Burton was born to American parents at the U.S. Army Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in West Germany. His mother, Erma Jean (née Christian), was a social worker, administrator, and educator, and his father, Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, was a photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and at the time was stationed at Landstuhl. Burton and his two sisters were raised by his mother in Sacramento, California. Burton was raised Catholic and at the age of thirteen, entered a seminary to become a priest. He attended Christian Brothers High School and graduated in the class of 1974. He is a graduate of University of Southern California's School of Theatre.
Following on his Emmy-nominated work in Roots he was so well recognized that he appeared virtually as himself in the late 1970s and early 1980s on a number of television shows that employed "name" actors in guest roles. Thus, largely on the back of a single performance in Roots part 1, he was a visitor to Fantasy Island, participant in Battle of the Network Stars, a guest of the Muppet Show's televised premiere party for the release of The Muppet Movie, and a frequent guest on several popular game shows of the day. During these earliest days of MTV, he appeared on a music video called "Word Up!" by R&B band Cameo.
In a 1978 interview, Burton said, "after Roots, I did a lot of talk and game shows, and then I stopped. I didn't want to get over-exposed."[cite this quote] It was at this point that Burton accepted an invitation to host Rebop, a multicultural series designed for young people ages 9–13, produced by WGBH for PBS. Burton liked Rebop's goals of helping children of all cultures to communicate across cultural and racial lines.
As the 1980s progressed, he created and began to host and executively produce Reading Rainbow in 1983 for PBS.
In 1986, Gene Roddenberry approached him with an offer of regular series work. Thus, a decade after he had become a celebrity, he joined the regular cast of a major television program for the first time. Burton began playing the role of the then Lieutenant Junior Grade Geordi La Forge in the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series. Geordi La Forge was the USS Enterprise's helmsman and, as of the second season, its Chief Engineer.
Burton has also portrayed La Forge in every feature film based on Star Trek: The Next Generation, beginning with Star Trek Generations in 1994 through 2002's Star Trek Nemesis. Burton also directed and appeared in the Star Trek: Voyager Season 5 episode "Timeless", in 2000; he directed other episodes, such as "Q2".
Beyond his two most famous series, Burton has enjoyed a wide range of acting work, alternating between serious historical roles and fantastic fiction. It is the historical work that has garnered the most critical attention. On television, he has helped dramatize the last days of Jim Jones's suicide cult in Guyana, the life and times of Jesse Owens, and the life of the nine-year-old Booker T. Washington. He portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 2001 film Ali. He also portrayed Detroit Tiger Ron LeFlore in the television movie "One In A Million, The Ron LeFlore Story.
He has also lent his voice to several animated projects. His longest-lived animated role is probably that of Kwame in the cartoon series Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990–1993) and The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1993–1996). However, he has also contributed to Family Guy, Batman: The Animated Series, and Gargoyles. Burton is also on the audio version of The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.
Burton appeared several times as a celebrity guest on the Dick Clark–hosted Pyramid, from 1982 until 1988. Burton also was the strongest link in the special Star Trek episode of The Weakest Link. He defeated his final opponent Robert Picardo and won $167,500 for his charity, a record for the show.
He has also made appearances in such sitcoms as Becker and Spin City.
Burton is the host and executive producer of a documentary entitled The Science of Peace, which is in production as of 2007. It investigates the science and technology aimed at enabling world peace, sometimes called peace science. The film explores some of the concepts of shared noetic consciousness, having been sponsored in part by the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
He makes occasional appearances on This Week in Tech, where he is a self-proclaimed "nerd".
Like several other actors, Burton used his regular role in Star Trek to launch his directing career. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he would come to direct episodes for each of the various Star Trek series then in production. He has directed more Star Trek episodes than any other former regular cast member.
Burton was also cast as voice actor for [Black Lightning] in [Superman/Batman: Public Enemies] DVD.
Burton is on the board of directors for the Directors Guild of America.
Burton has also directed episodes of Charmed, JAG, Las Vegas, and Soul Food: The Series, as well as the miniseries Miracle's Boys and the documentary The Tiger Woods Story.
His first foray into the world of theatrical film direction was a notable success. Not only did 2003's Blizzard garner him a "Best of Fest" award from the Chicago International Children's Film Festival, but he also picked up a Genie Award nomination for his work on the film's theme song, "Center of My Heart."
He also directed the 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie Smart House starring Katey Sagal, Kevin Kilner and Jessica Steen.
His most recent directorial project "Reach For Me", in which he also played a supporting role, was released in theaters in March 2008.
His production company is Integrity Entertainment.
Burton has a daughter, born in 1994, with his wife, make-up artist Stephanie Cozart Burton, and a son, born in 1980 to another woman. Burton was awarded joint custody of his son after a paternity suit. Burton and his wife and daughter currently live in Sherman Oaks, California.
He is an avid poker player, and participant in the World Poker Tour.