“Finding Your Roots”: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.

“Finding Your Roots”: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.

Last night on PBS' "Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr." actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. learned about their families' histories. You can watch the episode online at PBS.org. Though not related, the two had a lot in common: Both were expectig baby No. 2...

Last night on PBS’ “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. learned about their families’ histories.

You can watch the episode online at PBS.org.

Though not related, the two had a lot in common: Both were expectig baby No. 2 at the time of filming, both have parents in the film industry, both have Eastern European Jewish roots on one side of the family, and both also have ancestors in America before the Revolutionary War.

Gates’ team could trace the Jewish roots only to the third-great-grandparent generation, but for each actor’s other branches, Gates unrolled an enviably long family tree with many generations. (See closeups on the Genea-Musings blog.)

Gyllenhaal learned how her family really got its last name. The story was that a Swedish ancestor created a beautiful book about butterflies and the king rewarded him with a wonderful home known as “Golden Hall.” What really happened was that an ancestor took the name after being knighted during the Thirty Years’ War.

But like many family stories, there was a grain of truth. Another relative had amassed a collection of beetles that later became world-renowned.

Each star also took a DNA test, and Gates prompted them to compare the roles of nature versus nurture in making up their being. My favorite question of the night was when he asked Downey “Do you think that what happened in your family tree between 1300 and 1965 [the year of Downey’s birth] has shaped who you are?”

I do believe that our ancestors’ successes and struggles affect the next generation, that each of us can’t help but carry these experiences inside us. Genealogy is partly a way of figuring out what’s in there.

BTW, in the July/August 2012 Family Tree Magazine, we’ll have Gates’ answers to five of our burning questions about his genealogy work.


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  1. Hi, Jeff, I haven’t found that the subject of slavery comes up gratuitously in "Finding Your Roots." Slavery is a theme in episodes featuring guests with African-American roots, because slavery profoundly impacted families and the historical records available about them. In addition, the European-ancestored guests who discover their ancestors owned slaves are affected by that knowledge. Slavery can’t be separated from American history.

  2. Diane,

    No, it can’t. But with Gates, as I said, it is an obsession. I have two branches of my family that has been over here since the late 1600’s. If they owned slaves, which I doubt, I can’t do a thing about it. Would I apologize? No. Why? I didn’t have a “darn” thing to do with it. Like I also wouldn’t expect a German born 25 years ago to apologize for Adolf Hitler. Slavery doesn’t have to be the “Holy Grail” for some people. I wish that they could get someone less political than Gates. I don’t trust the man.

  3. I also feel that Skip has an agenda with respect to slavery, as well as do some of the African American subjects. Condi seemed to be trying to suppress her feelings, and she always looks like she is suppressing something.

    This is way off topic, but has anyone studied brothers and sisters of the original slaves that stayed behind in Africa (the failed continent), or some of the brothers and sisters who were transported to, for instance, Haiti, or some Muslim countries? How did they fare as compared to the descendents of slaves that came to America? Do most of them have cell phones and big screen TV’s, or are they carrying drinking water in mysterious blue jugs for up to a mile every day?

    Did anyone else notice how Maggie Gyllenhaal seemed positively mortified that she might be related to George Bush?