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“It Really Wasn’t What They Said It Was”: LeVar Burton Opens Up About ‘Jeopardy!’ and Hosting the National Spelling Bee

What really happened with Burton’s ‘Jeopardy!’ host audition? What’s the latest with his Trivial Pursuit show? And is spelling a sport? The ‘Roots,’ ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘Reading Rainbow’ legend has the answers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After spending nearly five decades in the public eye, LeVar Burton occupies a rare place in the American cultural landscape. His cherished roles as Kunta Kinte in Roots, as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as the host of Reading Rainbow have endowed him with such social capital that his mere presence as a guest star on Community reduced Donald Glover’s Burton-worshiping character to hysterics.

Burton is an institution, and this week he’ll take the reins of another. He’s hosting the Scripps National Spelling Bee, whose finals will air on ION on Thursday. It will be Burton’s most prominent appearance since he guest hosted a week of Jeopardy! episodes last summer after nearly a decade of campaigning to succeed Alex Trebek. In the end, that job went to Mike Richards, then the quiz show’s executive producer, who stepped down after hosting just a week of games last August following The Ringer’s reporting into the nature of the host search and Richards’s past; he was relieved of executive producer duties days later. Since then, Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik have shared the Jeopardy! stage, with a permanent host or hosts still to be named. Burton, meanwhile, has a game show of his own in the works: a televised adaptation of the board game Trivial Pursuit that is currently in development.

Below, Burton dishes on Trivial Pursuit, spelling as a sport, working the Bee with his family, and what really happened with Jeopardy! Burton says that he called Richards days after Trebek’s November 2020 death to convey that he wanted a shot at hosting. Then months went by without the show following up, even as other guest hosts were named. “He told me later that he didn’t believe me,” recalls Burton, who says he received a guest slot only after calling Richards a second time that spring. “The fix was always in.”

I wanted to start by asking you about spelling bees generally. Were you ever part of a spelling bee? Did you do any academic contests as a student?

I was not a great speller. Here’s my problem: I wanted to be the best speller in the sixth grade. But I wasn’t. Tim Williams was. And there was no amount of wishing or studying that I could do to best Tim Williams. So no, I would not have been a candidate for spelling bees. But I found an outlet that I had a passion for in speech contests. So my respect for these—I call them intellectual athletes. My respect for these athletes is enormous, because I know how hard it is.

And having grown up Catholic and been exposed to Latin and different languages, having been born in Germany and lived there as a kid, I get the nature of the power of words. Words have power. Why? Because we’ve imbued them so. We’ve agreed on the meaning of words. And when they’re put together, they form language that allows us to express ourselves in the fullness of our humanity. Having an understanding of the root of those words and where they come from, and what their component parts break down to—that’s mastery of language on a level that very few achieve.

Is the National Spelling Bee something that you watch each year?

It’s something that I pay attention to, absolutely, because the feat is so impressive. I think that’s true for most of us. We watch because we know we can’t do that. We can’t do that. It’s like watching professional basketball players. I can’t do that! It’s hugely impressive.

I don’t know if you caught it, but last year’s final was this incredible nail-biter between two spellers at the very end—

Yes! Right.

—and produced the first African American champion in the Bee’s history in Zaila Avant-garde. Were you watching that?

I saw the replays. I wish I had been watching live, but I did see those final moments and it was thrilling. That’s the thing about athletic competition and intellectual competition. You get caught up in the stories of the players, the dynamics of the moment. And that’s what I’m excited about being able to do here this week: tell the stories of these kids when they get it right, when they get it wrong, when they hear the bell, which is the worst sound in the world this week.

I saw you mentioned a while back when you were trying out for the Jeopardy! job that one of the aspects that inspired you was this feeling that it would be particularly significant for a Black man to take on a public role like that, in a position like the host of Jeopardy! or presumably of the National Spelling Bee. I was hoping you could expand on that a little more.

It feels to me like your career is often broken down into the three chapters of Roots, Star Trek, and Reading Rainbow. I was looking back, and I saw that as early as 2013 you tweeted that hosting Jeopardy! was your “dream job,” and mentioned that you wanted to follow Trebek in the years that followed. From the outside, it seemed like you were trying to make Jeopardy! your fourth professional chapter. Is that a fair read?

It would have been a nice chapter. But what that means to me is that the fourth chapter isn’t written yet. I thought it was Jeopardy! Clearly it’s not. So I am open to what it is going to be. And I’m here for it. I’m absolutely here for it, whatever it is. I’ve managed to, for the last 45 years, always find the thing that I’m supposed to do, that I’m supposed to be in, that I’m supposed to champion, that works out. Not just for my benefit, but for the benefit of other people, too, which is really why I love my life so much. Because my job involves bringing value to others. I’m the son of a social worker and an English teacher. I could not honor my family values more.

I saw an interview with Mike Richards, who at that point was the executive producer of Jeopardy! And he said that—

Richard Smith?

Mike, Mike Richards, who was the—

Oh, Mike. Mike Smith. Yeah, OK.

No, no, no, Mike, Mike Richards.

Mike Richards. Right, Mike Richards.

Yes. He was with Jeopardy! and said early on in the guest-host rotation, when they were just beginning to bring people in, that you had been one of the very first people to call him after Trebek’s death to restate your interest.

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

I would love to know what that call was like.

He told me later that he didn’t believe me. He didn’t sense in that call my passion.

Really?

Yeah. That’s what he said.

That’s interesting. And surprising.

I find that so as well. He also told me that he was not interested in the job, that it was his job to help them find the right person for this job. He said that twice.

You had this enormous groundswell of support for your candidacy. I think the change.org petition for you to become the host of Jeopardy! has something like 300,000 signatures now. But you also said there was a period when you were just waiting by your phone being like, “Yes, I do want to guest host, I’m here, give me a call.”

That’s when I called Mike Richards a second time.

When was that?

It was right before they announced [the guest-host stint in April 2021]. I mean, finally I reached him. We finally spoke and I convinced him that my passion was genuine. I don’t know why he didn’t get that the first time around. But I managed to convince him that my passion was genuine. And a couple of days later, I had a guest-host slot.

A lot of your fans felt, and continue to feel to this day, that they were to some degree duped by the process, and that you were never given a fair shot at hosting Jeopardy! Is that something you have felt at all?

I understand that sentiment. I do hold some of those feelings. As it turns out, it was not a competition to find a new host, really. Because the fix was always in. It was only scandal that forced Sony Pictures Television to go in a different direction. In fact, they tried to keep him on. I mean, I don’t need to rehash the chain of events. It really wasn’t what they said it was. And so my conclusion is I got what I asked for: I got a tryout, I got a chance to guest host. And my assumption was that it was an equal playing field and they were really looking to find a permanent solution. And I guess, ultimately, they did. But the way they got there was very distasteful and turned me off. So I’m happy to have not gotten that job.

One of the things that fans of yours were particularly incensed by was that you ended up only getting to host a single week of episodes, it was late in the season, and your episodes aired—

And it aired during the Olympics.

And it aired during the Olympics, exactly. So I take it that was something you were aware of.

I was! How could—I mean, I was really invested, Claire. I was really invested. And by the way, there were an awful lot of comments that I wasn’t good as the host. Even though I know I wasn’t my best, I know I would have gotten better had I been given the opportunity, or had I been given notes by the executive producer, who was the one charged with the responsibility of teaching you the game.

Look, I’m a firm believer, Claire, in the idea that everything happens for a reason. And I’m always going to bet on myself. I firmly believe that the Jeopardy! job was right for me. And so I pursued it with everything I’ve got because that’s what I do. That’s who I am. It turned out to not be my job, and I’m OK with that. Because everything that’s happened to me in my career, everything that’s come my way, I’ve been able to just make the best out of it. I’m really proud of that. Jeopardy! is a great brand and it has a longstanding tradition of excellence. I wish them well, and nothing but continued success.

Have you heard anything from Sony since all of that?

No. I don’t expect to.

What is the latest on your Trivial Pursuit game show? Has there been anything happening with that?

I’m so proud of the gameplay, and partnering with Hasbro and eOne has been a blast and a dream come true. And see, this is what I mean. Because being partners with Hasbro and eOne in the creation of this game and the execution of this game is an opportunity I never would have had with Jeopardy! It’s institutional, Jeopardy! But we got to invent Trivial Pursuit. We got to translate that board game into what I believe to be a fantastic trivia game that the whole family can play. And when you watch Trivial Pursuit, you’ll be able to tell, even with the sound off, “Oh, that’s Trivial Pursuit.” And not just because I’ll be there.

You’ll recognize some of the elements from the game if you’ve ever played. You’ll recognize the colors and some of the shapes. We really use that wheel in what I feel is an incredibly inventive way. I’m proud of the game we’ve created. We have one or two more pitches to go still. And then I guess we wait to see if anyone’s interested.

So that sounds like no network officially yet.

No. None.

Have you been able to tape anything in terms of a pilot?

Oh, no. Why would I go through all that work? I’m here. I’m doing the Spelling Bee! I have Picard, and I’m developing television and film, and I’m voicing Tom Swift [as a character named Barclay], and I’m a new cast member of Blindspotting. Doing the pilot of Trivial Pursuit on spec? Buy the show, and we’ll shoot it and then we’ll see where it goes.

Returning to the Spelling Bee, why do you think that it draws such a massive audience every year?

I think it goes back to that impressiveness factor. We can’t do this, right? Most of us aren’t spellers at this level. And it’s exciting. It’s fascinating. It’s sport. It’s sport, and we are sports nuts in this culture. I said at breakfast this morning: The American character is based in parts on competition and commerce. We love both of them. Right? They’re the bedrock of the American identity, commerce and competition. So this is competition at a very high level. And there’s drama. We are storytelling beings and we are drawn to both comedy and drama. It’s part of our makeup. It’s who we are.

Is there anything special you’re doing to prepare for the hosting element of this?

Going over the scripts, making sure that I know the pronunciations of everybody’s name, and just spending some time with the kids in advance. Today is my day off, but I’m down here signing autographs, talking to folks. There are kids here who have probably never traveled far from their home, who have never been in a hotel as huge and an event as large as this. It’s a really important week for these kids and their families. And that’s exciting. As a parent, it’s nice to be a part of. And it’s great to be a part of it with my kid! They hired [my daughter] Mica to do some hosting as well. So my family, we’re all here working, because Stephanie, my wife, does my makeup and she does Mica’s makeup. So all three of us are here working on the Bee this week. And it’s just awesome.

What is Mica doing?

She’s hosting, too. She’s in the lounge doing interviews with the kids and stuff like that. It’s great. You know, she has her own bona fides as a host. She’s been doing it a long time. She’s good at it.

I have one last very silly question for you. I just spent this past weekend in Cincinnati—which I’ve had to look up the spelling of every single time that I’ve ever written it. Is there a word that you can never spell right or that always gets you?

A word that always gets me. I always have to mentally, silently do the I before E except after C for words like “belief,” “relief,” “achieve.” I just have to think mentally, every time, I before E except after C.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.