A remake of "Roots" aired in 2016 for the History Channel.

The entire original 1977 miniseries is currently available to stream on HBO Max.

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