This spring, LeVar Burton finally found himself behind the iconic Jeopardy host's lectern, taping his one-week stint as a guest host of the beloved quiz show. After a nearly decade-long journey to reach that point, the fulfillment of Burton's long-held dream had happened remarkably quickly.
"I found out that I was getting a guest host slot, and I don't think it was more than a week before I was standing there," the former Reading Rainbow host tells EW. "It was like jumping into the deep end, and seeing how long it took me to bob back to the surface."
Burton projected assured confidence in his campaign to host Jeopardy — "I don't believe there is anyone out there who is better suited for this job than me," he previously told EW — but the experience of hosting the show was a humbling one, he says. The Star Trek actor quickly realized, as most if not all of the guest hosts have said, that longtime host Alex Trebek made a difficult job look easy.
"You've got to be on top of it every second," Burton says. "It's really challenging on every level. But it's a very cool gig, and I feel like given an opportunity, I could get really good at it."
With his run as host wrapping up on Friday, Burton spoke to EW this week to reflect on his journey to Jeopardy, his experience hosting, and honoring the legacy of Trebek and the show.
Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions, Inc LeVar Burton on 'Jeopardy'
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After such a long journey to get to the Jeopardy stage, what did it feel like to finally step behind that lectern?
LEVAR BURTON: Overwhelming on so many levels. The actual view from behind the host's lectern is surprisingly arresting, in that it's not a point of view that the audience has ever seen. Standing there, it was clear that this was a space that I felt really familiar with, but I was blown away by the point of view that I was able to enjoy. It was really out of body.
The experience itself was alternately exhilarating and frightening and fulfilling and frustrating. Like all of the guest hosts, I had one day of rehearsal, and the following day I shot five episodes of Jeopardy. So it's really a matter of how you pick yourself up after getting your wings singed. [Laughs] To their credit, the producers and crew are awesome human beings, and are aware more than anyone else of how difficult that job is and how easy Alex made it look. And I want to shout them out for being so gracious and so supportive to me, as I'm sure they were to all of the guest hosts. It was really great to feel their support and encouragement.
Can you take us through what that day of taping was like?
As I sit here and think about it, it was a lot like my wedding day. It was a blur. It all happened so fast. There are snapshots that I have throughout the course of the day, moments that I remember. But it all went down flash-bang.
You've said that after your first game, you went backstage and your wife had some feedback for you, that you didn't do so well.
Well, I'm seeing the episodes for the first time myself now, and she was right. I was like a deer caught in the headlights on Monday. And I thought I settled down a little bit and got a little more comfortable on Tuesday. My recollection is that it was a step forward and a step back. I'm learning a lot watching the episodes for the first time, seeing places where I would want to make an adjustment. I think overall, I would love to be able to go back and bring my energy level down by about half. I see the adrenaline in my body, I hear it in my voice, and I see it in my delivery. I'd just like to go back, take a deep breath, and start all over again.
Was there anything in particular that really surprised you about the experience?
The speed at which the game moves. It's one thing to experience it at home, and then I've experienced it as a contestant on Celebrity Jeopardy, and so I understood that very well. I was nonetheless unprepared for the pace of the game as experienced by the host. It really moves like a bat out of hell, and you cannot drop your focus for even a nanosecond. It's challenging, really challenging on every level. But it's a very cool gig, and I feel like given an opportunity, I could get really good at it. I see what adjustments I would want to make based on my own standard of excellence.
Jeopardy! Productions LeVar Burton will serve as a guest host on 'Jeopardy' July 26 through July 30.
Have you been following viewers' reactions to your run as host?
The idea that people are having watch parties this week to watch LeVar on Jeopardy is awesome. [Laughs] I absolutely love it. Look, we all need something to look forward to these days. And if I can contribute to that, God bless. I've said before, Jeopardy is the one half an hour a day in this country where we can all agree that these facts are true. And damn it, I'll take it. I can't seem to find unanimous agreement on anything in this country right now. So Jeopardy contributes to the culture in a big way, and I think it's obvious that a lot of people feel invested in what happens with the show next and who the next host is. They call Wheel of Fortune "America's game," but I think Jeopardy is America's most beloved game.
All of the guests hosts, including you, have spoken about honoring Alex Trebek's legacy with your time on the show. How did that manifest for you as you were hosting?
It's not just in the doing of it, it's having had an opportunity to get up to bat at all. I didn't know him all that well, but Alex gave me the impression of being really fair and open-minded. And I think Alex would really be pleased with the process that Sony has gone through in terms of bringing these guest hosts on, and really giving America an opportunity to be a part of the process and have an opportunity to mourn appropriately and together as a country.
[Jeopardy executive producer] Mike Richards explained to me, in one of our first conversations, that if they had announced a permanent host closer to when Alex passed, that host would have been doomed to fail. And I believe he's right, because America hadn't mourned. Now, we've had an opportunity to put some distance between that moment and this one, and I think in our minds and our hearts, we're ready now for a permanent host to be named. So, ultimately, I think it was a really brilliant process that they undertook, and to be a part of that process, I know honors [Alex's] memory.
On that note, how does it feel — again, after such a journey — to have gotten that opportunity to participate in the process?
I absolutely, unequivocally love my life. I love being able to manifest, in real time, my heart's desire. I believe that's what the human journey is really about. There's always the caution of be careful what you ask for, but I think on balance, I'd rather know than not know. I'd rather seek out experience and be rewarded with that experience and then learn from it, because that's what life is about for me: learning from the experience, incorporating that which serves us into who we are, and having it impact us. And leaving behind that which doesn't serve.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.