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