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

By Diane Haddad

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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