In 1977, no one could have predicted just how popular the miniseries Roots was going to be.
John Amos, who played Kunta Kinte as an older man, however, remembers the moment he knew.
“When I found out we had just about closed the casinos in Vegas, that’s when it hit home just what kind of impact the show was having,” he tells Mashable. “Because nothing stops the casinos in Vegas.”
The series, which will be newly released digitally and on Blu-Ray on June 7, is about an African man named Kunta Kinte, who is captured and sold into slavery in the U.S., and his many descendants, based on the nonfiction book by Alex Haley. It was a TV phenomenon, gathering millions upon millions of viewers during each episode of the eight-part series.
Louis Gossett Jr., the Emmy and Oscar-winning actor who played Fiddler, thought it would be something small that he’d later show to his family. To his surprise, it instead “made history,” he tells Mashable.
Tony-winning actress Leslie Uggams, who played Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, tells Mashable she had no idea it would be a massive success — she was just excited to take on a “meaty” role and “knew that the writing was great.”
She jokes with costar Sandy Duncan, who played Missy Anne, that they were also equally excited to take a quick break from the musical comedy world.
“We didn’t have to dance or sing!” Duncan tells Mashable.
Both actresses were nominated for Emmys for their performances. There was also a surprising pop cultural impact — Uggams has met a lot of girls named Kizzy because of the character she played.
However, despite the critical acclaim and popularity of the project, their acting careers didn’t get a boost.
“We got all this praise and [nominations] and awards,” Uggams says. “You’re waiting for all those phone calls and it just didn’t happen.
“It took me two years before I did another acting role.”
It took me two years before I did another acting role.”
Lynne Moody, who played Irene, tells Mashable the same thing happened to her. It was “a shock.”
“Nothing was happening before Roots and nothing happened after Roots,” she says. “We got a lot of accolades, we got a lot of compliments and awards … all of that praise, a lot of that. But no work.”
She credits costar Gossett Jr. with providing a good theory about why that was. Producers and show creators already had programs lined up for the next two or three years, never anticipating the success of a black-led miniseries like Roots. Since this was America in the 1970s, that programming didn’t have a lot of room for black actors anyway.
Uggams echoes this sentiment, adding that there also wasn’t room for black actors to do projects that didn’t rely on “struggle” narratives. She recalls the time her husband tried to pitch a light comedy series to a friend who had recently become the president of ABC. It didn’t go well.
“He said, ‘listen, when we see black people, we wanna see something that has conflict,'” she says. “And this was a friend of ours!”
That way of thinking also extends to films, she says, particularly when it comes to telling stories about heroic black figures.
“Great people that contributed to history, like [Harriet] Tubman and Barbara Jordan — it’s very hard to get those made,” she says.
Thankfully, the TV landscape has evolved. There are shows like Empire and Black-ish, not to mention the Shonda Rhimes Thursday takeover on ABC, Moody adds.
Though it’s far from a level playing field, there’s “more opportunity” for actors of color now, Amos says.
“Empire, Power … they were totally nonexistent when I was trying to make my mark on the industry,” he says. “You either worked on the big three networks, or you didn’t work in television.”
Gossett Jr. calls the current landscape “transcendent” compared to the way it was.
“I think now that consciousness of waiting for a break from the industry is changing to do-it-yourself,” he says.
When it comes to the new Roots reboot, which airs Monday night and is co-executive produced by LeVar Burton, who starred as Kunta Kinte in the original, many original cast members have different responses about whether or not they’ll watch it.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Moody says. “I’m going to watch it … it’s not going to do what the original raw, honest, gritty, low-budget Roots did, but they have wonderful people involved.”
Georg Stanford Brown, who played Tom in the original, tells Mashable he’ll “probably” watch it, and hopes it will be “equally as powerful” as the original. But both he and Moody add that
Having Alex Haley on set of the original is a kind of magic the reboot unfortunately won’t have.
having Alex Haley on set of the original is a kind of magic the reboot unfortunately won’t have. Haley died in 1992.
“He could talk for hours in great detail,” Brown recalls. “If you had a question, you went to Alex because he was always around … a warm, open, dear person. He was our father to some extent.”
Gossett Jr. says he’ll “absolutely” watch the reboot, because he thinks Haley would have appreciated the story being retold. Although, he adds that the “intelligent young person” should watch the original as well, at least for comparison purposes.
He adds he’d like to see the story continued into later generations, spilling over into iconic eras like the Harlem Renaissance.
“We need to continue that story,” he says. “We have the ability and the knowledge.”
Co-star Olivia Cole also expressed support for the reboot, telling ABC News she thinks the story should be told and retold for every generation.
Amos, for his part, says he’ll watch the miniseries out of curiosity to see “how they treat the material,” though he thinks nothing can hold a candle to the 1977 series.
“It’s bound to be a pale imitation of the original, with all due respects to [producer] Mark Wolper,” he says. “There’s no way that it could compare … there’s always the original, and then there’s everything else.”
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