Deep-rooted pride

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Pay-tv - COLIN VICK­ERY

WHEN Roots made its de­but in 1977, few would have pre­dicted that 31 years later the US would vote in a black pres­i­dent.

Based on Alex Ha­ley’s best­selling novel about his African an­ces­tors, the mini-se­ries was a wa­ter­shed in US race re­la­tions.

It cap­tured black and white audiences alike with its story of Kunta Kinte, a young African war­rior cap­tured by white slave traders and shipped to the US.

The fi­nale is still the third­high­est rat­ing US pro­gram and the mini-se­ries scored an as­tound­ing 37 Emmy Award nom­i­na­tions.

For­mer ath­lete John Amos, who had starred in sit­coms The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude and Good Times, played the adult Kunta Kinte and says the minis­eries still makes him im­mensely proud.

‘‘ Roots was a mile­stone for tele­vi­sion be­cause it showed what the medium can do when all the right el­e­ments come to­gether: the right ma­te­rial, the right pro­duc­ers and, of course, an in­cred­i­bly tal­ented cast,’’ Amos says.

The other ac­tors in­cluded Le­Var Bur­ton as the young Kunta Kinte Louis Gos­sett Jr, Les­lie Uggams, Cicely Tyson and O.J. Simp­son.

‘‘It was a very rare mo­ment in tele­vi­sion his­tory. I doubt it will ever be repli­cated, not just in terms of the qual­ity of the pro­duc­tion but how ed­u­ca­tional and how ed­i­fy­ing it was for the mil­lions of peo­ple who watched it around the world.’’

The 69-year-old ac­tor ad­mits he had never heard of Roots when pro­ducer David Wolper ap­proached him to ap­pear in the mini-se­ries. He was orig­i­nally con­sid­ered for two smaller parts, in­clud­ing The Wrestler (even­tu­ally played by Ji-Tu Cum­buka) be­fore be­ing asked to play Toby, the adult Kunta Kinte.

‘‘When I read parts of the script for The Wrestler, who in­cited the re­bel­lion on the slave ship, I be­gan to see th­ese vague ref­er­ences to Kunta Kinte and said, ‘My lord, who­ever gets that role is go­ing to have the role of a life­time’.

‘‘Then they rang a cou­ple of days later and said, ‘We would like you to come in to see Mr Wolper be­cause they want to con­sider you for the role of Kunta Kinte’.

‘‘I fell to my knees and cried like a baby be­cause this was the golden ap­ple.’’

Amos says he drew on his own ex­pe­ri­ences of racial prej­u­dice grow­ing up in New Jer­sey for the ground­break­ing mini-se­ries.

‘‘I was sub­jected to racism on a daily ba­sis and I think that’s when I be­gan to de­velop a sense of com­edy.

‘‘In­stead of fight­ing all of my would-be ad­ver­saries and those who saw me as less than hu­man, I de­vel­oped the abil­ity to make them laugh.

‘‘When they found out we had things in com­mon that we could laugh about, they be­gan to per­ceive me as a hu­man be­ing.

‘‘It was my school text­books that re­ally threw me for a curve.

‘‘I re­mem­ber one im­age (in a text book) of a huge black man who was a field hand on a plan­ta­tion — a huge mus­cu­lar man, but his head was the size of a peanut,’’ Amos says.

The ABC net­work thought it had a po­ten­tial flop on its hands at the time. It ran the mini-se­ries for eight con­sec­u­tive nights to get it over quickly in case it rated poorly.

‘‘The most mem­o­rable mo­ment was work­ing with Louis Gos­sett as Fid­dler, es­pe­cially in his death scene,’’ Amos says. ‘‘He al­most dies in Kinte’s arms af­ter decades of slave labour.

‘‘Mr Gos­sett talked to me and said, ‘John, we have to treat this ( Roots) like a good steak be­cause we’re never go­ing to get a piece of meat like this again’.’’

GOS­SETT was right. A re­cur­ring role as Ad­mi­ral Percy Fitzwal­lace in The West Wing is one of the few parts to have tested Amos since.

Most re­cently he played pi­lot Buzz Wash­ing­ton in Men in Trees, guest-starred in the drama/com­edy Psych and ap­peared on My Name is Earl.

‘‘When I look at the state of tele­vi­sion to­day, for the most part it’s de­plorable,’’ Amos says.

‘‘I’ve been for­tu­nate to work with the best— James Brooks ( The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Nor­man Lear ( Maude and Good Times), Aaron Sorkin ( The West Wing) and David Wolper ( Roots). It was an in­cred­i­ble bless­ing for me to get that role of Kunta Kinte.’’

Golden ap­ple:

John Amos is still proud of his role as Kunta Kinte.

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