Henry Louis Gates probes celebs' origins on PBS

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Part of the fun in watching Henry Louis Gates' deep dives into the genealogy of the famous is the unabashed pleasure on the professor's expressive face when he delivers an ancestor or two.

In the first episode of "Finding Your Roots," the second season of his PBS series, Gates is visibly excited when he tells Detroit native Courtney B. Vance ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "The Hunt for Red October") the identity of his paternal grandmother for the first time.

One of Detroiter Courtney B. Vance’s ancestors marched in Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.

Vance was born in Detroit in 1960, but his father grew up in foster care and didn't know his biological parents. With the help of newspaper clippings, research and his crack DNA team, Gates tracked down that unknown side of Vance's family via Chicago and then Arkansas.

"I'm so sorry that his father isn't around to know this," says Gates, who spoke to The Detroit News in a phone interview Friday. Vance's father suffered from depression and died some years ago, committing suicide.

The first episode is titled "In Search of Our Fathers," because the link between Vance, author Stephen King and actress Gloria Reuben ("ER," "Lincoln") is that none of the three knew much about their fathers.

"It makes me feel like Santa Claus, giving people the ultimate gift, an aspect of their identity," Gates says.

It all started 13 or 14 years ago for 64-year-old Gates, an author, distinguished professor at Harvard University and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research. The professor was restless and couldn't sleep one night, when the idea for a TV series came to him.

"I got this idea that I could trace people's family trees," Gates says. "I only did black people for the first two or three years ('African-American Lives'), and when the paper trail disappeared, I would do their DNA.

"That was so popular, a woman wrote to me and asked if I was a racist, because I didn't do white people." Gates says, laughing. "I said, 'Can I do white people?' I did ("Faces of America"), and it was huge. It was bigger than the first two series — and now we have a franchise."

The unveiling of unknown ancestors and origins can be very emotional. And although Gates focuses on celebrities, the conflicts raised are universal.

"You just don't realize that many of these traumas are so common," Gates says. "Stephen King's father left the house for cigarettes when he was 2 years old and never came back. Stephen said, 'It must have been a hard pack of cigarettes to find.' "

King doesn't even recognize his father when Gates shows him his U.S. Navy photograph.

Each of the 10 episodes in the second season of "Finding Your Roots"' has a theme. The Greek-Americans episode explores the heritage of ABC's George Stephanopolous, author David Sedaris and comedian Tina Fey. "Tracing the ancestry of Greek-American is as hard as tracing African-Americans," Gates says.

The search for African-Americans is difficult because the "wall" genealogists encounter because of slavery, when few records were kept about the enslaved. Greece is difficult because it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for 3,000 years.

"I thought I could trace Tina Fey back to Aristotle, but there are no records," Gates says. "Greece only became independent in 1832, then it had various military dictators. It's tough, but we were able to go back 150, 200 years."

Another episode traces the roots of three athletes: the Yankees' Derek Jeter, tennis legend Billie Jean King and former WNBA player Rebecca Lobo. "Our American Storytellers" delves into the background of filmmaker Ken Burns, CNN host Anderson Cooper and actress/playwright Anna Deveare Smith.

Not every finding is a source of pride.

"We find out that Anderson Cooper and Ken Burns were descended from white men in the South who actually owned slaves," Gates says. Burns, known for his all-American documentaries, including last week's "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," was startled to find out that he descended from "Loyalists" — Americans who were loyal to Great Britain and fled to Canada after the Revolutionary War.

Cooper's ancestor, Burwell Boykin, owned a slave, Sandy Boykin, who tried to run away.

"So Burwell locked him in a shed," Gates recounts. "When he opened the shed and asked, 'Have you learned your lesson?' Sandy took a hoe and beat Anderson's ancestor to death. They hanged him after they found him."

The narratives bring color and life to the history books. Smith's ancestor won the contract to bury the dead after the bloody Civil War battle of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania. One of Vance's ancestors was a slave who ran away with the help of the Underground Railroad and ended up fighting for the Union Army and marching in Lincoln's funeral procession.

"It's amazing how rich American history becomes when you find these stories," Gates says.

Actress Sally Field — whom Gates has admired, he teases, since her "Gidget" and "Flying Nun" days — descends from a man, William Bradford, who sailed to America on the Mayflower, while another ancestor was a Loyalist who helped the British.

While there are often shocking disclosures in Gates' shows, he doesn't go into tabloid TV "Who's the Daddy?" territory.

"Sometimes people tell us before we interview them that their uncle or father was an alcoholic and they're still alive. We're not interested in doing that kind of thing," Gates says.

That was a concern of pop legend Tina Turner.

"I was interviewing Tina Turner in her house in Nice in the south of France, and during a break in filming, she said, 'I'm so relieved. I thought you were going to say my daddy wasn't my daddy.'" Gates laughs.

"Well, I don't think it's my job to be delivering that information."

'Finding Your Roots'

Season Two (PBS), featuring Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

8 p.m. Tuesday, airing locally on Detroit Public Television WTVS, with the first episode, "In Search of our Fathers," featuring actor Courtney B. Vance, author Stephen King and actress Gloria Reuben.

The 10 programs will air Tuesdays on PBS from Sept. 23-Nov. 26