When I contacted Robert Downey Jr.’s agent to ask permission to trace his family tree, he responded with an interesting challenge. He asked me to write to Mr. Downey directly, explaining why I wanted him specifically to be part of the new series. So, I did just that. I told him that I was a Sherlock Holmes junkie, and that on Christmas Day, I awoke, got dressed, and rushed over to a movie theater on Broadway and 14th Street to see the noon showing of his version of “Sherlock Holmes.” I was riveted. It was the best rendition of Sherlock that I had seen, since the inimitable Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock in the thirties. I told him all of this, and hoped that our common love of Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal sleuth (who lives on TV today through the character “House”) would do the trick. I also didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Two weeks later, the agent called; he was in. But then, a few weeks later, we received a curious phone call from Mr. Downey’s producer: “Robert,” she said, “only wants to be in the series if you can take his family tree back to the 1500’s.” What a challenge! No one had ever challenged us in this way. We can never guarantee any guest that we can find a specific outcome or branch of their family tree. Sometimes we strike gold and can take a family line back centuries; other times, we strike out when the paper trail just doesn’t exist. Records get lost, courthouses burn down, and poor, illiterate ancestors were often outside of the official system of records. What to tell Mr. Downey’s producer? We said all of the right things, and pressed on.
Fortunately, we were able to take Robert’s mother’s Moravian German line back to the 14th century. I’m not sure what he would have done if we had begun filming only to find that we had failed his challenge. He was delighted by our success, especially when we also told him a great deal of information about his father’s Jewish roots. We even unearthed a long-kept family secret involving a robbery, a trial, and an execution. It all sounded like a story worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle himself, fitting for our era’s incarnation of Sherlock Holmes.
This interview was also very special for me because Robert’s father has been a hero of mine since I saw his classic experimental film, “Putney Swope” as a sophomore at Yale. My friends and I recognized in the lead character a model of how black people could integrate “the system” and revolutionize it from within. That, at least, was our goal. I also had the chance to tell Robert that I thought he deserved an Academy Award for his performance as a black man in “Tropic Thunder,” a film that my friend – Professor Larry Bobo – insisted that I see. He even gave the DVD to me as last year as a Christmas present. We both hoped that Robert’s admixture test would reveal a significant amount of African ancestry to explain both his and his father’s penchant for black characters. Wait until you see the result!
Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal.