March 07, 1988 12:00 PM

It was, of course, the dream debut. For eight consecutive nights in January 1977 the miniseries Roots held America spellbound, and LeVar Burton, then 19 and cast as the rebellious slave Kunta Kinte, found himself transformed from an unknown University of Southern California undergraduate into a national sensation. “From now on,” he said at the time, “I don’t think I’ll have any problems in this business.” A decade later, Burton smiles wryly when reminded of his youthful hubris. “That was optimistic,” he says. “But that’s me. I’ll own that quote.”

A victim of severe career whiplash, Burton, now 31, is happy to be working these days. On the new syndicated series Star Trek: The Next Generation, he portrays Lt. Geordi La Forge, a blind pilot who sees “thermal images” with the help of sci-fi sunglasses. It’s a long way from Kunta Kinte, but it’s also a happy improvement over the fitful employment and accompanying depression that rattled Burton a few years after Roots. His battles with emotional demons have taken him, if not where no man has gone before, at least into some unusual therapies, including rolfing, yogic breathing, fire walking and jumping blindfold off a telephone pole. Those and other explorations, he says, have helped him find greater personal peace and, perhaps, a little more employment. “Star Trek was the perfect situation for me. That was the energy I was putting out there,” says LeVar, “and the universe was responding to that desire.”

A decade ago the universe was his oyster—or so it seemed. Talk shows beckoned. He landed a supporting role in the film Looking for Mr. Goodbar and starred in several successful TV movies, including 1979’s Dummy, in which he played a deaf-mute accused of murder. “The first three years after Roots,” Burton says, “were a whirlwind.” But then the pace slowed, and Burton found himself working only sporadically. “I took it personally,” he says. For a while he told himself that leading roles were not forthcoming “primarily because of the color of my skin.” But that rationalization, however true, gave him no peace. “I hadn’t come to terms with the bottom line—myself,” he says. “I wasn’t in touch with my feelings. I was floating. I can’t point to a particular date in my life, but I finally decided to find some balance within myself, regardless of what was happening in the outside world.”

Professionally, Burton signed on in 1983 as host of the PBS children’s program Reading Rainbow, a job that has brought him a legion of young fans but that takes up only six weeks of his time each year. On the spiritual side, he began working in 1985 with Steven Radiloff, a mystic masseur who uses a rough-handed technique called rolfing, and Stephen Johnson, a proponent of a form of yogic breathing called re-birthing, which is intended to re-create a womblike sense of security. “Overall we wanted the same things—to get real with ourselves,” says Burton, who now works with them several weekends a year. “They were and are on the same path I am on.” Hoping to “push back the envelope of human experience,” Burton has participated in a Dallas auto race and gone white-water rafting in Africa. He has also tried fire walking. “It’s a metaphor for turning your fear into power,” he says. “You put yourself in a state whereby mentally and physically you are congruent, absolutely in alignment, and can walk across hot coals without burning your feet.”

To prepare himself to play a blind man in Star Trek, Burton took a self-help course designed to teach him to rely on his other senses. The literal high point, he says, came when he climbed a 30-foot pole blindfold and mounted a 12-inch-square platform at the top. Then, attached to a harness, he hurled himself off the pole and grabbed a trapeze mounted eight feet away. Back on the ground, Burton acknowledged the cheers of classmates by taking a bow. “I couldn’t believe what I’d done,” he says. “It was the most alive I have ever felt.”

He admits that he wishes there were more life to his Star Trek character, who, so far, has not lit up the heavens. “There’s a part of me that thinks, ‘LeVar Burton is an important actor,’ ” he says. “So it hasn’t felt good that my character is not central to all the story lines. But I realize that storming into the producer’s office would be maladaptive behavior.”

Intensely absorbed in what he calls his “inner journey,” Burton lives alone in the San Fernando Valley in a secluded trilevel house redolent of incense. It is, he says, “my sanctuary.” As for romance, “I think a relationship at this point in my life would only serve as a distraction,” he says. Nor is he willing to talk about his son, Eian, born out of a casual relationship eight years ago. For now his main concern is broadcasting the essence of LeVar Burton on the wavelength of the universe. “I love the way life works,” he says, “when you just put out there who it is you are and what it is you want.”

—Written by David Grogan, reported by Lois Armstrong

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