Celebrities have spanned the globe in this inventive series looking for their origins. “Who Do You Think You Are?” is a show that is as addictive as it is informative, often emotional, and highly entertaining. Viewers get a ringside seat as celebs follow trails that become highways into sometimes murky family mysteries, and close-kept family secrets. But whatever they find out about their family’s past, the journey itself is magnificent. Originally a BBC series, the family history show aired its American version on NBC, but was later cancelled. Now it has jumped to cable on The Learning Channel and has premiered with Kelly Clarkson.
In past episodes, Tim McGraw learned that his ancestors migrated with the ancestors of Elvis Presley. “Maybe they jammed together,” he quipped.
Some of my personal favorites have been Rob Lowe, Emmitt Smith, Lionel Richie, Matthew Broderick, and Lisa Kudrow of “Friends”.
Though all of them have been wonderfully intriguing, those have stood out in my mind. Matthew Broderick, who starred in “Glory”, learned about his own personal history from the Civil War. His great-great-grandfather, a Union soldier, gave his life for his country. Broderick’s roots were particularly difficult to follow due to his ancestor being overlooked by census takers.
Rob Lowe learned that his ancestor fought with George Washington — on opposite sides. Lowe’s ancestor was a German Hession. Here is the early promo for Rob Lowe’s journey into his past.
Some of the episodes were almost too painful to watch. “Friends” star Lisa Kudrow broke down when she learned her great-grandmother was killed by the Nazi’s in the Holocaust in World War II. Both Emmitt Smith and Lionel Richie’s journeys began in Alabama and led them both on an emotional and heart-rending journey back into the era of slavery.
Tragedy marked the ancestors of Gwyneth Paltrow, one great-great-grandmother losing her parents at age 13; another who succumbed to depression after being discharged from a teacher’s college due to absenteeism. Paltrow followed record after record back until she found the reason for the absenteeism was caregiving for her invalid mother and brother, who died just months apart in 1897.
I have researched my own family history. I have taught workshops on family history. And began my newspaper career with a column on family history. It has been a lifelong and exciting quest. The story of our families, in some instances, can be inspiring, or tragic, or funny. And they are not just for celebrities. These stories are there for any of us who love the detective’s journey – the search for clues – the interviews with garrulous people, or close-mouthed secretive people. They’re all there, waiting for your journey.
For additional reading on the stars and how they put the records and clues together, here is a link to the Genealogy Insider by Diane Haddad.