Rosie O’Donnell recently went on a journey to discover the truth and story about her mom whom she lost to cancer when she was only a child. The full story will be aired on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?
In our interview, O’Donnell revealed what she discovered about her mother but was disappointed there was no connection to any gays in her family.
“There were no gays,” she said.
She also shared with us her excitement surrounding the return of The Rosie O’Donnell Show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and a needed escape to her second home in Miami.
“I’m thrilled to be going back to television to do a new Rosie show for the Oprah Winfrey Network. And Oprah Winfrey is an epic talent and for her to ask me was a huge honor, and I can’t wait to start,” stated O’Donnell. “I love it in Miami and I will eventually live there for good.”
NBC’s acclaimed alternative series “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows some of today’s most-beloved and iconic celebrities as they embark on personal journeys of self-discovery to trace their family trees. From the trenches of the Civil War to the shores of the Caribbean, and from the valleys of Virginia to the island nations of Australia and Ireland, each episode will reveal surprising, inspiring and sometimes tragic stories that are often linked to events in American and international history.
Each week, a different celebrity is taken on a quest into his or her family history. The search is one of surprising and deeply emotional encounters resulting in one of the most compelling reality formats of recent years. During each episode, viewers will be taken on a personal and often mysterious quest following some of America’s best-known celebrities into their ancestral pasts, as they uncover stories of heroism and tragedy, love and betrayal, secrets and intrigue that lie at the heart of their family history.
At the same time, “Who Do You Think You Are?” celebrates the twists and turns of a great nation and the people who made their way here in search of freedom and opportunity. As each celebrity discovers his or her unknown relatives – most of whom overcame hard times, the show will take viewers back through world history to expose how the lives of everyone’s collective ancestors have shaped our world today.
From executive producers Lisa Kudrow (“Friends,” “The Comeback”) and Dan Bucatinsky (“Lipstick Jungle,” “The Comeback”), in conjunction with their production company, Is or Isn’t Entertainment, and Shed Media U.S., the series is an adaptation of the award-winning hit British television documentary series from Wall to Wall Productions, created and executive-produced by Alex Graham. Jennifer O’Connell and Al Edgington also serve as executive producers.
Her episode will be airing on February 18 at 8:00 pm, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? Fridays (8-9 p.m. ET) on NBC
What was the most revealing thing you found out about your family background, and were there any expectations?
Rosie O’Donnell: Well, this show is interesting because I had watched it and thought to myself, “Wow, those people are so brave,” and I didn’t really know very much about my family history at all. And so, Lisa and I are friendly and she asked me if I would do it and I said as long as we did my mom’s side. I would really be curious because I knew nothing about her life. She died in ‘73 and it was never really spoken about in any way. She was an only child. Nobody mentioned my mother after she died in 1973. It was like, you know, Lord Voldemort, you couldn’t say the name. Nobody said mom in that house or mommy or mother from 1973 on. A traditional kind of Irish Catholic way to deal with tragedy or emotions was to ignore that they existed. So, I called my brother Eddie and said to him, “Would this interest you because if you’re willing to do it, I’d like to do it with you.” And I thought it would really help our relationship. My mom’s death is something that was never discussed, and still isn’t discussed even though we’re nearing 50, and I thought it was a way to bridge that gap. And so, I always wanted to know who she was and what she felt like, and to have her and see her through a woman’s eyes as opposed to a child looking up at their mom, and this really helped me do that. I met some people who knew her when she was a child, some cousins of mine that I didn’t know I had, and they – you know, the stories of her life and her father, who I knew nothing about, my grandfather, who died before I was born and what her life was like in Jersey City. It really got to me emotionally and filled in some empty holes that I had that I wanted filled. And when I came home and was able to share with my kids some of the stuff that I knew, I think it gave me a way to reframe my own life. I think it definitely changed the view of my own history, my own childhood, and it also, I think, helped explain to my children, you know, where their grandmother was from and what she was about. They have never met her, needless to say, because she died when I was 10, and they often ask questions about her and it was nice to be able to fill in some of those blanks.
Well, the most shocking thing I found out about my family was just the amount of suffering they endured. When I spoke to the producers before we started they said, “What would be like the most devastating thing for you? What’s something you don’t want to find out?” I said, “I guess I don’t want to find out that they lived a life like Angela’s Ashes, the Frank McCourt book.” And they just sort of nodded and didn’t say anything. And I came to find out it was very similar, if not even harder than the life than Frank McCourt lived, so that was really shocking to me, I think. There was a story of a photo that hung in our house my entire life in the den. And whenever we would ask my grandmother who is that picture she would never say. She would never sort of – no one ever knew who this was but this photo was up there our whole life. And it was like a photo from the late 1800’s and a kind of Victorian almost look. And we found out who that woman was and what her story was and how she was related to us. And it is a fairly miraculous (tale) and pretty shocking as well. And no one ever told it in our family and I don’t know why because my grandmother obviously had to know who the person was but did not want to bring it up. And it just hung there and it was a person who died a pretty tragic death and, I don’t know, I was very shocked to find out the story of the mystery women in our house.
It was pretty startling to find out what we did. I know both my mother and father were very invested in their Irish heritage; although, I didn’t really know any information about how my mother’s family came here and what they had to endure in order to get to the United States. It was pretty overwhelming to find out and really changed the way I viewed myself, my own life, and my connection to Ireland.
And you know I feel grateful and I feel thankful that they asked me to do the show, because I think it provided a lot of closure and healing about my mother. And as far as the show goes, I think that they uncovered every stone. You know, there was nothing left to find out and it is a show about ancestors, so we went back. I did find out stuff about my grandfather, who I never knew, and didn’t anything about his family, and so it was pretty surprising stuff that I found out. But as far as my mother goes, to find out more about here as a person, I don’t think it’s necessarily ancestral research. It’s more, you know, going to find her friends and seeing if they’ll have lunch with me. It was very eye-opening and heartwarming, and it gave me a piece of my mom that I never had access to before, so I’m really glad that I did it. And I think that people watching it will take away the knowledge that they can do this for themselves by going online. That they can research their own family history and find out what it took for generations of their own people to get them to where they are today.
Are you looking forward to the re-launch of the Rosie O’Donnell Show?
I’m thrilled to be going back to TV to do a new Rosie show for the Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah Winfrey is an epic talent and for her to ask me was a huge honor, and I can’t wait to start. And I am going back on television on the Oprah Winfrey Network starting in September doing a talk show very similar to the one that she had more so than the one that I used to have where we’ll do single topics and one hour delving into social issues and Broadway shows and some celebrities and books and movies and documentaries. But it won’t be four or five celebrities an hour bringing them through promoting something. It will be much more single topic oriented. It’ll be much more like her show than it was like – than it is like my old one. So, it’s not going to be a bunch of guests coming in to promote a movie. It’s going to be a single topic, one hour, similar to hers. Although, you know, nobody can come close to doing what she actually did. That will be the format that we’ll copy. And the reason I decided to do a show for the Oprah Winfrey Network is because Oprah Winfrey asked me.
When are you coming back to Miami?
Rosie O’Donnell: Oh, I’m looking at my schedule right now. I can’t wait. It has been horrible here. It’s been more snow than I can ever remember happening. It’s freezing cold. It’s like everyday I’m like why don’t I live there? I love it in Miami and I will eventually live there for good.
You have an admirable humanitarian spirit. Discovering the information you did about your mom, how much of that do you think, actually came from her?
Rosie O’Donnell: A lot. A lot of the stuff I found about her and I remember as a child she would always take all the cloths and pack them up for St. Vincent de Paul and go donate all the cloths. And I remember seeing kids who were poor in our neighborhood wearing some of our old stuff or, you know – just this and giving back was a big part of her life and who she was. And I think that that was learned from her or I got the gene from her because she did a lot of that in her life so social justice meant a lot. And I think that getting to find out more about her has been a gift and the show really helped me to do that.
Are there any shows in your house that are banned from your children?
Rosie O’Donnell: Well, mostly all shows except for – we tell them what they’re allowed to watch and what they’re not allowed to watch. So like for example, Skins, would never be appropriate for anybody in my household. Also, we started watching 16 and Pregnant and I thought that was an amazing show because it really – they said every single episode how all the girls wish they had waited, how all the boys flaked out, what it did to their social life, to their educational life, to their…Everything. And so I thought that was a wonderful show and then it sort of spun off into Teen Mom, right? And then you could see the actual reality not only of giving birth to the baby and the first few weeks but what was it like a year and a half later with an 18-year-old or a 16-year-old girl trying to have a life. And so I felt like I do think it’s really horrible that the teen mothers are getting to be superstars but that’s more a statement of our current media culture than it is about the show. The show itself I think is educational and informative. Some of the people that they profile obviously have harder lives and lower intellects and maybe some economic disadvantages like Amber. It doesn’t seem as though she had, let’s say, the kind of opportunity that Farrah has had in her life. And this is all great topics I think. These are all fascinating subjects to bring up with your children and to have them understand there are many ways to be in the world, many choices that you make everyday and these are the consequences of these kinds of choices. I know it’s a very controversial show and I said that on the red carpet and it became a big story but I don’t really think too much about it. But that’s what I do think when I do.
Did you find anything about homosexuality in your search?
Rosie O’Donnell: No, I didn’t. I thought I would find maybe something like that about my grandmother because she didn’t get married until she was very old, and there were all these photos and her and other women on the beach in the 20’s. And I remember saying to my brother, “Eddie, wouldn’t that be funny to find out like if Nana was gay?” But no, there were no gays. We didn’t find any gays. Although I don’t know how recorded it would have been in the census of the 1800’s, right, so who knows if one of my distant relatives. But, we found mostly Irish Catholic people who got married and had lots of children, but there was no homosexuality that we discovered in any way.