Roots: Changing the Face of Television

When ABC first aired Roots, the 1977 miniseries based on the best-selling novel by Alex Haley, the network worried no one would watch. Instead, the eight-night epic became one of the most watched dramas in history. Nearly 100 million viewers, about half the country at the time, saw the final episode. The impact on the culture was monumental: Black folks became interested in retracing their own history, and it sparked a renewed debate about race. The groundbreaking show, told from a black perspective with a predominantly African-American cast, helped changed the face of television.

Levar Burton, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Playing the role of defiant and proud Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte, Haley's great-great-great-great-grandfather, was a huge opportunity for Burton, who landed the role after his first professional audition. He would earn an Emmy nomination for best actor.

LeVar Burton, Now

Getty Images

After Roots, Burton went on to have a successful career in television. He's best known for his role as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation and as the host of the PBS series Reading Rainbow. He'll have a recurring role in TNT's Perception, premiering this summer. He's also working on a Reading Rainbow app.

John Amos, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Amos was already well-known for his roles as Gordy Howard on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and James Evans Sr. on Good Times. As the older Kunta Kinte/Toby, Amos imbued the character with an inner strength that defied the brutality of slavery. His stoic performance would also earn a best actor Emmy nomination.

John Amos, Now

Getty Images

Amos continues to play prominent roles on television and in film, most notably as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace on The West Wing. He's recently had recurring roles on Men in Trees and Two and a Half Men and was seen in episodes of 30 Rock and Lie to Me. He was in Die Hard 2 and Coming to America. His son, K.C., and daughter, Shannon, are up-and-coming directors-producers-writers.

Cicely Tyson, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

The grande dame of stage, film and television, Tyson was already an Oscar nominee for the 1972 movie Sounder and a two-time Emmy winner for her titular role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974. Though Tyson had a very minor role as Kunta's mother, Binta, having a well-regarded actress appear in the opening episode gave audiences a reason to tune in.

Cicely Tyson, Now

Getty Images

After Roots, Tyson continued doing what she does best: give stunning portrayals of strong, iconic black women. She played Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman in made-for-TV movies and starred in the films Fried Green Tomatoes, Hoodlum, Diary of a Mad Black Woman and, more recently, The Help.

Louis Gossett Jr., Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Gossett appeared mostly in TV roles and had a part in both the Broadway play and film version of A Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier before playing the lovable Fiddler, a breakout role that would earn him an Emmy for best actor.

Louis Gossett Jr., Now

Getty Images

In addition to Fiddler, Gossett is best-known as Gunnery Sergeant Foley in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman, a role that would earn him an Academy Award for best supporting actor, making him the first African-American man to win for a supporting role and the second black male to win an Oscar for acting. He would continue to star in films, including Enemy Mine and Iron Eagle. In 2010 he underwent treatment for prostate cancer.

Madge Sinclair, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Sinclair had minor roles on TV and appeared in the 1975 film Cornbread, Earl and Me before her performance in Roots. Sinclair would earn an Emmy nomination for best actress for her portrayal of Belle, wife to John Amos' Kunta Kinte/Toby and mother of Kizzy (Leslie Uggams).

Madge Sinclair, Now

Coming to America (Paramount Pictures)

Sinclair is best-known for her Emmy-nominated role as nurse Ernestine Shoop in the TV series Trapper John, M.D. She also played Eddie Murphy's mom, Queen Aoleon, in Coming to America. In 1993 she appeared as Capt. Silva La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation with fellow Roots cast members LeVar Burton and Ben Vereen, portraying Geordi's (Burton's) mother opposite Vereen, who played his father. She died of leukemia in 1995 at age 57.

Leslie Uggams, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Uggams was a familiar face to Broadway and television audiences before her role in Roots. She won a best actress Tony in 1968 for her performance in Hallelujah, Baby! She appeared several times as a singer on The Ed Sullivan Show in the '60s, and in 1969 she hosted a weekly variety hour, The Leslie Uggams Show, the second variety show hosted by an African American after Nat King Cole's. As Kizzy, daughter of Belle and Toby, Uggams would play mother to Ben Vereen's Chicken George, even though she was only three years older than Vereen.

Leslie Uggams, Now

Getty Images

Uggams would continue to star onstage and TV, including appearances on The Cosby Show, A Different World and, more recently, The Good Wife. She would also appear on Broadway in August Wilson's King Hedley II in 2001 (earning another Tony nomination) and 2005's revival of On Golden Pond opposite James Earl Jones. Currently, she's touring with her critically acclaimed autobiographical musical, Uptown Downtown.

Ben Vereen, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Like Uggams, Vereen had a very successful stage and TV career before Roots. He was nominated for a Tony for 1972's Jesus Christ Superstar and won the award for his role in Pippin. Vereen, a singer, dancer and actor, brought all that versatility to his role as the playful and charming Chicken George, for which he earned an Emmy nomination for best actor.

Ben Vereen, Now

Getty Images

He continued to appear on Broadway and TV, including the 1980 TV series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe with Jeff Goldblum. He played Uncle Phillip Long in Webster, Will Smith's dad in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Geordi La Forge's father in Star Trek: The Next Generation. On Broadway he's appeared in Jelly's Last Jam, Fosse and Wicked. Last year he released a new CD, Steppin' Out Live, and is currently on a concert tour.

Ed Asner, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Asner, known as the cantankerous Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was one of several prominent white actors chosen to portray secondary characters in the miniseries in order to attract a mainstream audience. His slave-ship commander, Capt. Davies, who appears conflicted about his role in the slave trade, wasn't originally in Haley's book but was added by Roots' writers, supposedly to alleviate the guilt white viewers may have felt. He would win a best supporting actor Emmy for the role.

Ed Asner, Now

Getty Images

Asner would continue acting in both film and television, appearing in the films JFK and Elf. He recently played Warren Buffett in the HBO movie Too Big to Fail. His distinctive voice can be heard in numerous videogames and animated TV shows and movies, including King of the Hill, Family Guy and 2009's Oscar-nominated Pixar film, Up. He's currently starring in the Canadian television series Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Ralph Waite, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Waite was five years into a nine-year-run as the stern-but-fair patriarch John Walton Sr. of The Waltons before appearing in Roots. He was also in several notable films, including Cool Hand Luke and Five Easy Pieces. Serving as a ship's mate on Capt. Davies' slave ship, Waite's Slater expressed negative views about slaves and felt slave women were only useful for breeding and as "belly warmers" for the ship's men.

Ralph Waite, Now

Bones (Fox)

After Roots, Waite would star in several TV shows, including stints on Days of Our Lives, NCIS and Bones. In the '90s, he ran for Congress unsuccessfully in California.

Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Cumbuka appeared in several popular TV series of the '70s, including Kojak, Get Christie Love and Ironside. He also had roles in the cult-classic films Mandingo and Blacula. In Roots his Wrestler character helps lead the slave ship's rebellion in which Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) kills Slater (Ralph Waite).

Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Now

Ji-Tu Cumbuka

Cumbuka appeared in popular television shows throughout the '80s and '90s, including The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team and Walker Texas Ranger. According his website, he is currently pursuing opportunities as a writer, director and producer.

Vic Morrow, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Morrow was the star of the '60s TV series Combat! and appeared several times in the classic cop drama Police Story, a precursor of shows such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. In Roots he played Ames, the overseer who has Kunta Kinte whipped into submission, causing the Mandinka warrior to reject his real name for his slave name, Toby.

Vic Morrow, Now

Though Morrow had a prominent career in television and film, he is best remembered for the way he died: He and two child actors were tragically killed when a helicopter crashed into them during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982. He was 53.

Robert Reed, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Known primarily as lovable dad Mike Brady of The Brady Bunch, Reed had a successful career playing numerous roles in TV shows in the '60s and '70s. Reed's Dr. William Reynolds was the "compassionate" slave owner who ultimately ends up selling Kizzy away from her family.

Robert Reed, Now

Reed remained a staple in television, starring in such shows as Wonder Woman, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. After his death from colon cancer in 1992 at age 59, it was revealed that Reed had tested positive for HIV the year before he died, though it did not contribute to his death. Though several of the cast members from The Brady Bunch knew Reed was gay, he kept his sexuality a secret because of his career.

Tracey Gold, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

In one of her first roles, a very young Gold, as Missy Anne Reynolds, can be seen in an early episode asking Madge Sinclair's Belle for a cookie. She is also in the scene in which Belle and Toby (John Amos) are married.

Tracey Gold, Now

Getty Images

Gold would become famous for playing Carol Seaver in the TV series Growing Pains. She would also become one of the first celebrities to publicly suffer through and then speak out about anorexia. Her lowest weight was estimated to be 80 pounds. Her shockingly frail frame appeared on one of People magazine's best-selling issues. She was most recently seen in the Jan. 2 episode of ABC's Celebrity Wife Swap, where she traded homes with singer Carnie Wilson.

Sandy Duncan, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

A Tony-nominated actress and star of several TV shows — Funny Face and The Sandy Duncan Show among them — before appearing as the adult Missy Anne Reynolds, Duncan played the daughter of a slave owner who teaches her "best friend" Kizzy (Leslie Uggams) to read, against the wishes of her uncle Dr. Reynolds (Robert Reed). This would have severe consequences for Kizzy, who is sold away from her parents after she forges travel papers for her boyfriend.

Sandy Duncan, Now

Getty Images

The pixie-like Duncan would earn a Tony nomination for playing the title role in Peter Pan on Broadway in 1980. She would also star in TV shows and movies, including a recurring role in Valerie's Family. She continues to appear onstage in off-Broadway and regional-theater productions around the country.

Olivia Cole, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Cole worked primarily onstage before her appearance in Roots as Mathilda, the strong-willed and supportive wife of Chicken George (Ben Vereen) and mother of Tom (Georg Stanford Brown). She would win an Emmy for best supporting actress for the role.

Olivia Cole, Now

Zap2It

Cole would appear in the miniseries Backstairs at the White House in 1979 and North & South in 1985. In addition to her appearances in several TV shows, she had recurring roles in the TV series Brewster's Place, L.A. Law and Murder, She Wrote. Her most recent role was as Mommy T in 2008's First Sunday, starring Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan.

Georg Stanford Brown, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Before playing Tom on Roots, Brown was best-known as Officer Terry Webster in the TV series The Rookies. Tom, son of Chicken George, was based on Haley's great-grandfather, who stood up to the KKK after the Civil War.

Georg Stanford Brown, Now

Zap2It

Brown would reprise his role as Tom in the sequel, Roots: The Next Generation. He would also star as Rory, the gay prison mate of Gene Wilder's and Richard Pryor's characters in the film Stir Crazy. He appeared in the successful Civil War miniseries North & South in 1985, and he had recurring roles in Matlock and, more recently, Nip/Tuck. He was married to actress Tyne Daly until 1990.

Richard Roundtree, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

Roundtree's most famous character, John Shaft, was a bad mother———, shut yo' mouth. So it was quite a turn to see him as Sam Bennett, a slick, smooth-talking but subservient chauffeur who attempts to woo Kizzy. But his submissive manner is so disappointing to Kizzy that she calls off their wedding, telling her son, Chicken George, "Sam wasn't like us. Nobody ever told him where he come from. So he didn't have a dream about where he ought to be going."

Richard Roundtree, Now

Getty Images

Roundtree still works in television and movies, with recent recurring roles in Desperate Housewives, Heroes and Diary of a Single Mom. He was also featured in the 2000 remake of Shaft and the 2008 film Speed Racer. In 1993 he was diagnosed with a rare form of male breast cancer and was successfully treated for the disease. He works as spokesman for cancer prevention and men's health issues.

O.J. Simpson, Then

Roots (Warner Bros.)

The all-pro running back had a small role as Kadi Touray in the first episode, primarily showing off his speed as he chased down a young Kunta Kinte, who accidentally runs into his daughter while hunting. When Roots arrived on TV, Simpson was a beloved football player and star of popular car-rental commercials.

O.J. Simpson, Now

Getty Images

Do we really need to rehash what happened to Simpson after his appearance in Roots? The double homicide. The Ford Bronco. The trial. The acquittal. Etc. In 2007 Simpson was arrested for armed robbery and kidnapping. He was sentenced to 33 years and is serving his time in a Nevada prison.