'Faces of America' Traces Famous Genealogy

George Stephanopoulos and other famous people discover interesting ancestors.

ByLEE FERRAN via logo
January 29, 2010, 9:17 AM

Jan. 29, 2010— -- You've seen them on the big screen, on television or in the anchor's chair, but where do America's most prominent people come from?

That's the question scholar Henry Louis Gates set out to answer in a new series appropriately called "Faces of America," which traces the genealogy of famous Americans.

Gates appeared today on "Good Morning America" to talk about the show and give co-host George Stephanopoulos a big surprise about his own lineage: He could be distantly related to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Stephanopoulos, who submitted to DNA testing, learned that there is a relatively rare trait in his genetic code known as Group X; a trait that genealogists believe Clinton shares.

It is "very likely" the two are distant maternal cousins, according to genetic-testing company 23andMe of Mountain View, Calif.

Stephanopoulos laughed on hearing the news and promised Clinton that it was not a setup.

"I feel fantastic to have a cousin Hillary," he said.

Other Stars' Surprising Relatives

By following lineage records coupled with DNA research, and with the help of 23andMe, "Faces of America" discovered ancestors for several other stars whom they had never known about.

"Most of us know so little about our past," said Gates, a professor at Harvard University. "I wanted to make a series that shows the true triumph of America's democracy, and that's diversity."

Comedian and television host Stephen Colbert, who believed he was Irish Catholic through and through, found out he was related to a group of prominent German Protestants.

"They were heretics," Colbert joked on the show when he heard the news. "I had no idea, no idea, whatsoever."

Actress Meryl Streep was moved to hear she was distantly related to Silas Crispin, one of the first U.S. settlers to purchase land from Native Americans in Pennsylvania, according to a 1682 document.

"He paid his way," Streep said when she saw the document with Crispin's signature. "That's very good. My family's going to be so proud and so happy to hear all this. And they're going to be shocked.

"I thought all our family stories had to do with people who screwed up," she said.

PBS will broadcast "Faces of America" Wednesdays from Feb. 10 to March 3.

Click here to visit the "Faces of America" Web site.