Meredith professor helps TV star trace his family history

bcain@newsobserver.comFebruary 24, 2012 

A Meredith College professor who specializes in Southern history got a taste of Hollywood when he helped actor Blair Underwood navigate his family tree for NBC's genealogy-themed reality show, "Who Do You Think You Are?"

The episode airs tonight at 8.

Professor Dan Fountain said he was first contacted last summer by a show researcher who had read Fountain's 2010 book, "Slavery, Civil War and Salvation." The show wanted Fountain's help in interpreting some documents that were uncovered while researching Underwood's family. After several consultations, Fountain was invited to appear with Underwood in the episode.

"Who Do You Think You Are?" is in its third season in the United States. Adapted from a British show of the same name, the program helps celebrities track down their family histories, andmany times, uncover family secrets.

"It's a neat operation in terms of the research staff they've put together and the thinking that goes into each of these episodes," Fountain said.

During each episode, a celebrity starts off with a general idea of family history and perhaps some assumptions about what he or she might find. The participants typically travel to numerous libraries and archives across the nation. They often make trips overseas to trace the family line back as far as possible.

Underwood, like all subjects in "Who Do You Think You Are?" was kept in the dark about what he would learn at each stop so that his reactions would be genuine and more dramatic.

"It was real human reaction to what was going on and what he was learning," said Fountain, who has been teaching at Meredith since 2004.

During early conversations with the show's researcher, Underwood's identity was never revealed. But Fountain said he had a hunch it might be Blair Underwood, because he knew the person's first name and knew it would be an African-American celebrity.

Coincidentally, the day Fountain spent filming with Underwood in Lynchburg, Va., his class was back at Meredith watching Underwood in a 2002 movie about the underground railroad in Delaware, "Whispers of Angels."

Fountain said filming of his time with Underwood took about eight hours, and he was struck by how quickly the actor pieced things together on the fly.

"He was a very astute observer of the records," Fountain said. "He was really fun to work with.

"It was much like helping a student on a research project that you're both excited about because it's a fascinating topic."

Cain: 919-829-4579

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