The Original “Roots” (1977)


We are apt to be pessimistic these days about so many things that we may forget the things there are to celebrate — and there are a great many of these, as well: more than you might suspect. You might think television, for example, to be a trivial thing, but I certainly don’t. We spend so much of our lives watching it — and the television of my childhood (the 1970s) was such a barren desert. There were but three commercial networks then, and one government pseudo-network that imported half its programming from England. The networks had incentive to compete with each other. But guess what? That did not equal an incentive to excel. For a network tv production to be a success it only had to be more attractive to audiences than two other shows in the same time slot. And this was often achieved by production factors other than a devotion to “quality”. Today with hundreds of other channel options at the viewers’ disposal, plus streaming and the myriad other forms of home video, you’d better believe producers (some of them at least) try and every trick at their disposal to gain notice…ranging from being the most heinous….to possessing the very highest quality. And thus this truly is television’s Golden Age.


Which is all elaborate lead-in to pre-empt the question I imagine some people are asking, “Do we really need a remake of Roots?” And the answer is (assuming tonight’s production is the good one we are hoping it will be) probably yes. Like practically all Americans at the time, I watched the original ABC mini-series when it aired on eight consecutive nights in January, 1977. It was a major national “television event”, earning between a 61% and 71% market share on every single night. It dominated the Emmys that year, and was what then passed for “prestige television.” It was ground-breaking subject matter, handled with unprecedented bravery (which in those days meant scarcely any at all).

Gary Collins, Pillsbury Bake-Off host and star of "The Wackiest Ship in the Army"
Gary Collins, Pillsbury Bake-Off host and star of “The Wackiest Ship in the Army”

To ensure a success of their production, as was common at the time, they toploaded the show’s casting with a hilarious superfluity of past and present tv stars, many of whom had a trivializing effect on the theoretically noble ambitions of the show.   While some of the key roles (especially African American ones) were filled by respected names, the majority of them were strictly cheese-o-rama. It was quite a mish-mash. The style of production I always think of as “the SCTV version”. In no particular order, the cast included: George Hamilton, Leslie Uggams, Burl Ives, O.J. Simpson, Sandy Duncan, Richard Roundtree, Ben Vereen, Doug McClure, Louis Gossett Jr, Scatman Crothers, Lorne Green, Ed Asner, John Amos, James Earl Jones, Carolyn Jones (no relation), John Schuck, Linda Day George, Georg Stanford Brown, Gary Collins, Moses Gunn, Ralph Waite, Maya Angelou, Robert Reed, Cicely Tyson, Lillian Randolph, Lloyd Bridges and MacDonald Carey. As well as the then unknown Levar Burton (later of Star Trek: TNG), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (later of Welcome Back Kotter), and Todd Bridges (later of Diff’rent Strokes).

“Carol! Which one of the kids took the shackles off Alice?!”

Say what you want about “important stories”, but this is an Irwin Allen sort of cast if ever there was one, the kind of thing that indicates to me the producers didn’t honestly believe it was important at all, just something that could make money. It sort of indicates a set of values so warped it can’t recognize what excellence and seriousness looks like. Like, who did they cut from this cast? Jamie Farr? Shecky Greene? Clarabelle the Clown?

Now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this new version. I was hopeful ’til I saw that its on the History Channel, hardly the imprimatur of quality for either history or drama. On the other hand, the last show I watched on that channel was titled Nazis vs. Aliens , and proved to be surprisingly good! The new version launches tonight; a link is here.

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