finding your roots

Robert Downey, Jr.’s Family Tree Challenge

Kate Fulton April 20, 2012

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.



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  • Chris Waller

    May 26, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Finding Your Roots is a great program and I enjoy watching, but I have a complaint. It seems the program will only do the rich and famous and not ordinary people like myself. I have try to research my ancestors but have run into road blocks. Sites like will only go so far and will not take you into the world of legal documents. In my case I need the knowledge of legal, land, and tax documents to get past the mis-information. I am a African American who cannot get past the Civil War.
    Dr. Gates why not try to help the common man? Is it because we do not have the finanical means such as a John Legend? Please don’t mis-understand, Mr. Legend is a great musician and I am not envious of his position or others who are like him. I just think the program will hit home a little better by including common folk. Also the common folk who do have some funds to research would like to know your methods, what agencies are best, and procedures etc… I am sure you and your company could make more money with 15-20 common folk versus one famous person. Also this will enpower the African American community to stand-up and start researching if they see people who they can relate to.

  • Fran Yukus

    June 5, 2012 at 6:25 am

    After reading your Robert Downstairs Jr blog i now know it to be true, that we are!!! I’m Addicted to Sherlock in any form from the old black & white that showed up in a circular shape due to the OLD picture tubes to the 21st century ones that not only are filmed in the 21st century but are set there, too. “Tropic Thunder” is not my usual genre of. Film, I just love this movie. The way they camouflaged the cameo actors,it took the 3rd time to figure out that it was Tommy Cruise. I will take the DNA test if you want to.

  • Fran Yukus

    June 5, 2012 at 6:32 am

    Sorry about changing Robert Downey Jr’s last name in previous comment. Spellcheck is at fault. The one time I don’t proof read

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About the Series

The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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