For America’s chat shows in the 1980s, triplets Eddy, Bobby and David were TV gold.
The 19-year-old brothers had grown up unaware of each other’s existence. An amazing stroke of chance brought them together.
The beer-loving, girl-chasing students were virtual clones but total strangers.
Audiences adored their charm, mirrored body language and almost telepathic ability to finish each other’s sentences.
Madonna was so smitten she insisted they have a cameo in her movie Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985.
But behind the believe-it-or-not coincidences lay the dark story of a cruel experiment.
A new Channel 4 documentary examines why identical triplets Bobby, David and Eddy (pictured) were separated at birth and grew up unaware of each other
Now the whole story is being told in an award-winning documentary, Three Identical Strangers.
It sheds fascinating light on the age-old question of whether the human personality is shaped by ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ – whether our genes or our families dictate the people we become.
As the triplets’ history is revealed, viewers will wonder if this evidence has been discovered at too high a price.
The tale begins with a plot twist so bizarre that no novelist could invent it.
In 1980, doctor’s son Bobby Shafran arrived for his first term at Sullivan County Community College in New York, and was baffled to be greeted as an old friend by people he’d never met.
One girl kissed him on the lips, another student called him ‘Eddy’.
Bobby decided it was a practical joke for the new boy.
When he checked in to his dormitory his room-mate nearly fainted.
He asked, ‘If you’re not Eddy, were you adopted? You must have a twin!’
Incredibly, Bobby was enrolling at the same college, and sleeping in the same room, as Eddy Galland, who’d left at the end of the last year and who looked so like him that friends didn’t notice they were different people.
When Bobby heard Long Island teacher’s son Eddy shared his birthday, he phoned him.
Within hours, they met.
Bobby, David and Eddy (pictured with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) became overnight celebrities once they were reunited
The triplets (pictured) adoptive parents felt betrayed that the agency hadn’t made them aware that they had siblings
Their parents confirmed they were adopted from the Louise Wise agency in New York.
They had to be twins. But when a local paper ran their photos on the front page, the full truth emerged.
David Kellman, the son of a shopkeeper, spotted the picture, noticed the birthdate and phoned to say, ‘I think we’re triplets.’
David’s aunt, Hedy Page, says, ‘There was no formal introduction. They were like puppies, rolling around on the floor.’
As the feelgood story spread, TV chat shows across America found the boys were born entertainers.
They were party animals too, hitting New York clubs with gusto.
When they told TV host Phil Donahue they ‘liked older women’, the response from the city’s single ladies was enthusiastic.
The boys were thrilled to be reunited, but their parents felt betrayed.
The adoption agency had never hinted each boy was a triplet.
The firm refused to apologise.
It was a necessary subterfuge, they said, homing triplets would’ve been ‘impossible’.
All three families were Jewish couples that had adopted before.
The families realised the boys, born to a teenaged single mother in 1961, had been nursed together for their first six months, sleeping in one cot.
That explained why, for the first year, all three displayed separation anxiety, screaming and banging their heads.
The three boys opened a restaurant together in their thirties but Bobby (pictured with David last year) soon quit and Eddy had a breakdown, in 1995 he shot himself at home
All three had a hard adolescence.
Eddy in particular fought with his strict father.
As teenagers, each boy was treated in a psychiatric hospital.
Their reunion turned them into overnight stars.
But the partying couldn’t last.
In their thirties, the boys settled down and set up a restaurant together, called Triplets. But Bobby soon quit and Eddy had a breakdown.
After he was released from hospital in 1995, he shot himself at home.
His suicide devastated his brothers – he was the most desperate for everyone to be friends. His father blames himself.
‘I wonder if I didn’t teach him how to live life,’ he says. Bobby adds, ‘I’d rather it had been me than Eddy.’
It was a bitter outcome to a story that entertained America, but it wasn’t the end.
In 1995, New York journalist Lawrence Wright discovered a secret study, conducted by Dr Peter Neubauer of Yale University, that began in the 1950s: several sets of twins were placed with widely differing adoptive families to see how contrasting parenting affected personality.
New York journalist Lawrence Wright discovered the triplets (pictured: Eddy, David and Bobby) had been part of an experiment to examine how contrasting parenting affects personality
The boys were part of this experiment.
Bobby went to workaholic affluent parents, Eddy to an uptight, suburban, lower-middle class couple, and David to affectionate working-class parents.
Their new families were not told what was happening.
In the triplets’ case, Neubauer engineered for his chosen families to adopt a girl two years earlier so that each boy had a big sister.
When David and Bobby found that out, it made them feel ‘like lab rats’ they said, almost in unison.
Throughout their childhoods the boys were given aptitude tests and filmed regularly to monitor development.
‘It was ethically wrong,’ says one of the researchers, Dr Lawrence Perlman.
The results of this experiment have still never been published.
Before he died in 2008, Neubauer – a maverick psychologist – gave the files to Yale on the condition they remain sealed to the public until 2065, when Bobby and David would be 104 years old.
Eddy killed himself before this came out.
His brothers know there’s much more they will never learn. Bobby says, ‘Who would think anyone is evil enough to do this?’
Three Identical Strangers, Thursday, 9pm, Channel 4.