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Lon Chaney in the title role
"The Black Marshal from Deadwood" opens July 10 1885, with the surprise arrival in Tombstone of former Deadwood 'Black Marshal' Daggett (Lon Chaney), described by Harris Claibourne (Richard Eastham) thusly: "reputedly one of the toughest and most brutal marshals of the Western territory." Clay Hollister (Pat Conway) is surprised to learn that Daggett is now retired, and plans to live a quiet life in Tombstone as a chicken rancher. Claibourne publishes the news of Daggett's presence in town, which draws the attention of two outlaws itching for a chance to take him down. Hollister is able to decipher Daggett's weakness, a pistol hand that's no longer effective, fearing that if his enemies find out he's crippled he's as good as dead. Lon Chaney was especially busy in TV Westerns, and we're kept guessing as to what his 'black marshal' really wants in Tombstone, a suitably robust performance.
Chicken George to the rescue
The final chapter finds Tom Harvey (Georg Stanford Brown) and his family in Alamance County, North Carolina, with storekeeper Evan Brent (Lloyd Bridges) and brother Jemmy (Doug McClure) fighting for the Confederacy. Penniless white folks find things just as tough as the blacks, as Ol' George Johnson (Brad Davis) earns a job on the Harvey plantation as overseer, his devotion to Tom masked in public by keeping the slaves in line with a whip. Lacking the resources to conquer the North, cowardly Southerners like Jemmy Brent abandon the cause, but when he takes advantage of Tom by forcing himself on Irene, the blacksmith exacts revenge by killing Brent in self defense. Though he has no evidence of what happened, Evan takes it upon himself to wage war against the former slaves by forming the KKK, forcing a whipping on Tom that leaves him almost dead. The long awaited return of patriarch Chicken George offers salvation for the family, forming a plan to foil Brent and his criminal cohort, Senator Arthur Justin (Burl Ives), for greener pastures in Tennessee. This final chapter earned its highest ratings back in 1977, the show's cult continuing to grow year after year, and long after author Alex Haley's passing in 1992.
Georg Stanford Brown as Tom Harvey
Chapter five begins in 1841, Tom Moore and his son Chicken George traveling far and wide earning their keep fighting cocks. This is the period when Nat Moore had white folks terrified of all blacks, with Tom's wife (Carolyn Jones) taking pot shots at George in the mistaken belief that he killed her husband. With Tom in heavy debt he's forced to give up his prize trainer George for a princely sum, but only after George finally learns the truth from his mother Kizzy that Tom is his father. Leaving wife Matilda (Olivia Cole) and children behind, George is off to England to see if he can earn enough money to finance his own freedom. Meanwhile, Tom's debts force him to divest himself of all his slaves, so when George returns to the US a free man he's reunited with his family on the North Carolina plantation of Sam Harvey (Richard McKenzie), in 1861 Alamance County. The first person he encounters is Irene (Lynne Moody), beautiful wife of his blacksmith son Tom (Georg Stanford Brown). Matilda rejoices in having her man home at last, but George's freedom doesn't sit well with local storekeeper Evan Brent (Lloyd Bridges) or his brother Jemmy (Doug McClure), who reveal that he can only stay in the state for 60 days, or risk becoming a slave again.
Leslie Uggams as Kizzy, and Ben Vereen as Chicken George
Chapter four opens in 1806 Spotsylvania County, Virginia, where Kunta Kinte (John Amos) and wife Belle (Madge Sinclair) still live with teenage daughter Kizzy (Emmy nominee Leslie Uggams) on the plantation of Dr. William Reynolds (Robert Reed). Kizzy's childhood friend Missy Anne (Emmy nominee Sandy Duncan) visits her uncle William, rekindling the friendship by promising to buy Kizzy so they can be together forever. Only Kizzy's parents know that Missy Anne taught their daughter how to read and write when they were children, and worry about losing their child should something go wrong. An escape attempt by Kizzy's boyfriend Noah (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs) soon reveals Kizzy to be responsible for forging his written pass, resulting in her being sold to Tom Moore (Chuck Connors). Unlike her previous owner, Moore is a notorious womanizer, taking her virginity in painful fashion, and fathering her son Chicken George (Emmy nominee Ben Vereen), so named for his expertise in handling fighting cocks under the tutelage of longtime trainer Mingo (Scatman Crothers). Now in 1824 Caswell County, Virginia, George is courting preacher's daughter Matilda (Olivia Cole, whose performance earned an Emmy Award for Supporting Actress), who has her hands full trying to curb his outgoing exuberance, making him very popular with the ladies. Kizzy has never told him who his father was, with George never once thinking that his master is also his daddy, though they share a bond that is closer than most for the time, earning good money fighting chickens.
John Amos as Kunta Kinte
Chapter three casts John Amos as the adult Kunta Kinte, still answering to the name Toby for the white folks in 1776 Spotsylvania County, Virginia, joining Fiddler (Lou Gossett) on the plantation of a new owner, Dr. William Reynolds (Robert Reed), brother of former master John Reynolds (Lorne Greene). Losing half his foot after another runaway attempt, Kunta meets his match in the proud Belle (Madge Sinclair, like Amos earning an Emmy nomination for her performance), whose tender loving care nurses him back to full strength, convincing Dr. Reynolds to make him a carriage driver to curb his runaway instincts. Now is the time for the African and his woman to 'jump the broom,' which was the way slaves were married in those days, their daughter to be named Kizzy, the Mandinka term for staying put. On the night he presents his newborn Kizzy to the moon, as his father Omoro did for him under the African sky, Kunta is called to action by another chance to escape, only now the family man chooses to remain where he is.
Lou Gossett's Emmy-winning Fiddler
Chapter two finds Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) landing in Annapolis, Maryland, auctioned off to Spotsylvania County plantation owner John Reynolds (Lorne Greene), on the advice of his top field hand Fiddler (Lou Gossett, in his Emmy Award-winning performance), so named for his fiddle playing abilities. Reynolds gives the wild African boy a new name, Toby, and assigns Fiddler the six month mission of teaching him English and training him to work the fields. His eyes constantly darting to and fro, seemingly looking for a place to run, Kunta may prove difficult to tame but responds favorably to Fiddler's innate kindness and sympathetic nature. Trouble arises when Kunta finds a sharp metal object with which he begins the laborious task of cutting off his lone chain, standing before the stunned Fiddler with only the collar around his neck. Too late to back out now, Kunta bids Fiddler an emotional goodbye and tries to effect his escape, the morning snow making him relatively easy to find. Plantation overseer Ames (Vic Morrow) whips the runaway mercilessly until he finally answers to the name Toby, lying in the mud as Fiddler tends to his wounds. LeVar Burton and Lou Gossett would reprise their signature roles in a 1988 yuletide sequel, "Roots: The Gift."
LeVar Burton debuts as Kunta Kinte
ROOTS wasn't the first of what became known as the miniseries, following RICH MAN, POOR MAN, but remains the most famous, the subject matter of who we are and where we come from touching a nerve with audiences of all races. It turned out to be a wise choice to schedule the episodes throughout the week, ratings increasing as word of mouth kept raising the stakes. The opening chapter begins in West Africa's Gambia region for the 1750 birth of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton), son of Omoro (Thalmus Rasulala) and Binta (Cicely Tyson), growing into manhood with youthful impatience but greater courage than his warrior brethren. Manhood training with the Kintango (Moses Gunn) and the Wrestler (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) serves as more than an apprenticeship, as Kunta also endures his first encounter with white men and their thunder sticks. Returning a man ready to start anew with his own hut, Kunta leaves the village to perform a good deed for his little brother, in search of a log to make him a drum, unaware of the slavers lurking in wait. As fast and cunning as he is there proves to be no escape, captured along with the imposing Wrestler, and chained aboard the Lord Ligonier captained by Thomas Davies (Edward Asner). The topless nudity (done without sensationalism) and frank language, in particular Ralph Waite's course first mate, certainly opened quite a few eyes in the days when the networks normally didn't approve of such details. The African scenes were filmed in Georgia, with first time actor LeVar Burton making the strongest impression in his most famous role. Nominated for an Emmy for their performances were Burton, Cicely Tyson, Moses Gunn, and Ralph Waite, the lone winner Edward Asner.
James Earl Jones and Marlon Brando
The seventh and final chapter casts James Earl Jones as writer Alex Haley, his relationship with his ever demanding father Simon (Dorian Harewood) as strained as ever. His increasing number of magazine articles allow him the chance at an even greater challenge, conducting a Playboy interview with George Lincoln Rockwell (Marlon Brando), the head of the American Nazi Party (winning Brando an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series). It's a marvelously intense sequence lasting seven minutes, Haley sweating as Rockwell fingers his pistol, dismissing the notion that Hitler extinguished six million Jews. After that Alex is allowed to compose the biography of Malcolm X, a performance that earned Al Freeman Jr. an Emmy nomination. Things really shift into high gear when he begins to research his own family tree, inspired by Malcolm's lost heritage, not knowing his real name and having to adopt the X to take its place, feeling the loss of identity. The perspective of an objective author guides Haley in obsessive fashion, first on the same front porch in Henning with cousin Georgia Anderson (Lynn Hamilton), to the Wisconsin home of dialectician Dr. Vansina (Michael Constantine), then an all expenses paid trip to the River Gambia in the West African nation of Senegal. Face to face with the Griot who repeats generations of family history, hours pass before Alex hears the familiar tale of Kunta Kinte, who went in search of a log to make a drum for his little brother, never to be seen again. It's a moving conclusion to the epic saga, watching Haley embrace his cousin in the village of his ancestors, acknowledging who he truly is after generations in slavery. Opinions vary of course but there was no drop in quality from the original ROOTS to its sequel, as top notch writing and acting brings the Haley family full circle.
Damon Evans as the wartime Alex Haley
Chapter six finds Alex Haley (Damon Evans) just out of high school, his father's plans for him to continue with college foiled by his joining the Coast Guard because he wants to see more of the world. Simon Haley (Dorian Harewood) has a second wife, Zenitha (Diahann Carroll), who supports her stepson more than her husband does, though Alex chooses to remember only the late Bertha as his mother. Once again race relations are strained during wartime, but Alex soon discovers he has a talent for choosing the right words when it comes to forging love letters for fellow sailors like Scotty (John Hancock). This is the time that he meets pretty Nan Branch (Debbie Allen) at a church social, who becomes his bride before war's end. Alex encounters difficulty learning how to be a writer under Commander Robert Munroe (Andy Griffith), his magazine articles usually returned without being published. His determination in his chosen field leaves less and less time for his wife and children, until Nan finally decides to take them away after a bitterly disappointing Christmas, left standing by himself to feel even more like a failure. James Earl Jones takes the role of Haley for the concluding chapter.
Alex Haley's childhood and the loss of his mother
Chapter five finds young Alex Haley a boy of 11 (Christoff St. John) during Depression-era 1932, carefully watching over his ailing mother Bertha (Irene Cara) while his oblivious father Simon (Dorian Harewood) works as a college professor at Alabama A & M in Normal, helping local farmers with techniques learned by earning his Master's Degree. Paul Winfield plays Prof. Horace Huguley, a performance nominated for an Emmy, and Robert Culp also scores as Lyle Pettijohn, who tries to keep things from getting out of hand with landowner D.L. Lewis (Logan Ramsey), who has no regard for the poor people working his land for his personal profit. Ab Decker (Brock Peters) is determined to fight for what's rightly his, especially since President Roosevelt has ensured financial reimbursement for farmers. Alex Haley continues to listen to his family discussing the old African on the Henning front porch, as his mother's strength finally gives out. When we next see Alex Haley, he's a young man struggling to find his way in a world very different from the one his father struggled in.