Roots


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

Tabs

About

Roots remains one of television's landmark programs. The twelve-hour mini-series aired on ABC from 23-30 January 1977. For eight consecutive nights it riveted the country. ABC executives initially feared that the historical saga about slavery would be a ratings disaster. Instead, Roots scored higher ratings than any previous entertainment program in history. It averaged a 44.9 rating and a 66 audience share for the length of its run. The seven episodes that followed the opener earned the top seven spots in the ratings for their week. The final night held the single-episode ratings record until 1983, when the finale of M*A*S*H aired on CBS.

The success of Roots had lasting impact on the television industry. The show defied industry conventions about black-oriented programming: executives simply had not expected that a show with black heroes and white villains could attract such huge audiences. In the process, Roots almost single-handedly spawned a new television format -- the consecutive-night mini-series. (Previous mini-series, like the 1976 hit, Rich Man, Poor Man, had run in weekly installments.) Roots also validated the docudrama approach of its Executive Producer, David Wolper. The Wolper style, blending fact and fiction in a soap-opera package, influenced many subsequent mini-series. Finally, Roots was credited with having a positive impact on race relations, expanding the nation's sense of history.

Based on Alex Haley's best-selling novel about his African ancestors, Roots followed several generations in the lives of a slave family. The saga began with Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton), a West African youth captured by slave raiders and shipped to America in the 1700s. Kunta received brutal treatment from his white masters and rebelled continually. An older Kunta (John Amos) married and his descendants carried the story after his death. Daughter Kizzy (Leslie Uggams) was raped by her master and bore a son, later named Chicken George (Ben Vereen). In the final episode, Kunta Kinte's great-grandson Tom (Georg Stanford Brown) joined the Union Army and gained emancipation. Over the course of the saga, viewers saw brutal whippings and many agonizing moments, rapes, the forced separations of families, slave auctions. Through it all, however, Roots depicted its slave characters as well-rounded human beings, not merely as victims or symbols of oppression.

Apprehensions that Roots would flop shaped the way that ABC presented the show. Familiar television actors like Lorne Greene were chosen for the white, secondary roles, to reassure audiences. The white actors were featured disproportionately in network previews. For the first episode, the writers created a conscience-stricken slave captain (Ed Asner), a figure who did not appear in Haley's novel but was intended to make white audiences feel better about their historical role in the slave trade. Even the show's consecutive-night format allegedly resulted from network apprehensions. ABC programming chief Fred Silverman hoped that the unusual schedule would cut his network's imminent losses--and get Roots off the air before sweeps week.

Silverman, of course, need not have worried. Roots garnered phenomenal audiences. On average, 80 million people watched each of the last seven episodes. 100 million viewers, almost half the country, saw the final episode, which still claims one of the highest Nielsen ratings ever recorded, a 51.1 with a 71 share. A stunning 85% of all television homes saw all or part of the mini-series. Roots also enjoyed unusual social acclaim for a television show. Vernon Jordan, former president of the Urban League, called it "the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America." Today, the show's social effects may appear more ephemeral, but at the time they seemed widespread. Over 250 colleges and universities planned courses on the saga, and during the broadcast, over 30 cities declared "Roots" weeks.

The program drew generally rave reviews. Black and white critics alike praised Roots for presenting African-American characters who were not tailored to suit white audiences. The soap-opera format drew some criticism for its emphasis on sex, violence, and romantic intrigue. A few critics also complained that the opening segment in Africa was too Americanized--it was hard to accept television regulars like O.J. Simpson as West African natives. On the whole, however, critical acclaim echoed the show's resounding popular success. Roots earned over 30 Emmy Awards and numerous other distinctions.

The program spawned a 1979 sequel, Roots: The Next Generations. The sequel did not match the original's ratings, but still performed extremely well, with a total audience of 110 million. Overall, Roots had a powerful and diverse impact--as a cultural phenomenon, an exploration of black history, and the crown jewel of historical mini-series.

-J.B. Bird

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER

David L. Wolper

PRODUCER

Stan Margulies

ADAPTED FOR TELEVISION BY

William Blinn

CAST

Kunta Kinte (as a boy)............................... LeVar Burton

Kunta Kinte (Toby: adult).............................. John Amos

Binta ........................................................Cicely Tyson

Omoro .................................................Thalmus Rasula

Nya Boto ................................................Maya Angelou

Kadi Touray ............................................O. J. Simpson

The Wrestler.......................................... Ji-Tu Cumbuka

Kintango................................................... Moses Gunn

Brimo Cesay ..............................................Hari Rhodes

Fanta .........................................................Ren Woods

Fanta (later).............................................. Beverly Todd

Capt. Davies ............................................Edward Asner

Third Mate Slater ........................................Ralph Waite

Gardner................................................ William Watson

Fiddler................................................. Louis Gosett, Jr.

John Reynolds.......................................... Lorne Greene

Mrs. Reynolds.............................................. Lynda Day

George Ames.............................................. Vic Morrow

Carrington.................................................. Paul Shenar

Dr. William Reynolds ..................................Robert Reed

Bell....................................................... Madge Sinclair

Grill........................................................... Gary Collins

The Drummer ...............................Raymond St. Jacques

Tom Moore ............................................Chuck Connors

Missy Anne............................................ Sandy Duncan

Noah .........................................Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs

Ordell....................................................... John Schuck

Kizzy..................................................... Leslie Uggams

Squire James..................................... Macdonald Carey

Mathilda....................................................... Olivia Cole

Mingo ................................................Scatman Crothers

Stephen Bennett.................................. George Hamilton

Mrs. Moore ..............................................Carolyn Jones

Sir Eric Russell......................................... Ian McShane

Sister Sara........................................... Lillian Randolph

Sam Bennett..................................... Richard Roundtree

Chicken George ..........................................Ben Vereen

Evan Brent ...............................................Lloyd Bridges

Tom............................................ Georg Stanford Brown

Ol' George Johnson ......................................Brad Davis

Lewis........................................................... Hilly Hicks

Jemmy Brent........................................... Doug MaClure

Irene........................................................ Lynne Moodu

Martha...................................................... Lane Binkley

Justin............................................................. Burl Ives

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

ABC

January 1977

Eight Consecutive Nights at 9:00-11:00, or 10:00-11:00

September 1978

Five Consecutive Nights at 8:00-11:00 or 9:00-11:00

FURTHER READING

Adams, Russell L. "An Analysis of the Roots Phenomenon in the Context of American Racial Conservatism." Presence Africaine: Revue Culturelle du Monde Noir/Cultural Review of the Negro World (Paris) 1980.

Blayney, Michael Steward. "Roots and the Noble Savage." North Dakota Quarterly (Grand Forks, North Dakota), Winter 1986.

Bogle, Donald. "Roots and Roots: The Next Generations." Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1988.

Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory To Prime-Time Network TV Shows: 1946-Present. New York: Ballantine, 1979; 5th edition, 1992.

Gray, John. Blacks in Film and Television, A Pan-African Bibliography of Films, Filmmakers, and Performers. New York: Greenwood, 1990.

Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for "Blackness." Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Haley, Alex. Roots. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976. Journal of Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.) Special issue on Roots. 1978.

Kern-Foxworth, Marilyn. "Alex Haley." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1985.

Tucker, Lauren R., and Hemant Shah. "Race and the Transformation of Culture: The Making of the Television Miniseries Roots." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), December 1992.

"Why Roots Hit Home." Time (New York) 14 February 1977.

Winship, Michael. Television. New York: Random House, 1988.

Woll, David. Ethnic and Racial Images in American Film and Television. New York: Garland, 1987.

Highlights
John Amos on his Roots character, "Kunta Kinte"
03:52
Neil Travis on how being on location for Roots helped inform his editing, leading to his Emmy win
01:23
Quincy Jones on composing for Roots
10:41
Ed Asner on acting in the miniseries Roots
02:48
Leslie Uggams on filming the scene in Roots when her character, "Kizzy" is sold
01:32
David Wolper on the success, criticism, and impact of Roots
07:55
Who talked about this show

John Amos

View Interview
John Amos on getting the role of "Kunta Kinte" on Roots
05:55
John Amos on the accent he wanted to use for "Kunta Kinte" on Roots
03:39
John Amos on his experience playing "Kunta Kinte" on Roots and how his background prepared him for it
12:14
John Amos on the effect of Roots on his personal self-esteem
01:00
John Amos on his Roots character, "Kunta Kinte"
03:52
John Amos on Roots author Alex Haley 
01:21
John Amos on LeVar Burton's performance as young "Kunta Kinte" on Roots
01:47
John Amos on working with Louis Gossett, Jr. as "Fiddler" on Roots
03:02
John Amos on working with Madge Sinclair as "Bell Reynolds" on Roots
03:38
John Amos on working with Robert Reed as "Dr. William Reynolds" on Roots
02:38
John Amos on Leslie Uggams as "Kizzy Reynolds" on Roots
01:34
John Amos on Roots producers David L. Wolper and Stan Margulies 
04:57
John Amos on the public reaction to Roots
02:34
John Amos on reuniting with the cast of Roots on the TV Land Awards
00:37

Edward Asner

View Interview
Ed Asner on acting in the miniseries Roots
02:48

William Blinn

View Interview
William Blinn on the genesis of Roots; meeting Alex Haley
William Blinn on Alex Haley and Roots; on the research, casting, and other details about the miniseries
On the famous scene in Roots where Kunta is held up under a star-filled sky
William Blinn on specific scenes in Roots; taking dramatic licenses
William Blinn on the reaction of the African-American community to Roots; its use in education
William Blinn on the legacy of Roots

LeVar Burton

View Interview
LeVar Burton on how Roots raised the bar for TV miniseries
01:33
LeVar Burton on meeting Ben Vereen as a youngster and getting to work with him later in Roots
02:31
LeVar Burton on going from acting in a production of "Oklahoma" at USC to starring in Roots
06:45
LeVar Burton on the unique perspective shown in Roots - history as told by the African point of view; on scheduling the miniseries
06:03
LeVar Burton on his Roots character, Kunta Kinte; on working with David Wolper, Alex Haley, Stan Marguiles; on John Amos playing the older Kunta Kinte; on being nominated for an Emmy
25:39
LeVar Burton on how Roots  was a seminal event in people's lives and has become part of history
01:12
LeVar Burton on the impact of Roots and what Kunta Kinte has meant to him
06:38
LeVar Burton on one of his favorite scenes in Roots
01:35

Diahann Carroll

View Interview
Diahann Carroll on her reluctance to appear in Roots and her ultimate decision to participate
02:08

Ossie Davis

View Interview
Ossie Davis on the impact Roots had: "Roots helped supply America with a truer definition of who black people were than any other work that had come along"
06:01

Ruby Dee

View Interview
Ruby Dee on her and husband Ossie Davis' involvement in the development of Roots
07:23

Michael J. Fox

View Interview
Michael J. Fox on meeting Alex Haley and loving Roots
01:02

Gerald Fried

View Interview
Gerald Fried on using a lot of folk music in his scores, as in the music for Roots
00:25
Gerald Fried on composing for Roots
06:28
Composer Gerald Fried on a photo from Roots
00:14
Composer Gerald Fried on a photo from Roots
00:15

Leonard H. Goldenson

View Interview
Leonard Goldenson on the decision to air Roots on consecutive nights
01:22

Quincy Jones

View Interview
Quincy Jones on composing for Roots
10:41

Ernest Kinoy

View Interview
Ernest Kinoy on how he got involved with writing Roots 
08:03
Ernest Kinoy on the public reaction to Roots and its impact on the Civil Rights movement
02:19
Ernest Kinoy on the process of writing an episode of Roots
02:43
Ernest Kinoy on winning an Emmy for Roots
00:59
Ernest Kinoy on the legacy of Roots and Roots: The Next Generations
02:22

Harry Morgan

View Interview
Harry Morgan on Roots
02:09

Lee Rich

View Interview
Lee Rich on Fred Silverman's plan for airing Roots
00:42

Alfred Schneider

View Interview
Alfred Schneider on regulating portrayals of violence in Roots versus S.W.A.T. and The Six Million Dollar Man
01:55

Esther Shapiro

View Interview
Esther Shapiro on how Roots compared to Roots: The Next Generation
00:28

Fred Silverman

View Interview
Fred Silverman on developing specials, mini-series such as Roots , and television movies for ABC
01:58
Fred Silverman on the development, scheduling and audience reception of Roots
02:54

Lynn Stalmaster

View Interview
Lynn Stalmaster on casting LeVar Burton on Roots
Lynn Stalmaster on casting Roots: "a dream come true"
Lynn Stalmaster on the legacy of Roots

Brandon Stoddard

View Interview
Brandon Stoddard on developing Roots
05:31
Brandon Stoddard on casting LeVar Burton on Roots
01:47
Brandon Stoddard on problems with selling ad time for Roots and problems with Southern affiliates
04:50
Brandon Stoddard on Roots' ratings
04:43
Brandon Stoddard on his personal reaction to Roots
03:40
Brandon Stoddard on network reaction after Roots aired
01:31

Neil Travis

View Interview
Neil Travis on how being on location for Roots helped inform his editing, leading to his Emmy win
01:23
Neil Travis on how producer Stan Margulies described him while accepting Travis' Emmy for Roots
00:33
Neil Travis on editing Kunte Kinte's capture in part one of Roots
02:22
Neil Travis on feeling that Roots would be successful
00:29
Neil Travis on the atmosphere on the set of Roots
01:02
Neil Travis on how the history affected him on Roots
00:51

Leslie Uggams

View Interview
Leslie Uggams on being cast as "Kizzy" on Roots
04:48
Leslie Uggams on meeting Alex Haley on the set of Roots
01:01
Leslie Uggams on making the character of "Kizzy" in Roots her own
01:25
Leslie Uggams on working with John Amos on Roots and her character, "Kizzy's" relationship with Amos' character, "Kunta Kinte"
01:43
Leslie Uggams on the scene in Roots where her character, "Kizzy" visits her father's grave
00:46
Leslie Uggams on working with Madge Sinclair, who played her mother on Roots
00:48
Leslie Uggams on filming the scene in Roots when her character, "Kizzy" is sold
01:32
Leslie Uggams on working with Sandy Duncan on Roots and the relationship between their characters
02:14
Leslie Uggams on the scene in Roots where her character, "Kizzy" meets Sandy Duncan's character, "Missy Anne" later in life and "Kizzy" spits in "Missy Anne's" cup
00:40
Leslie Uggams on working with Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs on Roots
00:29
Leslie Uggams on working with Chuck Connors on Roots
01:25
Leslie Uggams on working with Ben Vereen on Roots
01:54
Leslie Uggams on the rehearsal and filming process on Roots
02:11
Leslie Uggams on working with Richard Roundtree on Roots
02:02
Leslie Uggams on her relationship with her Roots character, "Kizzy"
01:17
Leslie Uggams on the 2016 remake of Roots and the impact of Roots when it aired in 1977
01:54
Leslie Uggams on Alex Haley's involvement in the filming of Roots
00:29
Leslie Uggams on the Roots directors she worked with and her interactions with executive producer David L. Wolper and producer Stan Margulies
01:04
Leslie Uggams on the success of Roots and what it taught Americans about their own history
01:30
Leslie Uggams on the legacy of Roots
00:40

Joseph M. Wilcots

View Interview
Joseph M. Wilcots on how he came to be involved with Roots
03:53
Joseph M. Wilcots on how he came to be involved with Roots
03:46
Joseph M. Wilcots on his first day shooting Roots
05:14
Joseph M. Wilcots on staging a scene for Roots
01:37
Joseph M. Wilcots on the challenges of lighting Roots
03:54
Joseph M. Wilcots on staging the "Kunta Kinte" foot chopping and the "Kissy" being taken from her family scenes in Roots
04:16
Joseph M. Wilcots on the directors of Roots
02:25
Joseph M. Wilcots on the diversity of the Roots crew, and on his interaction with Alex Haley
03:59
Joseph M. Wilcots on the success of Roots
02:29
Joseph M. Wilcots on the legacy of Roots being Alex Haley
00:51
Joseph M. Wilcots on being nominated for Emmy Awards for Roots
00:38
Joseph M. Wilcots on what Roots has meant to his life and career
01:47

David L. Wolper

View Interview
David Wolper on the success, criticism, and impact of Roots
07:55
David Wolper on first hearing about Alex Haley's Roots
David Wolper on the origin of Roots and finding out about Alex Haley's book, and the development of the hit miniseries
28:40

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