The first time Holly Robinson Peete went before a TV camera, she blew her line — repeatedly! But that is understandable because she was only 5 years old at the time.
“I was supposed to say, ‘Hi, Gordon.’ I kept saying ‘Hi, Daddy,’” recalls Holly, whose father, Matt Robinson, played Gordon on PBS’ Sesame Street. “It was a traumatizing moment for me, but I saw those lights and I got to hold Big Bird’s hand. From that moment on, I wanted to be in front of the camera.”
Holly’s wish to become a working actress came true. Since the late 1980s, she has been a familiar face on television hits including 21 Jump Street, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Mike & Molly and more.
Holly has also welcomed viewers into her family on the reality series For Peete’s Sake and Meet the Peetes. Her latest film, The Journey Ahead, premieres Aug. 14 on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.
So tell us a little about your new film, The Journey Ahead. What drew you to it?
I loved the script. It’s a rare sort of female buddy picture that celebrates women from different backgrounds connecting. It was amazing to work with Kaylee Bryant, who I didn’t know before. And there was a full-circle feeling to it.
I play an actress of a certain age who’s been used to having everything, but she really doesn’t have love and true friendship in her life. We had to re-create a poster of her that was supposed to be from the 1980s. It was mocked out of an old 21 Jump Street headshot of me — which felt bizarre. And we shot in Vancouver, which is where we started on 21 Jump Street, so it felt like a very full-circle moment.
Is it true that your dad tried to keep you away from acting?
Yes. My dad did not want me to come on Sesame Street. I think he knew instinctively that I had that show business bug and it was about to bite me if I got to be in a scene with Ernie and Bert and Kermit the Frog. So I begged and pleaded and finally got on.
Did he ever accept your desire to act?
Yes, but my father wanted me to finish college first. So I did that. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence in ’86. I really wanted to go to graduate school, but I went out for a couple of acting jobs and gave myself a time limit. Then Jump Street happened, and I never made it to graduate school.
Do you still stay in touch with the other actors from Jump Street?
Dustin [Nguyen], Peter [DeLuise] and Steven [Williams] have stayed in touch. Johnny [Depp] is kind of on his own planet. I haven’t seen him much over the years.
Do you have a favorite memory from the show?
Oh, so many. But in the second season, my character, Judy Hoffs, had to dress up like a milk carton to go into a kids’ classroom and be Officer Milk Carton. I was supposed to be humiliated by that, but it was hilarious and so fun to play.
How about a favorite memory from your years on Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper?
My favorite episode was one called “Down in the Dumps,” which was where I lost Mark’s lottery ticket and we had to go into the dumpster to find it. The physical comedy — we were behind a Mexican restaurant and I got refried beans poured on my head — was hilarious. That was probably one of the funniest shows in sitcom history, and I’m not just saying that because I was in it.
You’ve been married to your husband, former NFL star Rodney Peete, for 27 years. What is your secret?
We talk about something called Same Page Love. It’s taking the time to get back on the same page whenever you veer off. There is something else we do called 20-Second Hug. Either one of you is allowed to ask for it at any time. It’s holding each other and hugging for 20 seconds, without saying anything. Something happens at around the 15-second mark where the pheromones take over, and your hearts are next to each other, and you just kind of soften your stance. It’s not just for when someone’s mad, but also when someone is feeling stressed.
I love that! You and Rodney created the HollyRod Foundation to support people living with Parkinson’s or autism. How did that come about?
After Sesame Street, my father went on to write for Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, The Waltons, Eight Is Enough — he was very prolific. In his 40s, the prime of his life, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I had to be his caregiver, and he passed away in 2002. When I met and married Rodney, I realized so many other families were dealing with Parkinson’s disease and didn’t necessarily have the funds to support their families. We wanted to be a voice for them.
Our son RJ was diagnosed with autism. That made us want to expand our mission to include autism and provide compassion as well.
How is RJ doing now?
RJ is doing amazing. We were told he would never have meaningful employment, would never drive — well, he just drove to work this morning! He’s a clubhouse attendant for the Los Angeles Dodgers. They hired him knowing about his autism, and he has grown so much with this job. It’s given him independence and purpose. It’s given him friends and family for life.
What’s on your bucket list?
Through the HollyRod Foundation, we built RJ’s Place, a compassionate care autism center in Los Angeles. Now I want them in at least five or six different cities. My bucket list wish is to serve more and more people in the autism and Parkinson’s communities.