How ‘Roots’ became an iconic drama miniseries
In the vast world of TV miniseries, nothing could ever top Roots. Released in 1977, this miniseries followed the life of Kunta Kinte, who was sold into slavery. As expected, the production for this show had its ups and downs.
The roots of Roots
Roots is based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. While writing the novel, he sold the TV rights to producer David Wolper. Reminiscent of Game of Thrones, production on the show began before Haley could finish the novel. Screenwriters were already inserting their own characters and storylines into the mix. “I had to write fast to keep up. It was like a steamroller was chasing me,” the author told Playground Daily News.
When it came to casting Kunta Kinte, they needed to showcase his younger and older self. For the older version of Kinte, John Amos was the right man for the job. The New Jersey native was gaining praise for his work on Good Times. Finding someone to portray a 15-year-old Kinte was a tall task. Luckily, they found their guy with Levar Burton. “I was a 19-year-old theater major at the University of Southern California when I was cast to play Kunta Kinte, the young Mandinka warrior stolen from his homeland and trafficked halfway around the world. Throughout the lengthy audition process I felt an uncanny connection to the character and as though I had been preparing for this role my entire life,” he told Parade.
Incidents on the set
While filming, Amos had some wild conversations on set, and it wasn’t with his co-stars. It was with his ancestors. “It was not my imagination, I became overwhelmed, and I became agitated. I began screaming and yelling, laying on the floor. They tell me I was speaking in tongues,” he told PBS. To Amos, his ancestors wanted him to be their voice.
The most memorable scene in Roots involves Kinte getting whipped until he said his name. For Burton, this was one of the most uncomfortable moments in his career. “It was just too difficult for me to stand with my back to this man who had a whip in his hands. And we’d hired a real whip expert. His job was to wrap the whip around my body. Now, the tip of that whip—when he releases it to get the crack—is moving at about 120 miles an hour. And I was just too jittery. I was jumping and twitching all out of sync with the actual action. It was just nerve-wracking. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bear to stand still,” he told Esquire. Fortunately, he was given a few days to recover and go over things with the whip expert.
Some skeptical thoughts
After filming wrapped up, it was finally in the hands of ABC. Unfortunately, the network had second thoughts about ordering the program. They didn’t think a show of this nature would become a smash success. Instead of releasing an episode a week, they placed all eight episodes on consecutive nights. In a complete shock to the network, Roots became a slam dunk. From January 23, 1977, to January 30, 1977, 130 million people watched the show. Half of the United States tuned in to see the final episode.
At the 1977 Emmys, the show earned nine awards, including Best Limited Series. The network decided to order two sequels to continue Kinte’s story. Roots‘ success also led to the demand for more TV miniseries. While a remake was released in 2016, like most remakes, it couldn’t capture what made the original so unique.