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Inside the fascinating history of Julia Roberts' family
2023/08/22

Julie Roberts has one of the most recognizable names in the world, so she was in for a shock when she learned she's not actually a Roberts. 

The actress, 55, dug deep into her family's history on the PBS documentary series Finding Your Roots and discovered that her paternal great-great-grandmother had a love child a decade after her husband's death. 

Julia's great-grandfather was given the last name Roberts, but his biological father was actually Henry MacDonald Mitchell Jr. — meaning she should be a Mitchell.

Following the mind-blowing discovery, FEMAIL has taken a look back at the Oscar winner's family history, from Martin Luther King Jr. paying her hospital bills after she was born to her half-sister Nancy Motes' tragic suicide. 

Julia's slave-owning ancestors and great-great-grandmother's secret affair

Julia Roberts, 55, was shocked out to find she isn't a 'Roberts' after her appearance on the PBS documentary series Finding Your Roots revealed a secret scandal

Julia's appearance on Finding Your Roots led to the discovery that she's not actually a Roberts and that her ancestors had a connection to slavery.

Her paternal great-great-grandmother Rhoda Suttle was born in 1837, likely in DeKalb County, Georgia, according to the show's expert researchers. Rhoda married Willis R. Roberts, another Georgia native, sometime in the 1850s. Julia shares Willis' last name, but she isn't actually biologically related to her supposed great-great-grandfather.  

Census records show that Willis died in 1864 — over a decade before Rhoda gave birth to Julia's great-grandfather John Pendleton Roberts in Douglas County, Georgia, on August 26, 1878.  

'Willis Roberts could not possibly be your great-great-grandfather. He was dead,' the show's host Henry Louis Gates Jr. told her. 

A shocked Julia replied: 'But am I not a Roberts?'

The historian explained how his team delved deep into Georgia's archives but couldn't find any details of the identity of her great-great-grandfather. They then searched for her great-grandfather John's biological father using DNA samples from her and one of her father's first cousins. 

Their DNA results were compared to other people in publicly available databases, and the team found a cluster of matches that tie Julia and her cousin to one man: Henry MacDonald Mitchell Jr.

Julia's paternal great-great-grandmother, Rhoda Suttle Roberts, had an affair with a married father of six a decade after her husband Willis Roberts' death and got pregnant 

Through DNA, it was revealed that her great-grandfather John Pendleton Roberts' biological father was Henry MacDonald Mitchell Jr. - and her last name should be Mitchell 

After Julia read his name out loud, Gates confirmed that Henry is her biological great-great-grandfather.

'So we're Mitchells?' she asked. 

'You're Julia Mitchell,' the host replied. 'You are not a Roberts biologically.'

As Julie tried to wrap her head around the shocking news, she 'bet that nobody knew' her family's secret. 

'Well, everybody near that farm knew,' Gates pointed out. 'Because her husband wasn't there and she was still having babies.' 

There is no way to tell whether Julia's great-grandfather John ever knew the identity of his real father. However, Rhoda likely kept it a secret to avoid scandal.

In the 1880 census, Henry was listed as living with his wife, Sarah, and six children. John, who was two years old at the time, was the result of his mother's affair with a married man. Rhoda lived only four households away from Henry's widowed mother, Elizabeth Mitchell, whom he likely visited.  

Host Henry Louis Gates Jr. told Julia that Rhoda lived only four households away from Henry's widowed mother, Elizabeth Mitchell, whom he likely visited

Julia was also confronted with the hard truth that her Southern ancestors owned seven enslaved people during the American slavery era

'Truly my mind is blown — and it is fascinating,' Julia said. 'On the other hand, there's, you know, part of me that when I'm calmer can still wrap my arms around the idea that my family is my family.' 

She added, laughing, 'I do prefer the name Roberts. This was a very unexpected turn.' 

Julia was also confronted with the harsh reality that her Southern ancestors owned seven enslaved people during the American slavery era.

She read the names of the enslaved people and their ages out loud. The two adult women were 33 and 20, while the three teenage girls were 17, 13, and 11. There were also two children, a girl and a boy, who were 8 and 6, respectively.

'That's sad,' Julia said after coming to the conclusion that the adult women were the mothers of the children. The show was unable to find the identity of the fathers.   

The Ticket to Paradise actress was upset, but she admittedly wasn't surprised. 

'You have to figure, if you are from the South, you're on one side of it or the other,' she explained. 

'It just seems very typical of that time, unfortunately,' she added, noting that this is a hard truth that she needs to accept. 'You can't turn your back on history, even when you become a part of it in a way that doesn't align with your personal compass.'

Humble beginnings with actor parents and a family connection to Martin Luther King Jr. 

Julia shared how Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, paid for her medical bills after she was born at A+E Networks and History Channel's HISTORYTalks in Washington, D.C. last year

Her parents, Betty Lou Bredemus and Walter Grady Roberts, struck a friendship with the Kings (pictured in 1956) after welcoming their children into their acting school in Atlanta. Segregation was outlawed at the time, but many of the schools were not integrated

Julia's father, Walter Grady Roberts, was an actor and playwright, while her mother, Betty Lou Bredemus, was an actress and an acting coach. 

In the early 1950s, they were both serving in the Air Force when they met performing in a military production of the play 'George Washington Slept Here' in Mississippi. 

Walter and Betty married in 1955 and welcomed their first son, Julia's brother, Eric Roberts, the following year. 

After leaving the Air Force, Walter moved the family to New Orleans, Louisiana, so he could attend Tulane University and pursue a career as a playwright. 

In 1960, the family relocated again, this time to Decatur, Georgia, where the father of one worked various theater jobs. Together, Walter and Betty created and financed a local children's show called 'Bum Bum and His Buddies.'

That's why, when Betty and Walter gave birth to Julia in Smyrna, Georgia, in 1967 and struggled to pay the medical bills, the political activist and his wife (pictured with their daughter Yolanda in 1956) stepped in to help 

'The King family paid for my hospital bills. My parents couldn't pay for the hospital bill,' Julia explained, later adding, 'They helped us out of a jam' 

They went on to co-found the Actors and Writers Workshop in Atlanta and welcome a second child, Julia's older sister, Lisa Roberts, in 1965. 

Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, approached the couple about having their children attend their acting school, which was the only integrated children's theater group in Atlanta at the time. 

Yolanda King (pictured in 2005) opened up about her experience at the Roberts' theater school in a 2001 CNN special , saying all of the children got along, and it was like an 'extended family'

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation, but the vast majority of schools didn't integrate until years later. When Julia's parents welcomed the Kings' children with open arms, the couple was touched by their kindness. 

'My parents had a theater school in Atlanta called the Actors and Writers Workshop,' the actress told Gayle King at A+E Networks and History Channel's HISTORYTalks in Washington, D.C. last year. 

'And one day Coretta Scott King called my mother and asked if her kids could be part of the school because they were having a hard time finding a place that would accept her kids. And my mom was like, "Sure. Come on over." And so they just all became friends.'

That's why, when Betty and Walter gave birth to Julia in Smyrna, Georgia, in 1967 and struggled to pay the medical bills, the political activist and his wife stepped in to help.

'The King family paid for my hospital bills. My parents couldn't pay for the hospital bill,' Julia explained, later adding, 'They helped us out of a jam.'

The Kings' oldest daughter, Yolanda King, opened up about her experience at the Roberts' theater school in a 2001 CNN special, saying all of the children got along, and it was like an 'extended family.' 

'Mr. Roberts was so imposing,' she said. 'I loved him, but I was also a little intimidated by him, too. I mean, he taught me so much — he and Mrs. Roberts — about the work, and just about living and being really open, grabbing life and making the best of it.'

Yolanda went on to appear in a number of films, including Fluke, Ghosts of Mississippi, Drive By: A Love Story, Funny Valentines, and The Secret Path. She died from complications related to a chronic heart condition in 2007. 

Julia's parents divorced in 1972, and that same year her mother married her second husband, Michael Motes. Betty and Michael had a daughter, Nancy Motes in 1976. Julia is pictured with her older sister, Lisa, in 1975

Julia (pictured in high school in 1984) was 10 when her father, Walter, died of cancer in 1977. She reportedly 'feared and despised' her stepfather, who was said to have made her and her siblings' lives miserable

Julia's parents divorced in 1972, and that same year her mother married her second husband, Michael Motes, who was allegedly an abusive alcoholic.  

In 1976, Betty and Michael had a daughter, Nancy Motes. 

A year later, tragedy struck the family when Walter died of cancer. Julia was 10 years old at the time. She reportedly 'feared and despised' her stepfather, who was said to have made her and her siblings' lives miserable, though she has never spoken about him publicly. 

Betty was married to Michael for 11 years, from 1972 to 1983. She cited 'cruel treatment' in her divorce petition and later called their marriage 'the biggest mistake I ever made.'

Eric also gave several interviews claiming his former stepfather was 'abusive.'

Rise to fame and sibling rivalries

Julia's brother, Eric Roberts, was the first of her siblings to make their big screen debut. She later followed him to New York City to launch her own film career 

'When Julia first came to New York, I went into William Morris and I said, "Which one of you is going to sign my sister Julia?"' Eric told Vanity Fair in 2018 

Julia, Eric, and their sister, Lisa, are pictured with John Voight at the Runaway Train premiere party in 1985 

Julia is by far the most famous Roberts, but her older siblings are also actors.

Eric started his prolific career on the soap opera Another World before pivoting into meatier film roles. His early starring role in the 1978 film King of the Gypsies led to his first Golden Globe nomination. 

He was posed to be a breakout star, but he battled drug addiction for years. He was high on cocaine when he was in a near-fatal car accident in 1981. He was in a coma and had to relearn how to walk and talk. 

Eric recovered and returned to acting. By 1986, he had a total of three Golden Globe nominations and an Academy Award nomination under his belt. 

He recalled being supportive of his sister Julia moving to New York City and pursuing an acting career. 

'When Julia first came to New York, I went into William Morris and I said, "Which one of you is going to sign my sister Julia?"' he said in a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair. 

Julia and Eric were rumored to be estranged for years after he made a sarcastic comment about her Pretty Woman success in the early '90s. He admitted he was 'exhausting to be around' at the time because of his longtime drug use

In 1991, Eric and his then-partner Kelly Cunningham welcomed their daughter, actress Emma Roberts (pictured in 2004)

Eric and Kelly separated when she was a baby, and he married his wife, Eliza Garrett (pictured), in 1992

In 1987, Julia scored a small role opposite her brother in the movie Blood Red, which wasn't released until two years later. By that time, she had already made her big screen debut in the movie Satisfaction in 1988. 

That same year, she was launched to stardom playing Daisy in Mystic Pizza in 1989. Oscar nominations for her roles in Steel Magnolias (1989) and Pretty Woman (1990) followed. 

Julia and Eric were rumored to be estranged for years after he made a sarcastic comment about her Pretty Woman success in the early '90s. 

'I wouldn't characterize it as a falling-out,' Eric told Vanity Fair. 'I was crazy about my sisters. Loved them, adored them. They were precious to me, and we had times of great closeness. We all felt very protective of each other, but the hardest person to protect yourself from is yourself.'

He admitted he was 'exhausting to be around' because of his longtime drug use, which led to Julia keeping her distance. 

Julia had already cemented her status as America's sweetheart when she wed singer Lyle Lovett in 1993, but they divorced just two years later

Julia won her first Academy Award for her performance in the 2000 biopic Erin Brockovich (pictured) 

Eric elaborated more on their relationship in an interview with Behind the Velvet Rope with David Yontef last year, saying he and Julia have 'always been fine.' 

'I think years and years ago I was doing a press tour for some movie. I don't even know what movie it was. And it was just when Pretty Woman just got released,' he explained. 

'And so they're asking a bunch of questions about Julia. And I said, "Hey, excuse me. Can we talk about me?" I think I was very funny. And of course, then it's like, "Oh, they have a problem. Oh my God, they have a problem."' 

In 1991, Eric and his then-partner Kelly Cunningham welcomed their daughter, actress Emma Roberts. They separated when she was a baby, and he married his wife, Eliza Garrett, in 1992.

Julia had already cemented her status as America's sweetheart when she wed singer Lyle Lovett in 1993, but they divorced just two years later. 

Julia met her husband, cinematographer Danny Moder, on the set of 2000 film The Mexican. They tied the knot at her ranch in New Mexico in 2002

Julia and Danny's twins, Hazel and Phinnaeus, were born in 2004. They also have a son Henry, who was born in 2007

While Julia and Eric have made plenty of headlines over the years, their sister, Lisa (pictured in 2011), is also an actress and executive producer

She went on to star in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), Notting Hill (1999), and Runaway Bride (1999). She won her first Academy Award for her performance in the biopic Erin Brockovich (2000).  

Julia met her husband, cinematographer Danny Moder, on the set of The Mexican (2000), and they tied the knot at her ranch in New Mexico in 2002. Their twins, Hazel and Phinnaeus, were born two years later. 

'I was ushered into their room and was immediately awash in brotherly and uncle-ly love,' Eric told Vanity Fair of meeting his niece and nephew for the first time. 

Julia and Danny also have a son Henry, who was born in 2007.

And while she and Eric have made plenty of headlines over the years, their sister, Lisa, is also an actress and executive producer. She had roles in Maid in Manhattan (2002), Raising Helen (2004), and Eat Pray Love (2010), which starred Julia. 

Lisa most recently executive produced Julia's recent rom-com Ticket to Paradise (2022) and mini-series Gaslit (2022). She is married to Tony Gillan, but she has stayed largely out of the public eye compared to her brother and sister. 

Half-sister's tragic suicide and mother's death 

Tragedy struck the Roberts siblings when their half-sister, Nancy Motes, died of a drug overdose in 2014 at the age of 37. Her death was ruled a suicide. Julia is pictured with her mother, Betty, and Nancy, in 1996 

A year after Nancy's death, her mother, Betty (pictured in 1993), died at the age of 80 following a long battle with lung cancer

Tragedy struck the Roberts siblings again when their half-sister, Nancy, died of a drug overdose in 2014 at the age of 37. Her death was ruled a suicide.

The former production assistant on the TV show Glee drowned in a bath surrounded by a mixture of nonprescription and prescription pills, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner. 

Nancy alluded to her estrangement from her family in a suicide note in which she wrote, 'My mother and so-called "siblings" get nothing except the memory that they are the ones that drove me into the deepest depression I've ever been in.'

Julia opened up about her half-sister's death later that year.  

'It's just heartbreak,' she told the The Wall Street Journal, tearing up. 'It's only been 20 days. There aren't words to explain what any of us have been through in these last 20 days. It's hour by hour some days, but you just keep looking ahead.

'You don't want anything bad to happen to anyone, but there are so many tragic, painful, inexplicable things in the world. But [as with] any situation of challenge and despair, we must find a way, as a family.'

A year after Nancy's death, their mother, Betty, died at the age of 80 following a long battle with lung cancer. 

The next generation...  

Julia has kept her three children out of the limelight over the years. It's unclear if any of them have caught the acting bug 

The mom shared last spring that she was excited for her twins to be starting college, but she also admitted the thought made her a 'little lightheaded' 

Julia's husband, Danny, is pictured with their daughter, Hazel, at the Flag Day premiere in 2021 

Julia celebrated her twins, Hazel and Finn, on their 18th birthday in November by sharing a rare throwback photo of them as toddlers. 

'18 Love you,' she captioned the post, adding gold stars.

Meanwhile, Julia and Danny's youngest son, Henry, is now 15.  

It's unclear if any of their children have caught the acting bug. Their superstar mother has kept them largely out of the limelight, but she opened up about them going to college last spring.  

Julia is also close with her lookalike niece Emma Roberts (pictured with her aunts in 2012)

Emma, 31, has been acting since she was a child and is known for her roles in Scream Queens and American Horror Story

Emma shares a two-year-old son, Rhodes Robert Hedlund, with her ex Garrett Hedlund, which makes Julia a great-aunt

'I mean, it makes me a little lightheaded,' she told Extra. 'You say that, I mean, I'm completely excited for them. It's really thrilling, and I wasn't lucky enough to have a college experience. And so to see how it's happening for them is really fascinating. And yeah, I'm just, I'm excited for them.' 

Julia is also close with her lookalike niece Emma Roberts, 31, who is known for her roles in Scream Queens and American Horror Story.

She paid tribute to Eric's daughter on her birthday last February, sharing a video of them wearing party hats and blowing party blowers.  

'Happy Birthday Magical One! Oh how I love you,' wrote Julia, who encouraged her followers to sit through the entire clip for the comedic payoff with the hashtag '#waitforit.' 

Emma shares a two-year-old son, Rhodes Robert Hedlund, with her ex Garrett Hedlund, which makes Julia a great-aunt. 

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