‘No one else has lobbied’: ‘Jeopardy!’ producer on how LeVar Burton won his audition spot
LeVar Burton is such a fan that he’s been actively campaigning for a slot as “Jeopardy!” host. He tweeted his support for a fan-based Change.org petition that sought to give him a spot and has won hundreds of thousands of signatures. And in interviews, including one with USA TODAY this month, the “Roots” star and “Reading Rainbow” host said he was “invested” in securing a permanent hosting gig on the top-rated game show that would do “justice to the memory of Alex.”
Behind the scenes, he’s also lobbied for one of more than a dozen guest-hosting stints that began with Greatest of All Time champion Ken Jennings on Jan. 11 and will extend through the 37th season finale on Aug. 13. Burton, 64, will get his chance, in a weeklong stint airing July 26-30.
“LeVar and I’ve been speaking for a very long time,” says executive producer Mike Richards. “I think he was the first person to reach out to me after Alex passed away” in November, “so this is not a new conversation.”
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LeVar Burton, in a 2016 photo. The 'Roots' and 'Star Trek' actor and 'Reading Rainbow' host is on a public campaign to replace Alex Trebek on 'Jeopardy!' And he'll get his on-air tryout in late July. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
After subsequent conversations, “it came down to LeVar … speaking to his passion and really believing that he would be a great fit to be a guest host, and as we came down to the final group we were excited to get it all to work together. This is not an easy process,” says Richards, whose own stint as guest host aired in February.
“It’s not a matter of picking up the phone and people clearing their calendars, and then just showing up. There’s a lot that goes into these bookings,” Richards says. “It was much more about the conversations that we had than really him lobbying, because really, no one else has lobbied. It’s really been a kind of a a very quiet path to cerebral conversations and then us making decisions.”
'Jeopardy!' executive producer Mike Richards, who stepped in as guest host last February, is involved in picking guest hosts to try out for the permanent slot. (Photo: Carol Kaelson, Jeopardy Productions)
So far, the lineup of guest hosts has included one woman (Katie Couric), and next week brings Bill Whitaker, a Black correspondent for CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Other guest hosts of color include Dr. Sanjay Gupta (due June 28) and “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts (July 19). (See the entire lineup of guest hosts and their airdates in the gallery below.)
Many of these guest hosts are candidates for the permanent gig. But as questions about inclusivity rise, what will Richards and executives at Sony Pictures Television seek in a host?
“What we’re going to look for is the best candidate for the show,” he says. “We’ve been very clear, and how we have approached the guest hosts is that we are going to not limit it to anyone based on anything. We’re going to look for the best people. That would be the ‘Jeopardy!’ way.”
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