Several weeks ago, the extended menu of channels now available — so very different from the 13 (2 through 13 and 35) that were my only options from my youth — took me back in time to a period when pretty much every household for eight consecutive nights was watching the same program.
What I’d stumbled upon OWN, another Oprah enterprise in her attempt pretty much to rule the world, was an episode of “Roots,” the 1977 ABC miniseries that dramatizes author Alex Haley’s family lineage, starting with Kunta Kinte’s enslavement and tracing the bloodlines all the way to his descendants after the Civil War.
Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the entire series was in marathon mode. Although late to the dance, I did manage to DVR the last three episodes. Over a period of a week or so, I carved out the time to watch them and, in doing so, remembered what great TV looks like.
As I watched the compelling narrative, I was reminded of a cast that seemed to include almost every well-known actor and entertainer of that era. The only exception, I noted, from the flashback scenes to the early episodes, was the unknown USC drama student, LeVar Burton, who played the young Kunta Kinte.
While the episodes I saw primarily featured Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggans, George Stamford Brown, Chuck Connors, Lloyd Bridges and Burl Ives, a quick look at the entire cast on my iPad reminded me of the talent in that production. From Robert Reed to Louis Gossett Jr., to Ed Asner to Richard Roundtree to John Amos to Lorne Greene and on the list goes. It might be easier to name the accomplished thespians of that era who weren’t in the cast.
Of course, with so many events from so long ago, I’m incredulous that it was just a year shy of four decades since that brutally cold January in 1977 when the nation was transfixed by Haley’s story. The series ran from January 23 to 30, certainly far different from most miniseries of its time, which were spread out over several weeks.
As for the weather, well, unless you had an essential nocturnal reason to be outside, without a doubt, people stayed inside. You may remember the Blizzard of ’78 more vividly, but January 1977 in the Ohio Valley was one of the coldest stretches ever. According to the National Weather Service, the average temperature for the entire month of January in our region was just 10 degrees, with Lima waking up to below zero conditions on several of those days, including one morning when it was minus 20 degrees, before wind chill was added.
According to meteorologists, the culprit was a displaced polar vortex, generally found only in the higher Canadian latitudes, which stalled over our valley and refused to budge.
At the time, I was married with a baby girl, Shannon, barely a year old, and the three of us were living in an apartment that was once a garage. You want to talk drafty? We could see the curtains move from the wind coming in from the window frame. That’s when a very kind mother- and father-in-law came to the rescue and took us into their much more insulated and solid brick ranch, complete with wood-burning fireplace until the snap was over.
And, it was before a roaring fire in that warm home where I watched those episodes after Baby Shannon was packed off to her crib to dream her innocent dreams.
I thought of all that a few weeks ago, when I watched those rediscovered three episodes. I also thought of the powerful tool that the series was in terms of exposing the horrors of slavery and the role Haley’s story played in combating racism. While some may cynically see so much more that still must be done, there is no doubt in my mind that Haley’s televised series helped break down a lot of walls.
The series was nominated for a staggering 37 Emmys and garnered nine wins. It was the first show ever to be accorded a nomination in every acting category. As for the Nielson ratings, the show remains, even almost four decades later, in the top 10 when it comes to TV’s most watched programs. The final episode held the distinction at the time of being the most watched program ever, with more than half all U.S. households with sets tuned in.
Yes, indeed, at the very bottom of that 1977 polar vortex there were indeed “Roots,” and so many of us saw all eight of them this week 39 years ago.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.