“Roots” made TV history when it premiered on ABC 45 years ago, with more than half the country tuning in for the adaptation of Alex Haley’s bestselling novel about his enslaved ancestors.
To celebrate the film’s anniversary and to mark Black History Month, TheWrap recently spoke with John Amos, who was Emmy-nominated for his portrayal of main character Kunta Kinte, and Louis Gossett Jr, who won a Best Supporting Emmy for his role as Kunta’s often contentious mentor Fiddler.
Neither actor dreamed the epic tale of Kunta (who was played as a young man in the miniseries by LeVar Burton) would be such an enormous hit, and Gossett couldn’t believe it got made in the first place.
“The story about [slavery] was we knew it, we heard it from our parents and our aunts and uncles and stuff, but we knew it would never be on primetime television,” said Gossett. “And all of sudden, it’s on primetime television. We were gonna give them the best show we could because we prayed for the opportunity and the attention. We had no plans on the success of it.”
“You don’t anticipate that kind of success because that’s dreaming and that’s one thing actors can’t afford to do. We’ve got to deal in reality,” added Amos.
The miniseries won nine Emmys out of a record 37 nominations and Gossett went on to win a Best Supporting Oscar for his role as a tough drill sergeant in 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman,” while Burton found fame on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and as the host of “Reading Rainbow.” But Amos and many of the other Black actors did not see the same boost to their careers.
“The truth is, we did not receive the commensurate job offers,” Amos said. “The inequities that existed in the industry as regards to race still existed, even after ‘Roots,’ because few, if any of us – with the exception of stellar talents like Mr. Gossett and LeVar – were able to capitalize on the success of ‘Roots.’ But most of us in the cast, supporting and even starring actors, did not enjoy the same accolades and acclaim as our white counterparts.”
Amos, who was already beloved to TV audiences as patriarch James Evans, Sr. on 1970s sitcom “Good Times,” added, “I’m grateful for ‘Roots,’ but I realized ‘Roots’ was going to change the game in terms of the education of the viewing audience, and it was going to change the game in terms of opportunities, but not so dramatically that we could say, ‘Well now the struggle is over.’ It continues to this day.”
The actor, who recently reprised his “Coming to America” role in the 2021 sequel, still fondly remembers making the series.
“I formed great relationships with actors who were in ‘Roots,’ as I was to go on to work on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ with Ed Asner, who played the captain of the slave ship,” said Amos. “Some wonderful relationships came out of that. It was a wonderful production overseen by some of the brightest, most sensitive educated minds in the business. I was grateful. And I still am to this day.”
And he pointed out that “Roots” did provide a rare opportunity for below-the-line talent such as makeup artists and wardrobe. “More Blacks came into the industry in various unions as a result of ‘Roots’ to prove their worth,” Amos said. “They weren’t just there as a means of appeasing the masses. They were there to do their job and to do it professionally.”
Gossett and Amos first worked together on “Good Times” and during their interview with TheWrap the camaraderie between the two was still strong, even though both weighed in on Zoom from different locations. After Amos repeatedly sang Gossett’s praises, the “Watchmen” star laughed, “I’ll send you a check in the morning.”
Amos responded with a chuckle, “Your check cleared. I guess I’m finished now.”
“Roots” is currently streaming in its entirety on HBO Max and is available to purchase on Digital, Blu-ray and DVD.