Shocking family revelations are part and parcel of Finding Your Roots, the PBS genealogy show hosted by Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates. Using a mixture of historical research and DNA analysis, the docuseries has taught us that comedian Larry David not only descended from a slave-owning ancestor who fought for the Confederacy, but is also related to the politician he’s so gamely portrayed on SNL: Bernie Sanders. Questlove’s ancestors came to the U.S. as slaves on the Clotilda, the last known American slave ship which operated a half-century after the slave trade had supposedly been banned, while Bill Maher is cousins with Bill O’Reilly (OK, that one tracks).
The first two installments of Finding Your Roots’ ninth season divulged that Edward Norton is a direct descendant of Pocahontas, Julia Roberts’ real last name isn’t “Roberts” but “Mitchell,” and Claire Danes’ ancestor was branded a witch and hung during the Salem Witch Trials. But the most eye-opening chapter is set to air on Feb. 9 and features the actor Joe Manganiello, of True Blood and Magic Mike fame.
“If I have a short list of all-time greatest hits, Joe Manganiello’s paternal ancestry is on that list,” Gates tells Rolling Stone.
During his episode, Manganiello, 46, discovered that his great-grandmother Terviz “Rose” Darakjian, who escaped the Armenian genocide after her husband and seven of her eight children were murdered in front of her by Turks, ended up in a refugee camp where she was impregnated by Karl Wilhelm Beutinger, a German officer. Beutinger then returned to his wife and three sons in Germany, one of whom became a Nazi SS officer. Even more surprising, however, was his father’s side: Joe’s DNA did not match anyone with the “Manganiello” name, and the man he thought was his grandfather, Emilio Manganiello, was in fact not.
When Joe’s father submitted to DNA testing, Gates’ team determined that Joe’s biological great-grandparents were William Henry Cutler, who was Black, and Nellie Alton, who was white. They narrowed Joe’s grandfather down to one of three Cutler sons, all of whom were light-skinned African-American men. (Joe’s DNA revealed he’s 7% Sub-Saharan African.) Gates and co. also learned that Joe’s fifth great-grandfather was a man named Plato Turner. Records indicate Turner was born in Africa, brought to America in bondage as a child slave, became a free man, and was one of 5,000 Black men who fought for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. There is a monument dedicated to him in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
According to Gates, the series has an “ethics protocol” when they encounter a “non-paternity event” like Manganiello’s: Gates will call the guest, inform them of their findings, and ask if they — and their family — are OK airing these family secrets.
“We give them the option of getting out of the series if they want. Then nobody will know except me and a couple of producers. And there are a couple of people that have withdrawn over the years,” Gates says.
By Manganiello’s estimation, it took around 10 months for Finding Your Roots to nail down his ancestry, though some of that may have owed to pandemic-related interruptions. Gates and Manganiello are hosting a special screening of his episode in Los Angeles on Jan. 15 — a Finding Your Roots first.
“There is no such thing as ‘racial purity,’” offers Gates. “If you go far back, everyone was sleeping with everybody else.”
Rolling Stone spoke with Manganiello about the revelations of his groundbreaking Finding Your Roots episode and how he’s taken the news.
Going into Finding Your Roots, what were you expecting?
I had known since I was a kid about the Armenian genocide survivor story and that there was this German soldier who was my great-grandfather. For the past ten years, I’d been trying to get on a genealogy show to find out who that German was. I always got no. And about two years ago, we got a yes from Finding Your Roots because they felt that technology had gotten to the place where they might be able to make some headway.
Now, I then got a phone call that they needed to speak to me and that, for only the second time in the show’s history, they needed to give a subject the option of opting out on the episode. That happened. We went through with the episode, and once we filmed the episode, I had a lot of questions still. They directed me to a German historian in Europe, and I personally hired him to run down a bunch of questions that I had.
Let’s start with your maternal side, and the story of your great-grandmother, Terviz “Rose” Darakjian, surviving the Armenian genocide. Could you walk me through her ordeal? It’s astonishing that she even survived. The odds of you being here are so low given what she went through.
It’s virtually impossible that I exist. In 1915, the Turks came into her village of Harput in Armenia. They killed her husband. Shot her. And she had the presence of mind to lay on the ground and pretend she was dead, even though she wasn’t. Seven gunshots then went off as they killed her children while she lay there. They left the eighth child — an infant — to starve in the crib. After they left her house, she got up off the ground, took a piece of clothing from each one of the children, put the infant on her back and escaped the village.
There were death marches where, after killing all the men, they would chain the women and children together. They released Kurdish prisoners, gave them coats, horses and weapons, and unleashed them on these Armenian women and children. She escaped past those death marches, got to the Euphrates River, and swam across it with the baby on her back. By the time she got to the other side of the river, the baby had drowned. She lived in a cave, and then she was picked up by German officers and put into a camp. We don’t know the nature of it, but she was impregnated by a German officer in that camp who then went back to Germany and left her in that camp to fend for herself. And she gave birth to my grandmother, who was born in a camp.
And then you discovered that your great-grandfather’s name was Karl Wilhelm Beutinger, who after impregnating Rose returned to Germany to his wife and three children. And we learn that one of those children grew up be a Nazi SS officer during World War II. There’s this powerful moment in the episode where you discuss having family on both sides of a genocide — the perpetrators and the victims.
The idea that, yes, the oldest son was in the SS — which is not just regular military, that means you’re bought-in — and the younger son was a Nazi soldier. Through my talks with the family, it turns out that the younger son was sent to a Gulag, tortured for years, and returned speaking only Russian and didn’t recognize his children. What’s interesting is, I have a maternal and paternal grandfather who both fought during World War II for the United States. So once again, you have family members on opposite sides of a conflict. It’s really wild. I’m an avid watcher of Finding Your Roots, and when you’re an actor they say, ‘When someone criticizes you, you really can’t take that fully to heart; and when someone praises you, you can’t take that fully to heart.’ You have to take the good with the bad. And there’s some of that with history. I think there’s a tendency to say, ‘I’m so proud that my ancestors were on the right side of history,’ but that’s not you — that’s somebody else. My roommate in drama school is a very famous cantor at a synagogue in San Francisco, and he’s one of my favorite people in the world. It’s not me, you know?
Let’s move to your father’s side. This isn’t in the episode, but Gates told me your father would get very dark in the summertime and people would make jokes about it, and that your grandfather was cold to your father. How did Finding Your Roots fill in those gaps?
People went to their grave with family secrets that Finding Your Roots was able to basically exhume. It was a real shock. To find out that your last name isn’t really your last name, and that I was related to zero percent of the world’s Manganiello’s is… wow. I can’t imagine what it must be like for my father to find that out at age 72, and anything I feel seems borderline inconsequential. I’ve never understood what ground zero was for me — or who I am. If you put me in a lineup of Italian people, I don’t really fit in. You can tell that I’m mixed with something else. When I saw the picture of the German officer who’s my great-grandfather, I look more like him than anyone else in my family. My father would get super dark in the summertime. People would always ask me, “Does your father look like Tom Selleck?” and I’d say, “No. Honestly, in the summertime my father looks more like O.J. Simpson” — or even the late Franco Harris. It makes sense now that we know. Much of my father’s identity was rooted in the fact that he was full-blooded Italian — or F.B.I., as they call it — and there’s a strong sense of that identity growing up in the ethnic neighborhoods of Boston.
We learn in the episode that your fifth great-grandfather was a man named Plato Turner, who was born in Africa and brought to the U.S. in bondage as a child slave, and then became a free man, was one of 5,000 Black men who fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and there’s a monument to him in Plymouth. We also learn that your great-grandparents were William Henry Cutler and Nellie Alton, an interracial couple who wed in 1887 in Rhode Island, which was quite ahead of their time.
I’m descended from survivors. To raise a child in a camp that’s blonde when no one Armenian is blonde, without a father, and to come to the United States and raise that child under the scrutiny of other adults around? That’s tough. To come from West Africa in chains, on a ship, and to come to the United States and earn your freedom — and also to not join the British Army, because there was a lot of pro-British propaganda at the time. It’s so rare to think that you’d have freed slaves fighting for the Colonies. And the other side of it is this: Plato is not his real name, clearly. That was a name that was given to him. And unfortunately, names like that were given to slaves in jest. It was done derogatorily — giving them names of Greek philosophers. So, to have that happen, and then fight for the revolution in non-segregated units, and then the next time a war was fought completed unsegregated was Korea? You fight for the freedom and the promise that all men are created equal, and then a hundred years later there’s the Civil War? To think of how backwards this whole thing went…
Had you done a 23andMe before, or was the revelation that you were seven percent Sub-Saharan African a new discovery?
I did a 23AndMe prior, and the trick of the 23andMe was that I came up twenty percent Irish. I gave it to my mother, and her test came up zero percent Irish. So, I figured it had to be from my father. And as far as the African goes, I’m Sicilian, so I chalked up whatever African I had to being Sicilian. Sub-Saharan African means that basically you’re descended from slavery, as it pertains to the United States, and I didn’t know that’s what it meant until I was on the show. He told me that seven percent Sub-Saharan African is more than just about anyone who checks the box “Caucasian” on their SATs.
How did this information land for your father and the rest of your family?
I don’t know. My father and I… we’re not… my father and I don’t talk, so I can’t speak to that. For me, it’s fascinating — to know what I am, to be able to explore ground zero. I love history and storytelling, and it’s part of the reason why I picked my profession. I’m grateful. The reveal on the episode took seven hours, which is way longer than it usually takes, and my mother and her sister and my cousin all watched via Zoom as it was all revealed, and I know it was really emotional for them to hear all the stories and face the truth.
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What was your wife Sofia’s [Vergara] reaction to all these revelations?
I mean, she was shocked. But it all makes sense. Since I was a kid, when I woke up my hair would go straight up and out. To be able to tame my hair has been a lifelong task every morning. There are things that make sense now. Much like the glasses I’m wearing, it feels like I’ve spent my whole life looking at myself in a mirror completely out of focus, and the show is like handing me a pair of glasses at age 45. All of a sudden I can see myself clearly for the first time.