For years, any time LeVar Burton would run into Alex Trebek—at the Daytime Emmys or elsewhere—he would pester the Jeopardy! host with one idea: do a celebrity tournament.
“I was completely and totally selfish and self serving in my desire,” the Star Trek: The Next Generation actor and Reading Rainbow host admitted in an interview with The Daily Beast. He just really, really wanted to find a way to appear on Jeopardy!
Eventually, it worked. The first star-studded tournament premiered in 1992, and in 1995 Burton finally got his turn and won. Now, he’s on a slightly different pursuit—one that, although trivia-related, is far from trivial. Burton and hundreds of thousands of fans are convinced that he should be the next host of Jeopardy! As Burton himself put it, “It’s what they call ‘on brand’—right?”
Alex Trebek died in November, at the age of 80, after a public battle with pancreatic cancer. For 37 years, Trebek had earned the admiration and adoration of multiple generations; many of those who grew up watching Trebek behind the podium had come to see him as something of a Walter Cronkite figure.
Replacing Jeopardy!’s legendary emcee was never going to be easy, and so far it’s unclear who will take the reins. In the meantime, we’ve seen a series of temporary hosts including Ken Jennings, Katie Couric, and, more controversially, Dr. Oz. Burton’s name has been floating in the ether of possible picks to replace Trebek for months, but so far he has not even appeared as a temporary fill-in.
Fans have not given up hope: More than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling on the show’s producers, Sony Pictures Entertainment, to install Burton as the next host.
Change.org petition creator Joshua Sanders’ explanation for creating the petition is a clear and concise rundown of Burton’s qualifications: “Between hosting 21 seasons of the educational Reading Rainbow, playing the brainiac engineer Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: the Next Generation, and filling the roll of Kunta Kinte in the ever important mini-series Roots, LeVar Burton has inspired and shaped the minds of several generations of trivia-loving nerds.”
More recently, Burton has also continued that tradition with his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, in which he narrates short stories from authors including Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, and Octavia Butler.
Burton believes that many of the people who signed his petition are the same Gen X-ers and millennials who grew up with him on Reading Rainbow, and who now listen to the podcast. “I’m trying to keep them, this generation, engaged with their imaginations,” he said. When asked why he believes fans have been so supportive of his Jeopardy! campaign, he reasoned, “I think it’s because when they think about it as I do—it makes sense... Everything that I’ve done in my career points to the idea that I would probably be pretty good at this.”
Burton still remembers watching Jeopardy! as a fifth grader growing up in West Sacramento, California—when original host Art Fleming was still behind the lectern. Hosting Jeopardy!, he said, is the only game show position he’s ever wanted. As both he and his fans note, his qualifications do feel uniquely suited to the gig.
Beyond a long on-screen résumé that more than demonstrates Burton is capable of talking to people naturally on camera, the actor pointed out that he’s made knowledge, learning, and curiosity a cornerstone of his work. It’s a value he learned from his family, who taught him to prize education.
“And I think that there’s a certain amount of personality that needs to be present,” Burton added. “I’ve seen some of the guest hosts who are not as familiar with this particular type of communication... which is to say, dealing with the contestants and the mechanics of the game while including the audience at home. It’s not like everybody can do it.”
This is not the first time Burton has looked into the possibility of hosting Jeopardy!, either. A couple years ago, as Trebek was negotiating his contract and it seemed, for a moment, like he might’ve been preparing to retire, Burton says he reached out to Sony to express his interest in the position. They said Trebek wasn’t leaving, but said they’d keep him in mind “when the time comes.”
Now, Burton said, “If they were to hire somebody and I did not feel like I gave it my absolute best shot to get in there, I would never forgive myself.”
“I am willing to put my skills up against those of anybody else who they are considering,” he added, “because I just believe so fervently that I’m right.”
But thanks to the overwhelming support he’s received from fans, Burton said, “I really feel like I’ve won”—whether he gets the job or not. “To watch it happen in real time is a trip,” he said of the petition’s astronomical growth. “Just to see it unfold before your eyes, it’s crazy. It’s wild. It’s miraculous.”
Sony had not reached out yet as of Friday—but as Burton put it, “I’ve gotta figure they’re listening... Let’s see what happens.”
A representative for Jeopardy! did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment regarding any plans the show might have for Burton.