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Roots Dug Deep into the Lives of Its Stars, and Careers Are Blossoming Out

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To everything there is a season, but that sentiment comes from a source less credited in TV circles than Nielsen. So it’s all very well for Alex Haley, author of history’s greatest ratings coup, to brood that “one of the things that concerns me is not to make anything that could cheapen Roots—like the Son of Roots.” Or for executive producer David Wolper to profess: “If it was up to me, it would be finished—el finisho.” While that el loco piety is passed, ABC is pondering the untapped 160 (of 662) pages of America’s hottest property for some other spinoff gimmick in 1978.

While the permanent impact (if any) of the original series is being anatomized under the dim glow of computers and professors’ pipes, Roots’ remarkable cast is itself blinking unaccustomedly under critics’ confetti, new agents’ smoke and old creditors’ heat. For the blacks, is tokenism (west of Broadway) behind them? All that is known so far is that their lives will never be the same after those Eight Nights in January, and that 130 million Americans care. Here, eight members of that powerful company ponder their hopes (and fears).

Lou Gossett, the Fiddler

It was “to include my daddy and my whole family” (a great-grandmother who lived to 117 had been a slave) that the full name of Louis Gossett Jr. appears, for the first time professionally, in the credits of Roots. Since leaving New York University in the late 1950s, he has worked steadily as just Louis on and off Broadway and as plain Lou as a ubiquitous TV guest and in such movies as Skin Game, Travels with My Aunt and The White Dawn. But that career, Gossett, now 40, admits, was marked by anonymity. “Before Roots, I could have a nice quiet lunch. Now my food gets cold while people come up to me. Since I’ve waited so long for this, I talk to everybody.” Divorced last fall (he has a son, 1½), Gossett lives alone in a townhouse on a choice surf-casting beach north of L.A. (“I was raised in Coney Island, and I always seek the sea.”) Lou has long since finished the forthcoming film The Deep, but last week Columbia sweetened his billing (to equal with Nick Nolte’s). “I’m proud of what I’ve done in Roots, and a little more secure,” he says. But, adds the canny old pro, “Everyone tells me not to worry anymore, but I worry anyway.”

LeVar Burton, young Kunta Kinte

It was the college junior cast as the young Mandinka warrior upon whom fell the real blizzard of deals and promotion indignities (as here in New York). “Who could imagine, in their wildest fantasies?” bubbles LeVar Burton, 20 (this week). Indeed, until Roots his only credit was in a USC staging of Oklahoma! last year. Yet in the past three weeks LeVar has been the tiger of talk-show green rooms, taped five Hollywood Squares, signed on as a presenter for two awardcasts (including next week’s Academy of Country Music) and begun shooting his first movie, Richard Brooks’s heavy Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Born LeVardis Burton in Germany to an Army career officer, he grew up in Sacramento (with his mom, who got divorced and became a social worker). Once LeVar studied to be a seminarian, but now he’s at USC on a drama scholarship. Upon returning last week to his rented room (he earlier boarded in a Jewish fraternity house), he was hardly spared the savagery that passes for undergraduate concern. “Did you hear about Freddie Prinze?” asked one student. “Move off, cool it,” snapped LeVar, who’s taking similar counsel. “I don’t think I’ll have problems in this business,” he says, despite his considerable ambitions in TV, films and records. “I’m a greedy person,” he grins. “I want to do it all.”

John Amos, older Kunta Kinte

That he’s never been the most famous Amos—especially among fans of radio comedies, chocolate chip cookies and center fielders—has long bugged actor John Amos. And then came Roots, which “helped shrink my head and put the whole business in perspective. My ego was getting in the way—I had a bad case of the biggies,” John continues. “I wanted to make an important motion picture, like tomorrow morning. But Roots taught me it took us 200 years to get where we are now.” His notices have also partially softened the frustrations of two and a half seasons on CBS’s sitcom Good Times. Though Amos, 34, endured playing foil to Jimmie (“J.J.”) Walker with granite-jawed calm, he now admits that off-camera he and Norman Lear “were like two billy goats butting heads. But he owned the pasture, so I left after last season.”

But then, John’s always butted heads. He integrated his East Orange, N.J. school, failed repeated pro-football tryouts and got depressed doing social work in N.Y. prisons (including the infamous Tombs). Even his rise—from Greenwich Village comic to TV writer to MTM weatherman Gordy to Florida’s husband on Maude—seemed to dead-end with Good Times. Amos thinks his casting in Roots was “predestined, all laid out like a master game plan.” In 1970—when Haley was still researching his work—John made the first of six trips to Africa and even leased a farm near the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Home, though, is a San Fernando Valley spread he shares with actress Lillian Lehman (above), whom he’ll wed when his divorce is final. His first wife and two kids live a mile and a half away, and he sees them almost every day.

Professionally, John hopes his Roots success will push forward his five-year movie project on early-19th-century Zulu leader Shaka. For now, though, he’s winding up an ABC spring series called Future Cop (in which another policeman is a robot). “It’s not aimed at people with high intelligence,” Amos admits, “but it’s nice and light, and I need some levity now.”

Madge Sinclair, Bell

“If you’re tall and thin and not too bad looking you’re usually a prostitute,” wryly analyzes Madge Sinclair of roles open to black actresses. “If you’re fat, you play mothers, and if you’re ugly, you play maids. At least Roots has given us another alternative—slaves.” Sinclair doesn’t play maids, but she has portrayed mothers and a madam (in the movie Leadbelly), as well as classical roles onstage.

Not bad for an ex-teacher who arrived in New York from her native Jamaica eight years ago, at 29, hoping to bust into singing or dancing. “I took one look at Judith Jamison [of Alvin Alley’s troupe] and decided I’d better forget dancing,” she cracks. “Then I heard Aretha Franklin sing and decided that wasn’t for me either.” A relative of Marcus Garvey (“the lineage is on my father’s side and the money on my mother’s”), Madge had been wed to a Jamaican cop before leaving the island because “it is so chauvinistic.”

Today Sinclair lives in an L.A. house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with (below) the older of her two sons, high schooler Garry, and her man of eight years, Dean Compton, a professor of theater arts. Madge doesn’t believe Roots will “make a hell of a lot of difference” in her career (she’d like to work with Joe Papp again, and direct films). But it’s already affected her personal life. She reports that Compton’s mother, a retired teacher in the Ozarks, was polite but not totally accepting of her son’s relationship. But post-Roots, “She has bought the book, and now she calls us and says she’s learning so much from it.”

Leslie Uggams, Kizzy

“It never would have made the papers except for the success of Roots,” sighs Leslie Uggams of her recent bankruptcy petition (she’s some $600,000 in hock). Uggams, 33, is being modest: She’s been a star since she played with Ethel Waters at 6 in Beulah, sang along with Mitch at 17, then had her own CBS series and won a 1968 Tony for Hallelujah, Baby! Indeed, Leslie was in Las Vegas rehearsing for her current Guys and Dolls production when Roots aired. “The casinos were empty,” she gloats. “Those gamblers all rushed upstairs to watch. It blew my mind.” Bankruptcy doesn’t seem to have shaken the life-styles of Uggams and her manager-husband, Australian Grahame Pratt (left). They and their adopted kids, Danielle, 6, and Jason, 1½, just moved into a four-bedroom Beverly Hills Tudor with a pool plus “two little old Mercedeses” in the garage. Pratt, who feels “talking about” Leslie’s quirky finances “just degrades her,” is noticeably freer discussing the offers he claims have come in post-Kizzy. He frets that the networks are also “pulling her old specials out of the can, which is a bummer,” and adds, “we’re going to sit back and wait for a good property to come along.”

Olivia Cole, Matilda

For an actress schooled at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, with an M.A. in drama from the University of Minnesota, a solid career in rep and a long run on TV’s Guiding Light, all Olivia Cole could land in four years in L.A. was a few Police Womans and one supporting stage role. Only her white actor-playwright husband Richard Venture’s “constant encouragement,” she says, “kept me from going back East.” Then came Roots, “and the fallout has been by the tons.” The 30ish Olivia notes that there are not too many roles for women, particularly black women. Nevertheless, she is driving her camper from her San Fernando Valley house to work on her first film, Coming Home, which also stars Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern.

Ben Vereen, Chicken George

For the eight nights of Roots, Ben Vereen was too “nervous” to leave the house. On the ninth night, he walked onto ABC’s American Music Awards and evoked a three-minute standing ovation from the showbiz house for his dramatic skills in creating Roots’ possibly most ingratiating character. “Acting is part of what I do,” he allows, “but I don’t want to neglect singing and dancing.” Indeed, it’s been his success on Broadway (Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin, which netted him a Tony) plus his club dates (he was recently double-billed with Buddy Hackett in Vegas) that have bought him, at 30, a home in the Hollywood Hills. The Brooklyn-reared Vereen lives there with second wife Nancy, his son and their three girls (another’s “in the cooker”).

“We’re an interracial family,” says Vereen (Nancy is white), “so watching Roots was an experience.” Ben, who collects sculpted turtles because “they teach me patience,” is all too aware that today “black actors still sit around and discuss ‘Where do we go from here?’ We have fine writers and directors, but all that’s getting made is exploitation films.” So he’s set up a production company and wants to teach: “I went to the vault one day and said, ‘I want talent.’ The answer was, ‘Yes, but you have to give it back.’ ”

Brad Davis, Ol’ George

Before he hurdled into Roots, Brad Davis could go to a bar “and get rowdy, I mean really rowdy. Nobody gave a damn. Now people are watching, and it inhibits me.” Not that at 27 Davis begrudges his latest breakthrough. A rebel whose early cause was hooky, Brad dredged up his native Tallahassee drawl for the part. He apprenticed Off-Broadway in soap opera and in two major prime-time roles (as poet Walt Whitman’s lover in Song of Myself and as Sally Field’s boyfriend in Sybil). Today he’s still hustling in Hollywood, crashing with pals and thumbing rides (he doesn’t own a car), while his roomie of five years and bride of six weeks—talent agent Susan Bluestien—operates from their New York pad. Though TV has turned around his career, Davis is ambivalent about the medium, especially a series test he made pre-Roots. “I’ll be angry if they don’t want me,” he explains, “but very relieved—I had to agree that if I get it, I’ll work for up to five years. I want to be as free as an actor can be,” he says. The irony is that the whitey discovery of Roots could wind up a 1970s-style indentured servant.