Faced with the prospect of a 12-hour miniseries about slavery that featured nudity, violence and a primarily black cast — with the exception of a few big-name white actors added in as a marketing measure — Fred Silverman took a drastic step.
Convinced that “Roots” would be a ratings disaster at best and, at worst, might inflame blacks and start riots across the country, the ABC chieftain decided to run off the entire program over one week … to get it out of the way before sweeps began.
“We were terrified when we put it on the air,” says Brandon Stoddard, then the ABC executive most directly involved in the miniseries. Stoddard says some Southern states would not even show the program for fear of inciting riots.
“Silverman just wanted to get rid of it,” adds producer David Wolper, the man most responsible for bringing Alex Haley’s book to the small screen.
The show’s immediate success was stunning, Wolper recalls.
“They had to change the times of the live shows in Las Vegas because audiences were staying in to watch ‘Roots,'” he says. “It was a revolutionary event for television.”
This being TV, Stoddard says the first thing to happen was that everyone started copying ABC.
“The next morning everyone was running around trying to put on miniseries,” he says, pointing out that they copied the wrong idea. “Roots” was such a smash not because of the format but because it took such risks in terms of content. “How much did this make the networks embrace risk? I’m not sure it did.”
Unfortunately, while the show was a huge hit for ABC and helped people such as journeyman director John Erman, who says his career took off after “Roots,” the one thing “Roots” definitely didn’t do was provide more dramatic roles for black actors — even the ones from the cast.
“It was somewhat disappointing,” says John Amos about the lack of roles that followed. Amos was just coming off his run on the Norman Lear sitcom “Good Times” when he took on the grown-up part of Kunta Kinte.
“Racism still prevailed,” he recalls. “There was still the big lie that whites would not want to see blacks in dramatic roles.”
Leslie Uggams, who played Kizzy, says she was only able to get stage work afterward and, while she agrees that 30 years afterward “we’ve come a long way and certainly have more African-Americans in television and movies,” there’s still a paucity of opportunities for blacks in dramas — with the exception of police shows where the majority of roles are cops or criminals.
Still, “Roots” had a tremendous impact on society beyond the tube, in part because it traveled all the way back to Africa and it told a powerful family drama.
“It definitely helped race relations in the long term,” Erman says. “The uninformed white person suddenly realized that blacks didn’t spring from a cotton patch but had values very much the same as whites. They saw a dignity and sense of substance in black families.”
For Amos, taking part in “Roots” brought him personally a “great deal of pride and a tremendous sense of vindication,” because he’d been one of four black students to integrate his New Jersey elementary school only to find incredible bias in all the textbooks.
And the miniseries triggered a worldwide interest in genealogy across all races, but especially among blacks.
“The history books had always just been about slavery for blacks,” Uggams says. “Suddenly we found out we may have been a king or queen back in Africa and that our families may have lived well and been educated. In this way, ‘Roots’ was extremely important.”