By Jackie Krentzman
Big Bird. Kermit the Frog. The Cookie Monster. Bert and Ernie. Roosevelt Franklin.
These are some of the beloved Sesame Street characters who guided pretty much every American under the age of 50 through childhood. But for actress, author, and activist Holly Robinson Peete, these weren’t simply fictional characters—they were family.
In 1969, the Children’s Television Workshop hired Peete’s father, Matt Robinson, to join an innovative project—creating an educational and, just as important, entertaining show for children that didn’t talk down to them. Robinson was one of the show’s first writers and producers. He was also one of the first stars, as the voice of Muppet Roosevelt Franklin, a scat-talking, poetry-citing brainiac. In addition, he portrayed Sesame Street’s first human character, Gordon Robinson, an empathetic schoolteacher.
As Holly was growing up in Philadelphia, her father would sometimes put her friends on the show. This drove Holly, who loved to act and entertain, nuts. “Why, can’t I be on the show, Daddy?” she would ask him over and over.
“I found it unbearable that I was the daughter of Gordon and yet I couldn’t get on the show, but all my friends on my block were on it!” she laughs nearly 50 years later.
Finally, he relented.
“And I blew it,” says Peete. “I was given one line. I was to say to my father, ‘Hi Gordon.’ Instead I said, ‘Hi Daddy.’ It was so embarrassing! It was my first television humiliation, and I still remember it to this day.”
In some respects, Holly Robinson Peete (she is married to former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete) grew up in a diversity petri dish, unusual for its time. Her parents raised Holly and her brother in Mount Airy, a section of Philadelphia marked by its racial and religious diversity. It has been frequently acknowledged as one of the first integrated neighborhoods in the United States.
“I grew up in this inclusive neighborhood where pretty much every block had people of different cultures and races,” she says. “It was just a beautiful melting pot. Across the street were the Goldberg twins. We were the same age, and we celebrated Hanukkah with them, and they celebrated Christmas with us. It made me realize at a very young age how important diversity is and how important it is to learn and appreciate other people’s cultures. Diversity and tolerance, in my mind, are the answers to everything.”
These were the principles that drove Sesame Street as well. The program was consciously developed to present racial and gender diversity to American children. In fact, her father was hired specifically to oversee the segments focusing on the diversity of the different characters.
“On the very first episode of Sesame Street [November 10, 1969], my father took a young girl on a tour of Sesame Street,” says Peete. “He introduced the show to the world. When you think about it, that was very profound for its time. You have all these people and characters living on this block in New York. Everyone was different, and their differences were celebrated. This was very deliberate, and it changed the face of TV forever and helped Americans to understand that even if they didn’t live in a diverse neighborhood like that, others did, and it was a positive thing.”
When Peete was nine, her world was turned upside-down—and her education around inclusiveness was put to a test. Her parents were divorcing, and she moved with her mother (Dolores, a former teacher-turned-talent manager) to Los Angeles, and her father came later, where he launched a successful career as a writer and producer on a number of TV shows, including The Cosby Show, The Waltons, and Sanford and Son.
They lived in predominantly white Santa Monica, and Peete was the only African American girl in the school.
“That was where I first encountered racism,” she says. “It was my first time feeling like I was different—and that different wasn’t always good.”
She adjusted by following her brother Matthew’s lead. He was a couple of years older, and he embraced how different everyone else was. “He took the lessons we learned in Mount Airy and applied them to Santa Monica. I eventually adapted. That experience taught me how to adapt to pretty much anybody and anything in life.”
Some of her classmates—including Robert Downey Jr., Sean Penn, and Rob Lowe—were already launching careers in Hollywood. She longed to join them, but her father would not let her. He wanted her to put education first and didn’t want her to catch the acting bug and become one-dimensional.
“My father was a very educated man,” she says. “His father was a writer, a columnist for the Negro newspaper in Philadelphia, but he wasn’t hired to write for the regular newspapers because he was black. I think my dad carried a lot of that in his adult life, so education meant everything to him.”
Instead of matriculating on a film set, Peete went to Sarah Lawrence College. She also studied French at the Sorbonne for a year. But the acting bug did not go away.
Not many people can say that Howard the Duck represents a turning point in their life. Holly Peete can.
When she was a senior in college she got a part on the George Lucas flop (now a cult hit), acting and singing. She knew she had found her place in the world.
Her father eventually came around and supported her career choice. “Though he would have preferred I got my master’s degree instead,” says Peete.
Her career ascended rapidly. Peete landed on 21 Jump Street for five seasons (1987–1991) and then Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper for five seasons (1992–1997). Her career was clearly established—but in terms of her life’s work, she was just getting started.
Peete has never shied away from expressing her views, even if considered by some as controversial. For example, she has been a vocal advocate of issues affecting African Americans. In 2011, her contract as a cohost of The Talk was not renewed, and there was speculation that the firing was due to her outspokenness, an assessment Peete confirms.
“I don’t buy the notion that because you’re an actor you can’t have a political point of view,” she says. “The irony of that is that there has been an actor in the White House, Ronald Reagan, and now we have a celebrity businessman there as our president. Somehow, that’s okay, but if an actor speaks out, we are told to ‘stick to acting.’
“If Martin Luther King was scared to take a side or Rosa Parks felt like she couldn’t take a side, where would I be right now? The only time I do not get political is when I visit my in-laws or when I go to a family dinner. I’ve made a rule not to talk about politics or religion at the holidays. Otherwise I am going to speak my mind.”
Peete primarily uses her platform to speak out on issues that affect children. Top on her list are children with special needs, in particular African American kids. Her HollyRod Foundation focuses on families affected by autism and Parkinson’s (the disease that afflicted her father, who died from it at 65).
Her interest in autism is personal. Peete and her husband, Rodney, have four children. Their oldest son, Rodney Junior, born in 1997, was diagnosed with autism when he was three. “That diagnosis changed everything in our lives,” she says. “For anyone who gets an autism diagnosis, it’s a punch in the gut, especially if you get the diagnosis when we did. It wasn’t until about the year 2000 that autism awareness began rising. Today there are many more groups and resources that support parents and families.”
Peete describes parents with autistic children as a special breed. “We are very cut to the chase. We have to fight for our children. It has definitely been an interesting journey, what I call the autism express.”
Peete’s commitment to improving the lives of children and families affected by autism has intersected with her racial identity and commitment to social justice. Police profiling of young African American males upsets her. And African American males on the autism spectrum are profiled at an even higher rate, she says.
“In my life experience, I’ve learned it’s very important for the police to understand a given community,” she says. “And families with autism form a community. There recently was a case in North Miami where a young man was shot. He was a behavioral therapist who had been trying to help his patient with autism, who was in distress. Now if those cops had more autism training and understood that community, instead of this man being shot in the arm, he and the police might have escorted the young man back to his group home.”
To that end, Peete is working on getting legislation passed in California for mandatory officer training in autism. She is also working to get the California legislature to pass a bill requiring that driver licenses and ID cards display when people have an autism spectrum diagnosis.
She is using another platform to further her cause. Since 2016, the Peete family has been the stars of a reality show on OWN, For Peete’s Sake. Season two began in February. The show follows Peete’s family members as they navigate everyday life. One focuses on Rodney counseling his teenage son, Robinson, about marijuana use, another on Holly’s 80-year- old mother, Dolores, deciding to begin dating. One of the ongoing focal points of the show is Rodney Junior’s struggles with autism—as well as his successes.
“One of the reasons why I’m so proud of For Peete’s Sake is because I think some people have learned more about autism on For Peete’s Sake than they have anywhere else in life,” she says. “Before RJ, my son, there really has never been any other character on TV [with autism]. You can see that he is a real guy! The only other show that did that and did it very well was Parenthood on NBC. It had a young boy with Asperger’s. Before that, the only person or character we had to point to was [Dustin Hoffman in] Rain Man, and that’s pretty pathetic considering how prevalent autism is.”
While some actresses in their early 50s are pushing against the glass ceiling of age and dealing with that frustration, Holly Peete seems content. Her life is not defined by her acting roles. She still acts—she has a recurring role on Chicago Fire, and she recently signed a deal to star in a mystery series on the Hallmark Channel.
Peete has a clothing line with the online retailer Evine and writes children’s books. With her daughter, Ryan (RJ’s twin), Peete wrote My Brother, Charlie, aimed at educators and families of young school-age kids with autism. Last year, mother and daughter released a second book, this one for a young teen audience, called Same But Different.
When asked to reveal her bucket list, Holly doesn’t rhapsodize about juicy acting roles or skydiving or traveling around the world. Instead, she wants to further the understanding of the challenges—and the individuality—of children with autism.
“I feel pretty content careerwise,” she says. “I feel like I never really set out to be a successful television actress. I’ve done that, so I feel pretty good about it. I think my bucket list is really more along the lines of my autism advocacy. Being able to get some of this legislation put through, to spread more autism awareness, to have families impacted by autism not be discriminated against and have more awareness in their communities. Just to have more tolerance of people with special needs. I still see a lot of ignorance and stigma about what autism is. It really bothers me.
“Therefore, I want to make sure that everybody understands what autism is and learns how not to be so judgmental, so the stigma of autism will finally go away.” DW