Reading Rainbow: LeVar Burton Talks Fred Rogers Friendship, Influence

If there's anything Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton has in common with Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood's Fred Rogers is that their respective children's programs created enduring memories for their audience that stood the test of time. While promoting his documentary Butterfly in the Sky about his long-running PBS series (1983-2006), Burton appeared on The View to talk about how Rogers provided guidance that helped his career. It premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

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The Star Trek: The Next Generation & Picard star initially thought the idea of using television to educate children seemed "counterintuitive" in the early 1980s. "People at that time thought that television was the death knell of educating America's kids and he was confident Reading Rainbow would work," he said. "I believed [television] could be a really powerful ally, and that's kind of what I've built this part of my career on. Using the prevailing technology to promote literature, whether it's television — that engagement factor — tablet computers, this is kind of what I do."

Reading Rainbow: LeVar Burton Talks Fred Rogers Friendship, Influence
Fred Rogers appears in Won't You Be My Neighbor? by Morgan Neville, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jim Judkis.

Burton's own family served as his own early test audience for the idea. "When I first started doing 'Reading Rainbow', my son was very, very young, and I started talking directly to him when I was talking to the audience," he said. "I really think that it helped me develop a rapport — that and Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers was a friend and mentor of mine." The actor shared that the two shared spiritual backgrounds "meeting on the field of service" given Rogers' background as a Presbyterian minister and his own background studying with the Catholic priesthood.

"Using our lives as fodder for something greater than ourselves is a key part of our DNA," Burton said. "Fred really encouraged me to be myself, share my authentic self with the audience, and establish a relationship with them that has paid off. I feel like I'm invested in all of y'all because I helped raise you, a little bit." The actor penned a tribute upon Rogers' death in 2003 for Entertainment Weekly.

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About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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