There’s an element of risk when investigating one’s family history. Just ask actor Bill Paxton.
The Fort Worth native did some genealogical detective work with help from Who Do You Think You Are?, the TV series in which celebrities trace their roots.
In an episode that premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on TLC, Paxton looks into the life of Benjamin Sharp, a great-great-great-great grandfather he had known nothing about, and learns about a man who led an extraordinary life in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
But the warts-and-all investigation also turns up one detail that makes Paxton very uncomfortable.
Benjamin Sharp was still a teenager when he served with the Virginia militia during the American Revolutionary War. He fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina, a key Southern campaign victory for the Americans. He went on to have a long, successful life as a land owner and public servant.
“I’m very proud to learn I have an ancestor that had such bravery,” Paxton says in the episode after reading Sharp’s firsthand account of the bloody 1780 battle.
But later the other shoe drops. The actor is deeply troubled when he learns that Sharp, who lived to be 83, was also the owner of at least five slaves.
As Paxton notes, “My father used to say, ‘All idols have feet of clay.’ ”
While acknowledging that times were different when his 4X great-grandfather was alive, Paxton also says this revelation is “a tough one” to accept and “disappointing from a contemporary perspective.”
But at the end of the day, he didn’t regret finding out about Benjamin Sharp.
“Your history, good and bad, is your history,” Paxton concludes. “We have a tendency to kind of want to hide the bad parts of our history. But we have to shine a light on all of it, in order to understand who we are.”
Paxton — who also is the great-great grandson of Elisha F. Paxton, a Civil War Confederate general who died during the Battle of Chancellorsville — was actually quite fortunate to be able to gather so much detailed information about his ancestors.
As actress Lisa Kudrow, one of the executive producers of Who Do You Think You Are?, has pointed out, “About 30 percent of the time, these stories hit dead ends because there are no records — or it’s just 500 years of sheep herders, so there’s no story to present.”
Paxton’s one-week journey of discovery took him all over the country — from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Blacksburg, S.C., to Richmond, Va., to Warren County, Mo.
The actor’s career highlights include such box-office hits as Aliens (1986), Apollo 13 (1995) and Titanic (1997) and such television successes as Big Love (2006-2011) and Hatfields & McCoys (2012).
His next high-profile role will be as Texas war hero and founding father Sam Houston in Texas Rising, a eight-hour miniseries that premieres May 25 on History channel.
It’s a role that Paxton took to heart — and not just because of his sense of Texas pride.
It so happens that Houston’s mother was a Paxton — and Bill was able to confirm while filming the Who Do You Think You Are? episode (even though this discovery is not featured in the show) that he and Sam Houston are indeed related: They are second cousins, four times removed.
Who Do You Think You Are?
▪ 9 p.m. Sunday