And Burton’s words are sincere. In a new interview with the New York Times Magazine, he was asked how tough it would be for him if he doesn’t get the job.
“It will hurt. I’m not going to lie,” Burton said. “But if that happens, I will get over it. I will be fine. Remember: Everything happens perfectly and for a reason. That is my default. It’s all going to be OK. Because it always is.”
Burton is best known for his acting — Kunta Kinte in the acclaimed 1977 TV miniseries Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation — as well as his storytelling. He hosted the PBS children’s show Reading Rainbow from 1983 to 2006. After he put out the word that he wanted to be part of Jeopardy!, his devoted fans sprang into action, starting not one but multiple petitions lobbying for it to happen. The show’s producers announced in April that Burton would be one of the celebs, including Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, former Big Bang Theory cast member Mayim Bialik and Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings, who would take a turn as guest host as they searched for a permanent replacement. Burton’s episodes are scheduled to air July 26-30.
Burton, who’s been a Jeopardy! fan since Trebek’s predecessor, Art Fleming, hosted in the ’60s and ’70s, was elated.
“It’s difficult to explain, but there’s something inside me that says this makes sense,” Burton said in the new interview. “I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do. I have been watching Jeopardy! more or less every night of my life since Art Fleming was host. Jeopardy! is a cultural touchstone, and for a Black man to occupy that podium is significant. Look, I have had a career for the [expletive] ages. Roots, Star Trek, Reading Rainbow. Won a Grammy. Got a shelf full of Emmys. I’m a storyteller, and game shows are tremendous stories. There’s a contest, there’s comedy, there’s drama. If you don’t know your [expletive] on Jeopardy! you’re sunk in full view of the entire nation. The stakes are high. I love that.”
Burton has certainly lost on out jobs he wanted before. He mentioned that he’d hoped to appear in the 1981 film adaptation of the novel Ragtime but no dice… and one other very famous film.
“There was the time that I found out that the producers of Glory wanted me for the role that Denzel Washington ended up playing, and Star Trek would not agree to let me go,” Burton said. “When the movie came out and then Denzel won an Academy Award [for best actor], I thought, ‘Hmm.'”
“But it wasn’t for me, and I’ve made peace with that,” he said. “That which is mine, no one can take away. That which is not meant for me, no amount of wishing or stamping my feet will make it so.”
When the interviewer tells Burton that there’s “a Fred Rogers quality to some of the things” he said, Burton had a lot to say. The two were close before Rogers’s death in February 2003.
“We developed a relationship that I will always lean on,” Burton said. “That guy on Mr. Rogers was who he really was. Fred was present, he was open, he was attentive, he was intensely interested in how you felt in this moment. Let’s do this — right here, right now. Fred was a Presbyterian minister. I studied for the Catholic priesthood. He and I shared a value that our lives should be centered around service. He taught me that it wasn’t about me. It was about the audience’s experience. I was the conduit. I also think that Fred’s example is about being able to be OK with who we are wherever we find ourselves. It’s easy to forget how important that is: simply being fine with who we are at any given moment.”
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