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'Roots': Newsday's 1977 review of the original TV miniseries

Louis Gossett Jr., left, and LeVar Burton in

Louis Gossett Jr., left, and LeVar Burton in the original "Roots." Credit: ABC

The History channel's adaptation of Alex Haley's miniseries "Roots" premieres on Memorial Day (Monday, May 30). Below is Newsday's review of the original 1977 series, which ran in the newspaper's Thursday, Jan. 27 edition.

With ‘Roots,’ very few nits to pick

Sure there are some things wrong with “Roots.” The characterizations, for example, are too black and white. The whites are particularly offensive stereotypes. But I’m glad for those pat stereotypes. TV viewers know what whites are really like.

O.J. Simpson was not the best choice for the role of the African chieftain Sunday night. Despite his brilliant performance as the harried executive in the Hertz commercials, and on the football field some Sundays, he was a joke as an actor.

They must have needed somebody who could run fast to catch the boy, Kunta Kinte. It was TV’s first run-on role. (I trust it wasn’t a stunt man doing the running or speaking his few lines.) Maybe if Simpson keeps at it, he will eventually rise to the heights of acting previously reached by Don Meredith.

Ed Asner was disappointing as the tortured, pious slave-ship captain, Davies, especially in the first two-hour episode. His anguish looked as if it could be solved with Pepto-Bismol. The character was a fake. Still, it’s hard to imagine Asner not being spectacular in any role. It must have been the director’s fault.

The Gambian village scenes in the opening episode looked visually tacky, almost as if Kunte Kinte lived in a theme park in Savannah. The slave ship, the Ligonier, was a bit visually too nice. They said it stank, but you had to use your imagination.

As you can see, my list of nits to pick is shorter than usual.

There is no getting around it. The first four hours of “Roots,” written by William Blinn and Ernest Kinoy, were superb television drama. With an oil company behind it, “Roots” could be called “Masterpiece American TV Theatre.” The episodes have been so good so far, I’m even thinking of reading the original book by Alex Haley.

I have already written (Sunday) about how emotionally powerful and uprooting the televisionization of “Roots” has been for me. It will be interesting to observe what impact the 12-hour series will have on the general public by next Monday night.

TV has not been noted for its educational impact. Mostly what the medium has taught us about blacks in the past is language. Blacks say things like “DYN-O-MITE” (CBS’ contribution to black culture or “Good Times”). “Roots” goes deeper into explaining black family life than “What’s Happening.”

I sense “Roots” will do some good. After all this isn’t some play on “Visions,” which, great as it may be, is easily avoided. What is “Visions”? This isn’t a panel show on public TV with a bunch of professors from Brooklyn College and Howard University wringing their hands over inequities in society.

“Roots” is prime-time commercial television, man, where they show hard-core culture like “Baretta,” “Starsky and Hutch.” It’s not on public TV, but the real people’s network (ABC).

“Roots” is a great leap forward for television, and especially for ABC. This is the network that brings us “Fonzie Loves Pinky,” a real nerd of a contrived human drama. Can you imagine
Fonzie Loves Pinky” and “Roots” on the same night (Wednesday)? As Madison Avenue ad man Martin Solow has observed, “It shows a healthy eclecticism. While you’re up to your neck in dreck, the network executives are making waves with ‘Roots.’”

The credit for pushing “Roots” on to the screen goes to Brandon Stoddard, the brilliant young ABC vice-president-in-charge-of-novels-for-television in California. There should be an Emmy for TV executives.

But a few kind words should be said for Stoddard’s boss at ABC, Freddy Silverman, a man of eclectic tastes. He personally loved “The Captain and Tennille,” a bomb that cost ABC $500,000 an episode for 19 weeks, and hated “Charlie’s Angels,” ABC’s smash hit of the year.

For all I know, Silverman’s major artistic contribution to making “Roots” possible was not saying “no.” One can imagine the battles that must have gone on in the ABC corporate board rooms when the idea of doing “Roots” was first presented. “You mean you want to do a mini-series on slavery? In 12 hours on prime time? And PBS just had one?”

Ultimately a man who says “yes” to the right questions is great just because he doesn’t say “no.”

I especially hail Silverman’s decision to play “Roots” on eight consecutive nights, a most daring programing innovation. The closest thing we’ve had to something like this is when local stations like Ch. 7 run five afternoon movies in a row hailing the cinematic achievements of Angie Dickinson, Rock Hudson or Dan Duryea.

The eight-night approach is in marked contrast to Silverman’s philosophy on “Rich Man, Poor Man,” which was stretched out over eight weeks. For the next novel, he could go back to stretching it out again. “Freddy is just playing his accordion,” a rival network executive said about the philosophy.

The good thing about the eight consecutive nights approach is that it gives you something to look forward to on TV every night. The experience is like reading one of those books you can’t put down until you are finished.

Will “Roots” become a series after the mini-series is concluded? That is another one of Silverman’s contributions to the art (See “Rich Man, Poor Man – Book II”). In the world of print we have the same phenomenon. Before World War II, newspapers used to publish extras. When something happened too late to include in that day’s early editions, they used to run around the streets calling “Wuxtry, Wuxtry. Get all the news we left out of the first edition before we saw the Nielsen ratings.”

I hope Freddy doesn’t make this mistake again as he did with “Rich Man, Poor Man.” I want to treasure the memory of the mini-series unmarred by the aftertaste of a cheap commercial rip-off. There are plenty of other books with solid authentic characters, deeply involving stories and uncontrived plots. Check the Beverly Hills Library.


‘Roots’ hanging on to near-record ratings

By Bill Kaufman

ABC’s $8.5 million gamble that viewers will return to their TV sets eights nights in succession to watch “Roots,” the adaptation of Alex Haley’s best-seller tracing his family lineage back to Africa, apparently is paying off. The program has already joined the handful of broadcasts that attracted the largest audiences in television history.

Overnight figures supplied by the A.C. Nielsen Co. for Tuesday’s segment of “Roots” showed that it drew a 41.8 rating and a 59 share in New York. In Los Angeles, it won a 44.6 rating and 71 share, while in Chicago, it pulled a 51.9 rating and a 66 share. On a national level (a sampling of far more markets), it developed a 44.0 rating and a 62 share for Monday’s segment. The rating represents the percentage of TV sets tuned to a specific station out of all the sets in the country. The share is a percentage of sets actually in use at that time.

A Nielsen spokesman said that the show’s sustaining high ratings since its start Sunday is “a very rare occurrence, since there has never been this kind of a string-together.” He said that the show, which has been slotted into 12 hours of prime time through next weekend, “is among the all-time top telecasts.” Among the other landmark shows in TV history are the last episode of “The Fugitive” in 1967, which drew a 45.9 rating, and a Bob Hope Christmas special in 1970, which generated a 46.6 rating. Last November, a two-part telecast of “Gone With the Wind” on NBC pulled an unprecedented 47.5 rating, which made the 1939 movie the top-rated TV program of all time.

Quite expectedly, ABC network officials were elated at the ratings, especially on Monday night, when “Roots” out-paced two heavyweight movies thrown up against it. CBS programed a rerun of “Helter Skelter” and NBC put up “Westworld.” That day, according to TV industry sources, shaped up as the most formidable of the week for “Roots.” A spokesman for ABC said, “We couldn’t have asked for more. It’s a windfall.” Bud Rukeyser, a spokesman for NBC, said, “They apparently have a big thing going … It’s just one of those success formulas … TV now is a business of events and specials.” At CBS, programing vice president Bud Grant conceded: “’Roots’ is certainly an impressive project. It’s terrific. It’s certainly good for TV that any network invests that kind of time, money and effort …” Grant said that sitting on his desk was a script of Irving Wallace’s “The Word,” which was being considered for a similar lengthy treatment on his network.

ABC affiliates around the country reported that the public reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Anne Speakman of WCVB-TV in Boston said: “We received countless calls lauding the show. There were, however, a number who said they wished it was on earlier so children could see it.” Jim Ellis, of WKRC-TV in Cincinnati, which has a black population of about 30 per cent, said the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had declared “‘Roots’ Week” in his city. Like some of those in other markets, he said that a few calls were received “which said they would hold ABC responsible for the next race riot.” (“Roots” contains many emotionally charged scenes depicting the brutal way blacks were treated.)

In Atlanta, WXIA-TV’s president and general manager, Jeff Davidson, said: “It was a meritorious program. Our public responded most favorably.” He laughed, and recalled: “One elderly gentleman phoned to complain about the naked women. I reminded him that it was like the National Geographic and he said, ‘Of course. I didn’t think of that. Sorry I called.’” A spokesman for KTLA-TV in Los Angeles said there was a report that some of the bars in the Watts area of the city “were almost as packed as on Super Bowl day” with viewers watching the show.

“Roots,” which is scheduled to wind up Sunday night, examines the history of Haley’s family from its tribal days in Africa, through the agonies of slavery and up to the time of the Civil War. John Goodman, an ABC spokesman, said that at present, despite the show’s success, there were no plans to produce more segments that would bring the story up-to-date, as the book does.

For the most part, response from the nation’s television critics was favorable. Newsday’s Marvin Kitman wrote Sunday: “If you don’t feel anything after watching the first two hours … you’re probably certifiably dead emotionally.” Among the brickbats, however, were those tossed by Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Time said the program “is rooted in the paperback mentality,” while the Journal said the program had a simplistic theme which didn’t elevate it “above most Saturday afternoon matinees.”

An ABC executive acknowledged that the show is being advertised as “A novel for television,” sand that Haley himself admits that it’s “faction,” – material that is essentially fact but laced with fictional material. Haley could not be reached for comment on the television show’s success, but John Hawkins, a spokesman for the Paul R. Reynolds Agency, his literary agent, said that the author was “enormously delighted.”

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