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How 'Roots' Changed TV Forever

Leslie Uggams and Louis Gossett Jr. remember when the 'world went crazy' for miniseries

Actress Leslie Uggams, Pioneers of TV: The Cast of Roots

Leslie Uggams in 2010 — Elizabeth Lippman/Contour/Getty Images

Q: It premiered on Jan. 23, 1977, and to everyone's surprise it was a huge hit. What do you remember about the initial reaction when it aired?

Uggams: I was in Vegas rehearsing Guys and Dolls, and from the first night of Roots, the casinos were empty. It was just amazing. And for room service, if you didn't order early, you would just get a busy signal. Nobody was going out.

I remember Ann-Margret was in Vegas at the time in a show at the Hilton Hotel. She called me up and said, "Leslie, we had to change the showtime because they're all watching Roots." And they did — all the shows changed their start time. I've never seen anything like that happen in America. Everybody watched. Restaurants, bars, were putting signs out saying, "Come here and watch Roots." It was just unbelievable.

Gossett: They were worried about the South (watching), but the South paid more attention to it than the North. It brought a whole new level of fame. It was wonderful. We were celebrated all around the world.

Actor Louis Gossett, Jr., Pioneers of TV: The Cast of Roots

Louis Gossett Jr. in 2012. — Paul A. Hebert/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Q: The network miniseries, particularly one that can claim to be educational, is just about extinct now. Did Roots have any lasting impact on television?

Gossett: Well, it broke through a ceiling, but we have to continue. We need a television series that represents the new demographic. … I'm very proud of all these [black] actors and actresses, and they're all brilliant, but I have grandchildren now, and they ask me, didn't anybody black ever be a hero on television?

Q: When you rate the best work of your career, where do you place Roots?

Uggams: It would be number one. It was a change in history in so many ways. It was just an amazing, amazing experience.

Gossett: It was a great breakthrough, and it was the highlight of my life. It opened up so many things.

Q: Leslie, you've done recent TV work on shows like The Good Wife and NYC 22. What other projects are you two involved with these days?

Uggams: I have a one-woman [stage] show called Uptown, Downtown. It's about my life, and there's a segment about Roots. And I'll be doing a musical that's headed to Broadway, based on Lena Horne, called Stormy Weather.

Gossett: I have a film coming out next year about grandparents who try and rescue their grandsons out of Afghanistan. It's called Pride of Lions.

Q: There were two sequels to Roots, of course. But today Hollywood seems to recycle and remake ideas that perhaps should be left alone. Ever hear whispers of a remake of the original Roots?

Gossett: Tell them to make me an offer.

Uggams: [Laughing.] I don't think they could. We were all too fabulous!

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THEY PAVED THE WAY: From the creators and performers who developed the groundbreaking miniseries Roots, to stars Diahann Carroll and Carol Burnett, PBS is celebrating the achievements of the Pioneers of Television.

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