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.
- Relive the heyday of the TV miniseries in this slideshow
- More on Roots and must-see films for Black History Month
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.
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.