Hundreds gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Saturday to see actor Sean Astin and Latter-day Saint apostle Gerrit W. Gong, who both spoke about the importance of family at the genealogy conference RootsTech 2023.
FamilySearch, the genealogical arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hosts the annual conference to help celebrate family and connect individuals with generations of their relatives. More than 328,000 people from 196 countries participated in the online and in-person conference, according to the conference’s website.
Astin said he got involved with the conference after FamilySearch sought him out for his temperament and how he related to the public.
“I’ve done a couple of movies in Salt Lake City, I’ve been here on book tours, I’ve skied — I feel like I know Salt Lake City,” Astin said. “I’ve known for decades of my life, without really understanding, that the Mormons are interested in genealogy. … I got that question answered. It was a very simple, direct answer that just said that it’s important to us that we honor our forebears.”
Astin’s own experience with genealogy is complicated.
He recalled that when he was 4 or 5 years old, his parents, Patty Duke and John Astin, were guests on the “Charlie Rose” show. Someone approached him while his parents were onstage and said, “Isn’t it true that Desi Arnaz Jr. is your biological father?”
“That went into the brain and rattled around for years and years and years,” Astin said. He explained that on his mother’s 40th birthday, she acknowledged that John Astin was not his biological father, and he later found out that his mother’s ex-husband, Michael Tell, was his biological father.
“Life had an amazing way of creating interactions — with Desi and I becoming very close at a certain point, because he interacted with my dad, John,” Astin said, noting a DNA test found that Arnaz and Astin were not biologically related. “But I was blessed to have a man raise me as his own.”
Astin said his oldest daughter got involved with genealogy a few years ago and started investigating their family’s background, traveling to meet their relatives and talk through their stories. Astin recounted a text that she’d sent him when he mentioned he would be speaking at RootsTech.
“She wrote, ‘It’s the way to learn about the ancestors that live on through me, we are the key to our ancestors, eternal life and through my children, in a way, I’ll live forever — and it’s important to honor that,’” Astin said. “My wife did something right. … The smartest thing I did was let my wife do everything.”
During a video speech, Gong told RootsTech attendees that their deepest identities come from their relationships with God — but that the paths of their relatives can “increase our perspective and gratitude.”
“May we become a welding link in our generations, may we connect with our ancestors, and bless our current and future families, the families we have and the families we want,” Gong said in the video. “The trials and accomplishments of our ancestors can bless us with faith and strength today.”
Astin reflected on his own ancestors’ sacrifices when FamilySearch presented him with his genealogical report before his speech. The report included a picture of the boat his great-grandfather boarded when he emigrated from Ireland to the U.S.
“The best compliment my mom ever gave me, it just sort of popped out of her when she said it, but it was after ‘The Lord of the Rings’ came out — and she was thinking about ‘Goonies’ and ‘Memphis Belle’ and all the other movies and the thousands of auditions and the thousands of phone calls,” Astin said.
“She just goes ‘You worked so hard for this, you worked so hard for this success,’” he continued. “And it’s like now, I have this lead from [FamilySearch], this idea that that work ethic wasn’t just ingrained in me by my mother, but it comes down to our lineage.”