Location: Nyack, NY
Marital Status: Divorced
Education: Attended Dickinson College, then Boston University before pursuing comedy
Everything is coming up Rosie—again. New talk show. Check. Guest stint on a popular NBC show. Check.
“I’m thrilled to be back,” says Rosie O’Donnell, who is upfront when you ask her why she’s doing her new fall talk show for Oprah’s OWN Network.
“Because Oprah asked me,” she says with a laugh. “You know, Oprah is an epic talent, and for her to ask me was a huge honor. I can’t wait to start,” Rosie says in an excited voice.
Rosie was recently the subject of NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” a genealogy-themed special in which she traced her ancestors back several generations to a workhouse in Ireland where the very poorest lived during the great potato famine. Rosie’s discoveries are profound—more than once moving her to tears during the broadcast. Still, when asked what we can expect from the show, she responds with typical humor and levity, perhaps a tribute to her Gaelic heritage: “Well, they’ll learn I need a haircut because that’s the one thing I saw when I saw the rough cut. Boy, I could have used a trim,” she jokes.
Why did you want to trace your family’s roots?
I didn’t really know much about my family history. Lisa [Kudrow] and I are friendly, and she asked me if I would be on her show. I said, ‘As long as we do my Mom’s side. I knew nothing about her life.’
What was the most revealing thing you found out about your family background?
From the start, I said, ‘I don’t want to find out that my mom and her family lived like Angela’s Ashes. I came to find something very similar, if not even harder than the life that author Frank McCourt lived. That was shocking.”
You lost your mom to cancer in 1973 when you were ten. How did that change your life?
Nobody mentioned my mother after she died in 1973. It was like Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter. You couldn’t say the name. Nobody said ‘mom’ in that house, or mommy or mother, from 1973 on. I always wanted to know who she was and what she felt like and to know her through a woman’s eyes as opposed to a child’s. Now [after being on this show] I’ve been able to share with my kids some of the stuff that I know. I think it has given me a way to re-frame my own life. My children will know where their grandmother was from. It’s nice to be able to fill in the blanks.
You’ve mentioned that fans approach and ask you for advice or want to talk about losing their mothers to cancer. What do you tell them?
People will tell me that they were my age when their mom died. These are adults, but the devastation is just as raw and real. No matter what age, when you lose your mom, it’s your mommy. I remember my friend Jeannie lost her mom who was in her ’70s and a grandmother in her ‘90s, and when her grandmother died, she kept calling out, ‘Mommy, mommy.’ The bottom line is that everybody has that kind of natural, primal connection, and if it’s severed it becomes a permanent wound. My wound is the mother-child connection. But I did find out that when you search for your lost parent’s past, it does help heal it a little bit.
How did you finally heal from this loss?
The most helpful thing I could tell anyone who has lost their mother is to get the Hope Edelman book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. When she wrote the book in ’95, she had written me and asked if I could do an interview. I remembered thinking it was going to be ‘cue violin background music.’ You know, poor celebrities whose mothers have died when they were young. If I had known what that book was really going to be, I would have participated, and I would have begun my healing so much earlier. It was probably the most healing thing that ever happened in terms of losing a mother. To have all of these collected stories of women who survived it helped because the feelings are so similar. You learn that you’re not alone.
Was it hard to learn how to mother on your own?
I’m a decade older than she was when she died. I’m getting to things that she never did like raising teenagers. In some ways, she’s lucky. Okay, that’s a joke… Seriously, I’m getting to experience it all, but I don’t have a mother to call and talk to about it.
It’s great to have you back on TV on Oprah’s OWN network. Give us a few secrets of your new fall talk show, which debuts in September.
It won’t be a retread of the old ‘Rosie O’Donnell Show.’ It will be more like Oprah’s current show. It won’t be a bunch of guests coming in to promote a movie. It’s going to be a single topic, one hour, similar to Oprah’s although nobody can come close to doing what she actually did.
Any other dreams about to turn into realities?
There’s talk of James Lapine directing ‘Annie’ on Broadway in 2012. I have let it be known—rather loudly—that I would like to play Miss Hannigan. In the future, I’d love to be able to do stand-up again. I toured with Cyndi Lauper for a couple of summers, opening for her, playing the drums and doing stand-up. It was so thrilling and fun. I enjoy live performances probably the most.
Has the acting-singing-theater bug bit any of your kids?
I tried to be a stage mother and force them, but it didn’t work. None of them are into it.