At the end of this week's well-crafted "Who Do You Think You Are," "NCIS: LA" dreamboat Chris O'Donnell speculates about being a family man in a long line of family men: "Maybe that's why it feels so natural to me. Maybe it comes from past generations that instilled that in you without you even knowing."
We begin with a spirited trip down the memory lane of Chris's career. Understated performances in "Men Don't Leave" and "Scent of a Woman" led to breakout stardom in "Batman & Robin" with George Clooney. We linger on a photo of Chris and Clooney as Chris reflects: "I knew when I was working that I couldn't continue to date and never get married. If you know you want to have a family and a bunch of kids, it's hard to run around in Hollywood."
Chris does run around — in his family's backyard. He and his wife, Caroline, have five children, and Chris, the youngest of seven, is an advocate for family life: "Until you have children, you have no idea what it means to love somebody." He lost his own father two years ago and is visibly choked up when he talks about missing his dad and craving a connection to him.
Enter "amateur genealogist" and niece Tory Berner, who is spending the summer with Chris's family. She jump-starts Chris's paternal quest with 1850 census information from ancestory.com, which leads to Michael McEnnis of St. Louis, Missouri, Chris's great-great-grandfather. And so it's off to St. Louis, where Chris is dazzled and daunted by his ancestor's life story.
McEnnis was a multifaceted man who wrote extensively about the cholera outbreak of 1849 that eradicated 10 percent of the St. Louis population. He was close to the action as he ran a graveyard. "I can feel the tears running down my cheeks," wrote McEnnis, recalling a woman who arrived with her dead child in her arms, having already lost the rest of her family. Chris gets emotional. So do we.
The details don't stop there. McEnnis fought in the Mexican-American War for an unusually short period of time. He requested a discharge after his father passed away, leaving behind a "large and helpless family." McEnnis was only 22 when he left the war to care for his family and later for the entire city in the wake of the cholera outbreak. Chris describes him as "the ultimate Eagle Scout." He adds: "Family has always been a priority for me. Even with my career, it's always been my family first."
The family-style fun really begins at the Smithsonian, where Chris learns his father bequeathed a saber to the museum. "Are you kidding me?" he said with a gasp, and he smiles like a kid in a candy store as he puts on white gloves and wraps a hand around his great-great-grandfather's saber. In a letter to the museum, McEnnis wrote that he "accidentally" held onto the saber, and Chris laughs and admits that he, too, "accidentally" held onto a sword from "The Three Musketeers." Who says history can't be fun?
And we haven't even gotten to the craziest part. Chris has an even older ancestor who was also a family-oriented fighter. His four-times great-grandfather George McNeir fought in the War of 1812 after his Baltimore-based tailoring business suffered from war. He was a cannoneer on the coastal frontline at Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814, in a battle that inspired — wait for it — the national anthem. That's right: Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" when he saw the Americans raise a flag after the British retreated. "I never actually knew what the national anthem was written about," says Chris. "That's insane. My dad would be so excited to know this. I know he would be very proud. Who wouldn't be?"
"Who Do You Think You Are?" airs Tuesdays at 9 PM on TLC.