Cast of 'Roots' Got DNA Ancestry Tests – and Learned Some Surprising Results

A common ancestor linked two of the 1977 miniseries most unlikely players

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty

Nearly 130 million people turned into ABC’s 1977 miniseries Roots during it’s original airing – establishing it as one of the most-watched and influential miniseries in U.S. History and sparking a national passion for the study of ancestry.

So when History set out to remake Alex Haley‘s epic tale, its cast and crew took time to learn their roots – discovering a head-turning DNA surprise along the way.

At a screening of the History’s first episode at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on Sunday night, executive producer Mark Wolper told PEOPLE that he and his caucasian father have genetic connections to Roots star LeVar Burton.

“We had a company called 23andMe do genetic research on all of our cast and crew on this show,” Wolper revealed to PEOPLE. “And here is the thing – I am related to LeVar Burton, the Kunta Kinte from the original Roots. That was pretty amazing”

“It goes pretty far back in history,” Wolper continued, “But the company said it happened in England. Lavar has a lot of English blood. I have a lot of English blood. It’s just interesting roots.”

Wolper says his father, the late David L. Wolper, never knew the connection when he produced the 1977 series. “He cast LaVar Burton not knowing that obviously he was related to LaVar Burton as well.”

Burton, who is co-executive producing the History remake, says he wasn’t surprised with the connection.

“It is a coincidence, but stranger things have happened,” Burton said. “We are from the same haplogroup. What that means is that at some point, in the distant past, the paternal benefactor of our gene pool was the same person.”

“I was surprised to discover that fully 25 percent of my genetic code, my DNA, comes from Britain and Ireland,” the 59-year-old actor continued.

Wolper and Burton weren’t the only members of the Roots reboot who learned new things about their ancestry.

I found out that I m from the West Coast of Africa,” actress Anika Noni Rose, 43, explained. “And I am very British and very Irish and some Native American – black foot, Virginia, and one Asian. I expected it, because I know what my people look like. It’s very, very interesting.”

Mario Van Peebles, 59, who directs his son 21-year-old son Mandela in Night 2 of the series, found an eclectic mix in his background. “We did our DNA and just found out West Africa, some German, French, British, Spanish and Portuguese.”

American actress Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays Kunta Kinte’s wife Belle, learned she has Nigerian roots. “My father is from Panama as well,” the 36-year-old explained. “I didn t know that, and I absolutely plan on going.”

“This [series] is huge for me and my family,” explained actor Sam Malone, who plays Ashford. “I’m from Nachez, Mississippi. My great grandfather sold bootleg liquor. He had a plot of land and he had that taken. My dad actually was the youngest of 13 and he was a sharecropper in my father s lifetime.”

“The history is right there at the doorstep,” the 32-year-old actor continued. “Breaking glass ceilings is all present.”

For Wolper, connections like his reinforces the need for the Roots revival. “This is exactly why we are doing Roots again. And that’s what we all have to realize around the world – that we are all actually the same people.

The four-night, eight-hour Roots miniseries begins May 30 on History.

Related Articles