“I got very emotional, and I thought about my mom driving me across the country when I was 9 years old from Philadelphia in search of a better life,” she tells Variety. “I thought of her becoming a personal manager and signing her first client, LeVar Burton. She was the OG momager and she is absolutely the reason why I’m getting this star.”
Fast forward to June 21 and Burton is one of the people speaking on Peete’s behalf when she receives that star. “I can’t wait to hear him speak on the 11-year-old Holly,” she adds.
Growing up, Peete was always around actors. Her mother, Dolores Robinson, represented clients including Martin Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez and Michael Clarke Duncan. Her father, Matt, originated the role of Gordon on “Sesame Street.” They were both supportive of her career, but they also wanted her to understand how brutal it could be.
As “the only Black female in the room,” Peete’s mother insisted she present herself as “better and more honest than everybody else.” She also required her daughter to be nice to every single member of a TV crew. Her father pushed a college education and a backup plan.
Peete majored in French and psychology, and figured she’d do something with the language if all else failed. But that performing bug was always there. At 5, she joined her father on “Sesame” (they cut her speaking role after she kept calling Gordon “Daddy”), and later she was a correspondent on “Kidzworld.” But it wasn’t until her final year in college that she landed what she believed was her big break: a role in “Howard the Duck.”
“It was a $100 million George Lucas film. Then the movie flopped, and I started looking at graduate school,” she laughs. “I used to not even have it on my resume but now, because of Marvel, it’s kind of a cult classic.”
That disappointment may have been what her parents were preparing her for, but when Peete landed the role of Officer Judy Hoffs on “21 Jump Street” at the age of 21, she knew it was the real start of her career. The Fox network was launching and the show was among a lineup that included “Married … With Children” and “The Tracey Ullman Show.”
“We went up to Vancouver and built these sets,” she recalls. “I felt the iconic vibes of a real juggernaut. Then I met Johnny Depp, who came in after about a month [in to replace Jeff Yagher]. I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. This is going to blow up.’ And it did.”
From there, Peete’s TV career was a string of successes. When “Jump Street” ended in 1991, she proved just how funny she could be on “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.”
“That sitcom muscle is no joke, and I didn’t have that muscle,” she recalls. “I had to really work hard in the audition. It was a whole other energy.”
Peete also “worked the angles” to bolster her first love: singing. She had persuaded Stephen Cannell to let her sing the theme song to “21 Jump Street,” and she did the same with the original “Mr. Cooper” opening number, which she performed alongside En Vogue and Dawnn Lewis. Prince took note and called Peete for a collaboration.
“I was obsessed with Prince at that point. When he called me, I thought it was my brother playing tricks on me,” she says. She went to Paisley Park and recorded a song he wrote called “Holly Don’t Care” with the late artist. The song was never released, and remains a cherished memory.
“He offered me a contract and my lawyer was like, ‘You cannot take this. I know you love him. I know you want to work with him. You did a song with him and you can tell your grandkids about it,’” she says. “So, we became great friends instead. I’m still not over losing him.”
Throughout her career, there have been many almosts that Peete recalls. In 1992, she was flown to New York to audition for Eddie Murphy’s “Boomerang.” She desperately wanted the gig, but as she was exiting her hotel, she got the call: They were going with Halle Berry.
“I knew Halle would get it. I knew what I was up against. But that moment of not being able to at least get up there and show what I could do? It crushed my soul in a way I can’t even tell you,” she says.
That night, Peete was drowning her sorrows at a bar when she caught a glimpse of her friend Quincy Jones in the corner. In between tears, she filled him in.
“He was like, ‘You not being allowed to audition for an Eddie Murphy movie is gonna make you quit? Oh, then you need to quit,’ ” she recalls. “That was not what I wanted to hear from Quincy, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I picked my ass up and I got back on that horse.”
That tough love stuck with Peete in the early 2000s after one of her all-time favorite projects, “For Your Love,” ended. Her career slowed down, but her personal life picked up. She married former NFL star Rodney Peete and they had four children. When their son, Rodney Peete Jr., was diagnosed with autism, the couple used their HollyRod Foundation, which they’d formed in 1997 to focus on Parkinson’s disease, to raise awareness about it.
“I was shocked at how few people knew what autism was,” she says. “We knew we had to use our platform to talk about it so people would have hope and that community would feel seen. When we got that diagnosis, we could barely say the word autism. Now, to be out there and be a lighthouse for other people, is a great feeling.”
When “Sesame Street” announced the introduction of Julia, an autistic character, it was another full-circle moment. Peete traveled to Washington, D.C., to be a part of the presentation on Capitol Hill.
“It was a very emotional time for me. If that kind of awareness was around when my son was little, I guarantee it would have helped him make more friends. If there had been more understanding and awareness like what Julia brought, his childhood would have been easier.”
That wish for her own son may have given Peete more understanding about how her parents wanted to protect her in her career. Luckily, she was much older in life when she experienced the dark side of Hollywood.
That moment came in 2010, when she was let go from then-new daytime series “The Talk” after a single season. Pete had thought her initial year went really well, so when she was fired, it came as a shock. On camera, she believed she and co-stars Sara Gilbert, Julie Chen, Sharon Osbourne and Leah Remini had a ton of chemistry.
“I’ve never been fired from any job. So it was a foreign experience,” she says, adding that she and her husband got married at former CBS head Les Moonves’ house. “This was a guy we knew through our whole marriage, and we ended up not being able to get him on the phone.”
After 30 years, she was finally experiencing what her parents had warned her about.
“Being the manager’s daughter, I watched all kinds of crazy shit happen in this business, but it never really happened to me,” she says. “I was caught off-guard. But you don’t get to be in this business for 40 years without some of those moments. I embrace all of that now, but when it was happening it was really tough.”
Peete says she recently found closure to the whole situation, reconnecting with some of the people involved. Now, she’s returning to the show for the first time since her exit as a guest to chat about receiving her Hollywood star.
“That’s what life is about, those full-circle moments where a situation you never imagined being in all of a sudden happens,” she notes. “As my mom used to say, ‘If you hang around long enough, people will finally give you your love and give you your flowers.’”
WHAT: Holly Robinson Peete receives a star on the Walk of Fame
WHEN: June 21, 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: 6623 Hollywood Blvd