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As long as celebrities are curious about their ancestors, Henry Louis Gates Jr. will have a place with “Finding Your Roots.”
The Harvard professor starts Season 7 of his PBS genealogy series Tuesday, Jan. 19 (check local listings). In the premiere, he shows actress Glenn Close and director John Waters (“Hairpsray”) that they inherited the independent streak that has informed their work. Subsequent hours feature multiple Emmy winners Jane Lynch, John Lithgow and Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”), six-time Tony recipient Audra McDonald, musicians Clint Black and Pharrell Williams, Andy Cohen, journalist Gretchen Carlson and “Law & Order” franchise veteran Christopher Meloni, among many others.
“I am so deeply proud of this series, especially now,” Gates says. “The stories we find in our guests’ family trees demonstrate over and over that we are fundamentally a blended nation, bonded by shared values. We draw strength from our diversity … and despite our apparent differences, at the level of the genome, we are 99.9 percent the same.”
With a Lebanese background encompassing World War I’s impact on his family, Shalhoub explains, “What Dr. Gates really brought into focus for me was the history of what was happening on a local level in that specific area at that time, because the stories that flowed around in my family as I was growing up, they were pretty vague. They were anecdotal sketches of the environment they were in.
“To get a broader view of what most of those people in that area were dealing with, that was really helpful,” adds Shalhoub, “and, in relation to that, how our clan specifically managed to not completely fall into despair and to pull themselves up and out of that.”
Gates (whose new PBS documentary “The Black Church” airs in February) has no shortage of subjects for “Finding Your Roots,” some of whom approach him. He recalls receiving one recent e-mail: “It was from Tyler Perry, who said, ‘Would you please consider doing our family tree? Could I call you?’ I wanted to scream, ‘Yes, absolutely!’ I said, ‘Here’s my cell phone (number).’ Two minutes later, my cell phone rang.”