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Rainbows, stars and reality

LeVar Burton is not a content man this morning.

He makes an effort to smile, to do all the things that congenial actors are supposed to do, but, behind his sunglasses, his eyes brood, and his mind scans budget projections and bottom-line balances.

Call it supreme irony.

A decade after he started hosting a modest children's show, PBS' Reading Rainbow is a smash, the winner of this year's Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding children's series and the prestigious Peabody Award. Every month, 4.2-million children watch Reading Rainbow. An estimated 132,000 schools use the program as part of everyday teaching.

Just this week, PBS honored Burton and the show with a 10th birthday party, complete with compliments from the PBS brass.

Burton still scowls. Despite the praise, PBS cut his funding by an estimated $1.2-million. "It makes absolutely no sense," Burton says in exasperation. "Here we are marking a milestone with the show. It should be easier for us to make the show, not harder."

He is among a legion of producers at PBS who face the same budget crunch, but his passion is revealing. He is not just the host, an actor, but a teacher fighting for his kids. He started out as the "talent" and is now a co-producer.

His commitment is in line with his values and what he hopes to achieve in his art, whether producing Reading Rainbow or playing Geordi, the science whiz on Star Trek: the Next Generation.

"I think television is the most powerful tool we possess for change," said Burton, who made an impressive acting debut in Roots in 1977 when he was just 19. "I saw that with Roots. TV not only challenges us, it empowers us."

Burton, always a serious thinker (as a teenager, he spent four years studying for the priesthood), says he tries to pick roles that will encourage young viewers.

"I try to associate myself with television that is the best of the medium," Burton said.

That hasn't always been easy. As African-American actors know, good roles are hard to find. After Roots and a string of TV movies, Burton found himself in a dry spell. Reading Rainbow came along just in time. He found the show, a combination of stories and adventure, a perfect match for his personality.

"In my house, reading was expected," Burton says of his childhood. "My mother was an English teacher. I grew up in a house where reading was like breathing. I was lucky."

In his series, he hopes to impart that joy of learning. He balances PBS duties with the wildly popular Star Trek, which started six years ago on the Paramount Network. He said he was attracted to the Geordi role because it, like Rainbow, allowed him to be a positive role model for children, especially black children.

As the father of a 13-year old son, Burton, 36, says it is his duty. He worries that other, more popular, shows and movies don't do the same. He is especially troubled by Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park because blacks and Hispanics are in positive, hero roles but are portrayed as workers or "get eaten by a dinosaur." That kind of irks him.

Which brings us back to funding. He's still troubled by that. Jennifer Lawson, PBS programing chief, said many PBS shows faced cuts because of lack of funding but "in no way does that indicate our lack of support."

Burton scoffs. Maybe if Reading Rainbow had a doll or a dinosaur to market, life would be different. Then he sighs. "We'll find a way," he says.

Burton, in New Orleans for a brief visit with his wife (the couple lives in Los Angeles), moves off, elegant in a dark suit and darker glasses. If only Captain Picard were here. The fictional leader of Star Trek would snap, "Make it so!" and the $1.2-million would appear.

Burton lives in the real world. Outside, it's raining again.