All his life, Pearse Egan wove dreams around the father he had never met. “Every little thing I did – learning to ride a bike, learning to swim, I always felt my dad was there with me, showing me how.”
The fact that Pearse, 29, was growing up on the outskirts of Dublin, while his father Edilson “Eddie” Santos, 62, lived and worked in Manhattan, added glamour to the fantasy.
“I knew my dad was Brazilian and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, because it made me different to anybody else in Ireland. I had one little picture of him, an old photograph from the time he was with my mum in America, and I kept that with me always.”
Pearse’s parents met when they worked together in New York, but his Irish mother returned home to have her baby. “I couldn’t ask for a better mum,” says Egan. “She made a brilliant job of raising me and my brother on her own. But I think when you’re a parent, you just have to make the decisions you think best at the time. She was very young when she found out she was pregnant, and I think she was really scared. She just felt it would be better to have me at home, in Ireland, and over the years she fell out of touch with my dad.
“He sent me a birthday card when I was six, and I remember one phone call – that was the only contact,” Egan continues. “But in a way that’s really hard to explain, he was always very present to me. I came in for a bit of bullying at school. Kids pick up on the slightest insecurities, and there were digs thrown at me for being from a one-parent family. But I had that photo of my dad. I’d look at it and think, ‘Well, people say I don’t have a dad, but I do…’”
Pearse trained as an actor, then travelled the world, teaching preschool children in Australia and Asia before settling into theatre work in London. But the more experience he gained, the more he felt a fundamental part of himself was missing. “I’d be going to auditions, but I wasn’t able to commit fully to roles, because the type of parts I would be going up for were either a young dad, or an adult having issues with their father.”
With his mother’s support, Pearse decided to trace his father. Appeals on social media came to nothing. Then a post popped up on Pearse’s Facebook page, putting out a call for people to appear on ITV’s Long Lost Family. “I knew the show, but I always got too emotional watching it. This time, though, I thought, ‘Well, what better way? I’ll give it a go.’”
Within weeks, co-host of Long Lost Family Nicky Campbell was interviewing an emotional Eddie Santos in Manhattan. Santos couldn’t wait to meet the son he thought he’d never see, and flew to London at the earliest opportunity.
“When I walked into the restaurant to meet my dad for the first time, I felt like a little kid running to the playground gate,” Egan recalls. “The first thing I said to him was, ‘You have really big hands!’ I have massive hands myself, and it was a part of me I could immediately see in my dad.”
Father and son have since spent time together in New York and have discovered they have many things in common. Eddie, a retired security guard, had wanted to be an actor in his youth. There’s a shared sense of humour, a shared propensity for losing things. Above all, there is, says Egan, a sense of completion for him and for Santos.
“It was the most beautiful thing,” he says. “All the years of longing collapsed into that one moment when my dad hugged me and said, over and over, ‘My son!’”
Long Lost Family returns to ITV1 on Tuesdays at 9.30pm
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news