‘Rosie O’Donnell has revealed how her trips to trace her roots in Ireland changed the way she looked at life. She took part in an NBC series ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ tracing those roots and it had a profound impact, she told Irish Voice.
“Doing that show really did change my life in a huge way because I really did identify as being Irish. Both my parents are Irish. It was a huge part of my identity. We all have Claddagh rings; my mother had one as her wedding ring,” she says.
O’Donnell adds that her oldest brother, Eddie, has always been very connected to all of parts of their late mother’s family; she passed away from breast cancer in 1973 when Rosie was 10, which, at the time they still knew comparatively little about.
“When they asked me (to go to Ireland) I asked them if I could bring my brother? I wanted to get closer to him. We’re a family that had no mom and had a dad that was stoic and typically Irish in that he was disconnected,” O’Donnell says.
“The five of us were like the hands of a fist. There wasn’t a lot of I love you’s growing up. You know, typically Irish, right?
“I wanted to get to that with my brother and we did. When we got off the plane at Kennedy he said, ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘I love you too Eddie.’ Those were the words that were never really heard in my house growing up, but they’re heard daily with my children and myself. But with my siblings it’s still difficult.
“That show really broke the ice in a lot of ways, and I’m very grateful to producer Lisa Kudrow and to all the amazing people I met in Ireland. Actually I’m going to go and spend time in the holidays there with my little kids this year.”
The thing that broke her heart was how deeply the trip had resonated with her own children.
“You know what was really fascinating? My children are all adopted. And when I came home and told them the story they took it as their own.
“They were saying, ‘So you mean my great, great grandfather was in the poor house?’ And I was like, ‘Yes honey, he was.’ I got all choked up. They asked, ‘Could we go and see that place Mom?’ So we’re going over to Ireland for the holidays this year.”
“I do think that Irish part of me is very true. You call it like you see it, and in our family you were allowed to talk about things that were very emotional as long as you were funny, if you made a joke about it, but lord knows you couldn’t just bring up a feeling,” she laughs.
In Who Do You Think You Are?, the NBC show that traces the family roots of famous people, These days O’Donnell finds herself more interested in being a good mother or using her fame as a springboard for doing something worthwhile.
“When I was in my thirties it blew my mind that I could know people like Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand,” O’Donnell tells the Irish Voice from the Oprah Winfrey studios in Chicago, “but now I’m 50 and my perspective has completely changed.”
On Monday, after an absence of almost 10 years, O’Donnell returned to television with her own show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), and critics are expecting another massive ratings hit for the 12 time Emmy winner.
“When I started as a talk show host I was 33 years old,” O’Donnell confesses. “I was fascinated by celebrity and pop culture. Just to casually know and befriend people like Barbra Streisand or Tom Cruise was intoxicating.
“But now at 50 I’ve lived in show business for more than half my life and I have a different take on it. I have a different perspective on what’s important and what I value and what I’d like to show to the American public, and also what the American public is hungry for.”
With the advent of the Internet, O’Donnell thinks we’re oversaturated with celebrities now. She still enjoys interviewing them, but she wants to offer alternatives too.
“I think we want some more of the gritty underbelly rather than the polished veneer, and that’s what we’re going for with this show. It’ll be in the style of Dick Cavett or Charlie Rose with humor rather than just slapstick. I did that once and I’m ready for something else,” she says.
The timing was fortuitous because just as O’Donnell was getting ready jump back into broadcasting, the woman whose career rewrote the book on chat show hosting was concluding hers -- Oprah Winfrey.
When Winfrey heard that O’Donnell was contemplating a return to television she did what any smart CEO would do -- she made a pitch herself.
“She flew to my house and we had a four hour conversation, and at the end of it she asked, ‘Why is it you would rather do The Rosie Show for me?’ than for the network I was about to sign on with.
“And I replied, ‘Because you’re you.’ I think she doesn’t quite get the effect she had on most of the country.
“I’m about to turn 50 in March, and for half my life I’ve watched her on television. I was one of those crazy super fans that used to VCR her in the old days and watch it every night.
“The truth is, when I was about to sign with NBC I questioned whether I would be able to do it and withstand the network pressure.”
After the famous Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien scraps over broadcast times -- a fiasco that ended with O’Brien walking -- O’Donnell admits she was not feeling very safe or secure about the network’s investment in their talent.
“When Oprah Winfrey said, ‘Would you do it for me?’ I called my agent. You make a lot more on the networks than you do on cable,” O’Donnell said.
“But no part of my career was ever about money, it was about trying to do the best job in the best place that would be most congruent with my life and my values. And that’s where I ended up. For me it’s like winning the lottery and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
“Oprah made me believe I could do it. I told her she had played a starring role in my life. She just didn’t know she’d been cast in it. ”
Chicago, says O’Donnell, is like a cleaner, more European version of New York.
“Now I have yet to do a winter here and the locals are already saying just wait. But it’s epically beautiful, and the only thing that concerns me is that snow-mageddon winter they’re all talking about. “
Guests both actual and desired in the coming months will include Adele, Russell Brand, Melissa McCarthy (from Bridesmaids and Mike and Molly) and Ryan Gosling.
But there will be discussion of the issues of the day – and game shows, where everyone wins.
Expect some straight talking on occasion too, because over the last decade O’Donnell has grown into a passionate and articulate debater on many issues.
“Growing older and being almost 50 years old gives you a perspective on who you are in a way that you can’t possibly have in your thirties,” she feels.
“I think on my new program we’re going to have the time and the space to go in depth about the things that we feel and think and on the points we disagree on without the antagonism and the vitriol of my time on The View.”
The Rosie Show airs weeknights at 7 p.m.