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STAR TREK: Levar Burton--Director, Actor, Fan
Burton's VOYAGER episode airs Wednesday.
By Anna L. Kaplan
April 18, 2000
LeVar Burton, always-and-forever Geordi La Forge to viewers of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, laughs while directing the VOYAGER episode, 'Live Fast and Prosper,' set to air Wednesday, April 19th. The episode is about three con artists who pretend to be from Starfleet and go around selling membership in the Federation. 'The situation is that these people are a trio of thieves. They run cons, scams, for a living. Their current scam just happens to be impersonating Starfleet officers: Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and two members of her crew, specifically Tuvok (Tim Russ) and, to a lesser extent, Chakotay (Robert Beltran). Neelix (Ethan Phillips) and Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) are pretty savvy characters. What is so upsetting for them, is that they were actually were duped by Dala [Kaitlin Hopkins], and one of her partners while they were playing another con game, being clerics. They downloaded from the Delta Flyer a lot of the Voyager records. So they have personal information on Janeway. They have uniform patterns, but it's not exact. The pips are bigger. The communicator is big again by half. Janeway's doppelganger [Hopkins] is the only one who looks remotely like her. They are not trying to act like them; they are just pretending, because the people that they are trying to fool have never met them, either.'
This sounds like a comedy, but is it? Says Burton, 'Humor figures prominently, but I wouldn't call it a comedy. There were earlier drafts where the jokes and the one-liners were featured more. We pulled back on that, and we are trying to derive the humor from the characters and the situations rather than from the dialogue.'
Burton clearly enjoys himself on the STAR TREK set. He wants everyone to know that he, too, is a fan. He says, 'You should know that I love STAR TREK, whether THE NEXT GENERATION or DS9 or VOYAGER, I always love checking in with that universe, because I am a fan. I am not just a member of the family; I am also a fan of the shows.'
Burton, an accomplished director, returns regularly to TREK. All in all, he has directed about ten episodes of DEEP SPACE NINE, as well as a number of VOYAGER and TNG episodes. Last season, he directed VOYAGER's 100th episode, called 'Timeless,' and made a brief appearance as a future Captain La Forge. This season, his first time around in the directors' rotation, he drew 'Tsunkatse' but was not able to direct that episode, getting 'Live Fast and Prosper' instead.
For DS9's final season, Burton was invited to direct 'The Emperor's New Cloak,' the last episode in the alternate universe first established during the original series 'Mirror, Mirror.' Burton says, 'I love alternate universe shows. It was definitely true on THE NEXT GENERATION, whenever we did a holodeck episode, like when we played Robin Hood ['Qpid'], or when Data (Brent Spiner) and Geordi were Holmes and Watson ['Elementary, Dear Data'], it was always fun for us. It was a break in the pattern, and you got to wear different costumes. When you wear that space suit day in, day out, five days a week, ten months of the year, you are begging for some variety. That is certainly true for the alternate universe shows on DEEP SPACE NINE. It's a break in the monotony of it. Everybody gets to wear something different, and everybody gets to play their characters with a twist. Everybody is energized, and in a good mood, and having fun, and eager to play. Those episodes are always fun to direct.'
He laughs, 'Michael [Dorn] was terrific in that episode. I love working with Michael, especially now since he has become a director himself. He is a lot more directable as an actor now that he's become a director.'
Burton most certainly enjoyed all the DS9 episodes he worked on over the years. He recalls, ''Indiscretion' was the very first. 'Indiscretion' was Kira [Nana Visitor] and Dukat [Marc Alaimo], when we found out Dukat had actually fathered a daughter. We were outside. It was hotter than hell, in that rock quarry when we shot that show. It was literally over 110 degrees. We were in a rock quarry out near Santa Clarita. It was brutally hot. We were out there two or three days. People were dropping like flies. But Nana and Marc, especially Marc, because he was in that frigging lizard suit, and makeup, they were awesome. That was a fun show to shoot.'
The actor-director describes the fourth season episode in which Worf was put on trial, saying, ''Rules of Engagement' was a really good episode. I thought Michael and Avery [Brooks] and [guest star] Ron Canada really rose to the occasion on that episode. That was fun for a couple of reasons. Number one, we were breaking the convention of the fourth wall. We were having characters in their recounting of the testimony, in that courtroom, addressing the camera directly. That was kind of fun. But also we had five days in the same set. The challenge became to photograph these major sections of script that took place on this one set in an interesting way, so we didn't get bored being in this same room for so long. That turned out all right.'
In 'To the Death,' viewers first saw the Vorta Weyoun, played by Jeffrey Combs, in addition to getting a close look at the Jem'Hadar. Laughs Burton, 'Oh my God, [I was] up to my eyeballs and elbows with Jem'Hadar. Clarence Williams III, though, as Omet'klan, awesome, terrific, terrific performance. Jeffrey Combs, we introduced Weyoun in that episode.'
Burton also directed Combs in 'The Bar Association,' in which Combs played his other character, a Ferengi named Brunt. Chuckles Burton, 'I am the president of the Jeffrey Combs fan club. He is one of the most versatile actors I know. When you look at Weyoun, when you look at Brunt, they are completely, completely different characters. He is just so good at both of them; he really is. It's the same actorreally, really good. I am a big fan of his.' Had Burton directed VOYAGER's 'Tsunkatse,' he would have been reunited with Combs, as well as J.G. Hertzler, two actors who guest starred in that episode.
'Soldiers of the Empire,' a thoroughly Klingon adventure written by Ronald D. Moore was also directed by Burton. Burton praises Hertzler, the actor who played Martok. He adds, 'I'm a sucker for Klingon shows. I love the Klingons. They are so flawed. I was watching DATELINE NBC, and they had excerpts from the Discovery Channel 'Ecochallenge.' It's a huge adventure race. Every year, there is a team of Navy Seals that enters, and they always do horribly. Mostly it's because of the psychological pressure that they put on themselves. When you say, 'There's a team of Navy Seals here,' they are supposed to be some of the toughest guys on the planet. So that enormous pressure to perform is a part of what really holds them back. Klingons are a lot like Navy Seals.'
Burton mentions some of his other directorial experiences, laughing about an episode in the earlier life of Odo (Rene Auberjonois), ''Things PastI think I called that 'Nightmare on Odo Street.' That was a pretty bizarre episode, but again, a lot of fun. Creating Terok Nor there on the Promenade, and just doing some weird things with the camera, it was fun. I did, not long after that one, another Odo show, when he was with the other Founder, 'Behind the Lines.' That one was pretty good. 'Resurrection,' we dipped into the alternate universe a little on that one. That was the first time we actually had the opportunity to experience some Bajoran ritual. I am a big fan of ritual and ceremony, and to actually create and photograph some Bajoran ritual was fun for me.'
Obviously, Burton is a fan who enjoys all his time on TREK. But he is busy with many different ventures. He continues to direct other works, including SMART HOUSE, which aired on the Disney Channel last June. He recalls, 'I finished directing a Disney family comedy, that has 120 optical effects in it, in a movie where there are juvenile actors on the schedule every day, that you're only getting for nine and a half hours. It made the challenge of actually shooting the movie a real hair-pulling experience.'
To one generation of television watchers, Burton will be forever remembered as Kunta Kinte from ROOTS. To another generation, he is known as the host of PBS' READING RAINBOW. READING RAINBOW has earned countless nominations, most recently being nominated for Daytime Emmy Awards for both Outstanding Children's Series, and for Burton's performance on the show. Burton also serves as executive producer for READING RAINBOW, and won an Image award for Outstanding Performance in a Youth or Children's Series in 1999. Burton says, 'We shot a one-hour special, behind the scenes, and an episode of READING RAINBOW this past December in the Amazon Rain Forest, in South America. That show will kick off our 18th season. It's a pleasure. It's how the medium should be used in my opinion.'
In 1997, Burton published a science fiction book called 'Aftermath,' which received wide acclaim. Burton recently won a Grammy, the 'Best Spoken Word Performance,' for 'The Autobiography of Martin Luther King.' He continues to work as a writer, director, producer and actor. He talks about his next directing job, saying, 'I've got a TV movie that starts that spring. That's THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM. I will probably do several other projects. I hope to shoot at least two TV movies this year, if not a third.'
Back to the all-important STAR TREK question: when will we see Geordi La Forge again? Answers Burton, 'I imagine if there is another movie, that would be the next opportunity. Do I want to do another movie? I don't know if want is how I would characterize it at this point. I will say that the last one was a lot of fun, and it would be great to have another experience like thatanother wonderful, positive, fun experience. They've said that if there is another one it will happen on slightly different timeline than these movies have been made in the past. They want to create a little bit more separation between release dates. So whenever that is, and they give me the call and say here's the script, whatever the process, if they are going to do it again, I am certainly open to it.'