Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on 9-11. Volunteer today




Caucasian couple looking at a laptop computer together


Virgo - AARP Horoscope

Look at what your future holds if your birthday is between August 23 & September 22


The tablet with free 24/7 customer support. Learn More

Most Popular


How 'Roots' Changed TV Forever

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

Leslie Uggams and Richard Roundtree in Roots, Pioneers of TV: The Cast of Roots

Leslie Uggams and Richard Roundtree in 1977's "Roots." — ABC/Getty Images

A groundbreaking, ratings-busting, must-see miniseries is almost impossible to produce for TV these days, which is one of the reasons ABC's 1977 event Roots lives large in television history books. For eight nights in January 1977, tens of millions of viewers stayed home and watched — no DVR-ing back then — as the life of Kunta Kinte, a boy captured and sold into slavery in Africa, and his descendants unfolded across two centuries in America.

More than 36 million watched the final episode; compare that with the 13 million to 14 million who watched each night of last summer's three-part Hatfields & McCoys on A&E and you get some understanding of why Roots is featured in the Feb. 5 PBS Pioneers of Television episode on the miniseries.

Actress and singer Leslie Uggams, who played Kunta Kinte's daughter, Kizzy, and Louis Gossett Jr., who won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Fiddler, are part of the show, which is why we, too, wanted to talk with them about the phenomenon that was Roots.

Louis Gossett, Jr., Roots, 1977, Pioneers of TV: The Cast of Roots

Louis Gossett Jr. as Fiddler in "Roots." — ABC/Getty Images

Q: Did you have any sense at the time — 36 years ago — that Roots would become a milestone event?

Gossett: I knew it was historical for African American actors — that finally on prime-time TV our story was going to be told. We didn't think anybody was going to watch it. Neither did ABC. They had a contractual commitment to [producer David L. Wolper], and they said, "You know what? We'll just put it on for [eight] days in a row and just get rid of it." So we went out and did the best we could for those who might take it off the shelf someday and enjoy it that way. We thought at least we'd get some deep stuff said. And then the opposite happened. The world went crazy.

Uggams: On the set we felt there was something special going on. Of course we had no idea how special it was going to turn out. I came onto the set five weeks into filming – and from the minute I walked on, I just felt there's something going on here among the cast, the crew, everybody.

Q: Tell us what you recall about preparing for and making Roots. There were great actors like Lorne Greene and Georg Stanford Brown. Did you get the part you wanted?

Uggams: I had read for several different parts, but Kizzy was the part that I wanted. I auditioned several times. The hardest part was doing the screen test, because they had to make sure I could age to play Ben Vereen's mother. Ben was already set to play Chicken George from the beginning.

Gossett: I was a little upset, though I laugh at it now, that I didn't play Kunta Kinte's father. ... And as I started to go into the makeup of Fiddler, I realized that this is the first African American whom Kunta Kinte meets. So he has to train this pure, free African in order for him to survive. I realized how important that was. I realized the significance of the role. So then as I created a character, I used my grandparents' history and people in my family, and that was their philosophy: survival.

Next page: From Vegas to the South, audiences were hooked. »

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.


Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Live Nation

Members save 25% or more when buying tickets in groups of four from Ticketmaster.

Cirque Du Soleil

Members save 15-30% on tickets to live Cirque du Soleil shows.

Member Benefit AARP Regal 2

Members pay $8 for Regal ePremiere tickets purchased online. Conditions apply.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.

Rewards for Good

Your Points Balance:

Learn More

Earn points for completing free online activities designed to enrich your life.

Find more ways to earn points

Redeem your points to save on merchandise, travel, and more.

Find more ways to redeem points