An interview with Dan Bucatinsky of “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Photo: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock

In an exclusive interview, the executive producer of the popular TV series tells GenealogyMagazine.com what viewers will see in season eight, reveals some of his favorite moments of the show, and what made him “fall in love” with Who Do You Think You Are?

By JAMES PYLANT
© 2016 | Posted 29 March 2016

Emmy Award-winning actor Dan Bucatinsky, who starred in ABC’s Scandal as well as many other TV shows, also co-produces (with Lisa Kudrow) Who Do You Think You Are? I first spoke with him eight years ago on the day that it was announced that Bucatinksy and Kudrow’s production company would develop an American version of the popular BBC series.

“I have several favorites,” he’s quick to say of the stories WDYTYA has featured since debuting in 2010. Originally airing on NBC, the series was cancelled after three years only to be picked up by TLC. (Last year, the show aired two seasons—one in March and the other in July.) After airing 55 episodes and garnering two Emmy Awards, the documentary-style WDYTYA returns to television on TLC Sunday, April 3rd, at 9/8 p.m. (CT). Guests for the six hour-long episodes include Aisha Tyler, Scott Foley, Molly Ringwald, Katey Sagal, Chris Noth, and Lea Michelle. I spoke recently with Bucatinsky about some of the intriguing stories unearthed by the show’s genealogists.

James Pylant: Let’s talk about the new season. One of your cast mates from Scandal, Scott Foley, is in the lineup of celebrities. What did you discover about his roots?

Dan Bucatinsky: Yes. One of the exciting things about Scott’s story is that he spent a lot of time when he was a kid—living in Japan with his dad for many years. He spoke of never feeling a sense of being an American. But when we went back into his ancestry, one story ties to the American Revolution, and the other links a relative—a man—to the Salem Witch Trials. It is certainly rare that we find ancestors who are men tied to the Salem Witch Trials. And with such detail; there was a lot of documentation. It’s quite exciting and hair-raising.

JP: One of the more fascinating stories featured for this season involves a family secret in Aisha Tyler’s ancestry. What did you find?

DB: Aisha is in our season premiere. Aisha comes from a long history, on her mom’s side, of well-educated family members. But her two-times great-grandfather had sort of slipped through the cracks and was not someone that anybody knew much about at all. It was a like a hole in the family story; we know nothing about it. And as she uncovers and walks in the footsteps of that relative, she discovers that he came from a Caucasian father—which was a surprise to her—who could be one of two different people. Not only is the mystery uncovered, but also gets solved over the course of the episode. A record describes her ancestor as mulatto, and there was a controversy to discover who his father was.

JP: Didn’t Aisha make a trip to Texas for that episode?

DB: Yes, she goes to Austin. She winds up making a couple of trips tracking this relative down, and she’s able to follow where he was as a small boy and then what move he made as a teenager and then as a young adult. It’s very interesting because both of the possible potential fathers for her relative were in politics. And we watched to see what influence that had on her two-times great-grandfather; being of color in that time wasn’t easy, especially in Texas, and knowing that he came from a white father and then having some political influence in his life as an adult. Being able to track that and depict that man was very satisfying for Aisha.

JP: Let’s talk about Katey Sagal. I’m surprised you found she has Amish roots.

DB: You’re surprised? Katey Sagal is flabbergasted! The other thing is that she never really got to know her mom. This is a show that often—sometimes in the same episode—will stay generationally close to our subject, tell the story of a parent or tell the story of a grandparent and at the same time also go back, obviously. We not only bring her closer to her mom in a way she never thought possible, but also uncover a link to a past—an Amish lineage. We had no idea, and she certainly had no idea. I always loved uncovering either a corner of history or a segment of a community in history that has not been tapped before, and that was one. Usually by the time you’re an adult, you know your grandparents knew something about their lineage. You would’ve heard something, but that’s one of those surprises that come up on a show like this.

JP: Katey’s mother died young. Did Katey know much about her mother’s family? Did she keep in touch with them?

DB: She didn’t really, and she didn’t know much about her mom except that she had been a performer, and she knew that she had come from performer roots. I won’t spoil it, but she comes face-to-face with someone who knew her mom, and it’s very moving for her.

JP: Dan, you’ve said that there are several episodes that you could call favorites. Is there one that stands out more than any other?

DB: Over all the years? Oh, that’s so hard. Each one is as unbelievably different and varied as the subjects themselves. I’ll never forget Rita Wilson’s episode because of the emotion involved; tracing a family story that is close to you—uncovering mysteries of your own father who had only recently passed away. Beyond that, stories from the Civil War and stories of slavery and people’s reaction to that history such as Bill Paxton’s experience. He puts it into context and he learned from it. Sean Hayes’s family, which had some generations of dysfunction, gave enormous insights into his own family. Julie Chen traveled to Asia last season, and it was the first time we’d gone to that part of the world. She also comes face-to-face with her relative. There are so many standout episodes, and there are moments in every single one of them. I love going back five, six or seven generations. Royalty—I love finding out that our subjects are connected to Charlemagne, but I also love the emotional stories that tie a relative to insights into their own parents or grandparents. Those are very moving. The personalization of history certainly made me fall in love with Who Do You Think You Are?