LeVar Burton Remembers ‘Roots’ Co-Star Cicely Tyson: ‘She Was Royalty’

Roots Cicely Tyson LeVar Burton
Warner Bros. TV

She was quite simply one the most beautiful and talented women of her generation.

Elegance, style and natural grace oozed effortlessly from every pore of her being, but the word that describes her best in my mind is, regal. She was royalty with a capital “R.” She possessed a nobility of character and carriage that could, in equal turns, enchant and intimidate. She knew exactly who she was and dared anyone to disagree with her self-assessment. She was vital, energetic and possessing of an irresistible magnetism that made folks of every stripe and station clamor to be in her midst. Her presence onscreen was nothing short of mesmerizing. Her unparalleled gift was the ability to imbue each character she portrayed with immense humanity which made them cherished and memorable to audiences around the world. She played big both in life and on the stage in spite of her diminutive frame, but make no mistake, she could summon the fierceness of a prowling lioness at will.

On my very first day as a professional actor in “Roots,” Cicely Tyson, played my mother. I could hardly believe I was in the presence of such a legend let alone about to act opposite her in a scene. We were on location in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia where production had constructed the village of Juffere, the ancestral home of Kunta Kinte. Over the course of the morning’s work I was in awe. Understandably nervous, I wanted desperately to impress her in any way I might.

In the scene we were to shoot, Kunta has returned from manhood training to his mother’s hut to collect his belongings in order to take his place among the other men in the tribe and move into his own lodging. During a lull, I saw what I was certain to be a sure fire way to score some approval points. An interloper, some gnarly bug, had made it’s way into the hut and in my mind did pose a threat to the one and only Cicely Tyson. So, I bravely trapped it under my foot and squashed it!

Her response was as unexpected as any I have ever encountered. She lit into me as if she had given birth to me, “Don’t you ever think that because you are bigger than a thing, or more powerful, that you have the right to take it’s life!” I stood there mute. Mortified and crestfallen, chastised by the mother I had only just met. Then she hugged me with a fierceness that almost took my breath away. In true motherly fashion she impressed upon me in that moment, not only the sanctified nature of life but the responsibility of the strong to watch out for and protect the weak, as well.

It was always that way between us… like mother and son. And yet I know that I am only one among legions with whom she shared her wisdom, hard won over a lifetime of triumph over adversities untold, and her warm, loving ways. While the sense of what we have lost in her passing will only come fully into focus through the passage of time, the impact of her life and legacy will always be that of a Royal, who walked among us and shined her regal radiance upon us.

LeVar Burton is an actor and host whose work includes “Roots,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Reading Rainbow.”