A one-generation leap -- Bulgarian labor camp to Hollywood fame

Most weekends, you can catch two excellent shows tracing people's roots -- NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" on Fridays, PBS' "Finding Your Roots" on Sundays.

The next couple "Roots" are, as usual, excellent -- Barbara Walters and Geoffrey Canada this Sunday, husband-and-wife Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick on April 8. I haven't seen the next "Who," but I have interviewed Rita Wilson, who has a promising hour Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Two men – each with impressive
accomplishments – have loomed large in Rita Wilson's wife.

One is Tom Hanks, the movie star; he's
her husband. The other was Pomak Ibrahimoff, the bartender; he was
her father and a powerful force.

“My dad overcame extraordinary
circumstances, because he wanted to be a free person,” she said.

Now Wilson has traced some of that on
NBC's “Who Do You Think You Are?” The trip took her to Greece,
Bulgaria and hard times. “We had always known that my dad had been
in some kind of a labor camp,” she said. “We didn't know what
that meant and he didn't talk about it.”

Instead, he said cheery things. “He
was a really happy person.”

Wilson mother was ethnically Greek, but
grew up in Albania. Her dad, ethnically Bulgarian, was born in Greece
and lived in Bulgaria and Turkey.

“We knew we were half-Bulgarian and
half-Greek,” she said, “but my mom had more relatives here, (so
there was) much more of a Greek influence …. We go back to Greece
all the time.”

Wilson knew there were darker stories
from her dad's Bulgarian days, but had few details. For the NBC show,
she went there and met her dad's brother, now 96.

For her dad, she said, immigration was
enormous. “He came to America and didn't speak English and didn't
have a job. Starting as a bartender in New York, he became a
bartender in Los Angeles.

It was a job requiring customer
satisfaction, something his kids soon realized.

“He would bring the tips home in a …
purple felt bag,” Wilson said. “On weekends we would take all
those coins and … put them in the little paper rolls …. My dad
had such an incredible work ethic and … three is something very
tactile about taking a penny and putting it in a roll and taking it
to the bank.”

Her own work ethic has involved show
business. Wilson has been an actress (ranging from Hanks' co-star in
the 1985 “Volunteers” to recent episodes as the fierce lawyer
Viola Walsh on “The Good Wife”), a producer (“Mamma Mia,” “My
Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and now a singer.

In May, Decca Records will release
“AM/FM,” with Wilson, 55, singing the songs of her youth.

“They had the kind of innocence and
an idealized version of romance,” she said. “As a young girl, you
could fantasize about what the guy would be like that you would end
up with.”

Those fantasies – about ending up
with a guy who's charming and handsome and funny – were silly, of
course. Except that for Wilson, they came true.

– “Who Do You Think You Are?'

– 8 p.m. Fridays, NBC; Rita Wilson is
Friday; Edie Falco is April 6

– Still coming: Rob Lowe, Rashida
Jones, Jason Sudeikis, Paula Deen

– Based on a British show, each hour
takes one person to visit family roots

– Using a slightly different form,
“Finding Your Roots” (8 p.m. Sundays on most PBS stations) traces
two people's roots each week. It has Barbara Walters and Geoffrey
Canada on April 1, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick on April 8