Actress Holly Robinson Peete opens up about her childhood, her family, and her love of animals
By Dustin Fitzharris
As a young girl growing up in Philadelphia, actress Holly Robinson Peete had a good pal named Susie. In fact, she was so close to Susie that she’d often carry her around her neck. Yet, when it came time for her friend to eat, Peete had to turn her head. You see, Susie was an 8-foot boa constrictor—and her meals consisted of mice and rats.
“It was around the time when the movies Ben and Willard were out,” Peete explains from her home in Los Angeles. “I was falling in love with the rats. You know, rats had a really good moment there in pop culture. I would hate to feed Susie because I would get to know all the mice and rats. My brother, on the other hand, that was his favorite thing to do!”
Susie came into the family after Peete’s mother, Dolores, a school teacher and host of a local TV show for kids, decided she needed a co-host. Somehow Susie beat out all the competition and landed the job. When the show wrapped for the summer, Susie’s family suddenly decided they could no longer care for her, so naturally she became part of the Robinson family. Peete’s father Matt, the original Gordon on Sesame Street and writer for The Cosby Show, loved animals but couldn’t warm up to Susie. When he came home from New York where Sesame Street taped, he was not pleased to find the newest family member in his shower. Peete still jokes that the reason her parents divorced was because her mother chose Susie over her father.
Susie wasn’t the only pet Peete had as a child. Laura Danker (named after a character in Judy Blume’s book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret) was a hamster—who stayed far away from Susie! Then there was a Weimaraner named Schiller, and a Siamese cat named Huey P. Newton—both names pulled from the history books. Friedrich Schiller was a German playwright and Huey P. Newton co-founded the Black Panther Party.
Both Peete and her mother still name pets after famous people. Currently Dolores has a dog named Sidney Poitier and two giant African desert tortoises named Ike and Tina Tortoise. When it came time to name their own dogs, Peete asked her children to choose names that were powerful and historically meaningful. Her four kids came up with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
Peete admits she may have had some influence over their 5-year-old Landseer Newfoundland’s name. “I’ve always been obsessed with [Harriet Tubman],” Peete admits. “Her life story is so phenomenal with what she was able to do with very little resources. So, my kids hear me talking about Harriet Tubman all the time.”
Harriet came into the home after Peete met a family who had several Newfoundlands. Peete became infatuated with the breed. After doing some research, she learned they were not only lovable, but they were also good service dogs for children with special needs. Peete’s son, Rodney Jr. (R.J.), now 14, was 3 years old when he was diagnosed with autism. Peete remembers it as a very difficult time in her life. With her husband, Rodney, a former NFL quarterback, always on the road, she was left alone in the trenches.
“I didn’t know what autism was. It was uncharted territory,” Peete says. “Now you hear a lot of people talking about it. Twelve years ago I would’ve loved to have opened a magazine and read about anybody talking about how they overcame this. At the time it was hard to talk about. It wreaked havoc on our marriage, and I felt like R.J.’s twin sister, Ryan, suffered too.”
Harriet turned out to be a blessing. Peete explains that children with autism don’t always read facial cues. Therefore, since animals are expressionless most of the time, kids with autism can relate and connect. When Harriet first came into R.J.’s life, he had very limited language. While Peete doesn’t point to Harriet as the beacon of light that opened up his vocabulary, she knows Harriet helped R.J. feel more comfortable and less stressed.
Frederick, a 4-year-old rescued Goldendoodle, came into the family a year after Harriet. Rescuing was nothing new to Peete. In 1974, after her parents divorced, Peete moved to California with her mother and brother. It was painful because she had to leave her animals behind in Philadelphia. In her new neighborhood Peete said there was the meanest dog catcher—the kind you’d see in cartoons who would ride up and down the street with a net. He knew where the stray dogs lived, but he would take them to the pound anyway. Peete and her mother would then rescue the dogs and return them to their homes. This was the case with Rufus and Bessie, two dogs who Peete looked after for over a year while their families were away. They were picked up several times by the dog catcher, and during a visit to the pound, they caught distemper and eventually died. “At 9, I didn’t think I’d ever survive the dog catcher,” Peete says. “I’m almost 50, and I’m still choking up thinking about it.”
In addition to Peete’s love for animals growing up, she always had a passion for acting. At just 5 years old, after much begging and pleading with her father, she had her television debut—on Sesame Street. She was supposed to say, “Hi, Gordon!” But, sadly, her line was taken away after she kept flubbing it and saying, “Hi, Daddy” instead!
After that experience, Peete turned her attention to academics. Upon graduating from high school with classmate Rob Lowe, Peete studied psychology and French at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She was then accepted to graduate school. Instead of spending the summer before grad school vacationing and hanging out with friends, Peete decided to give acting a second shot—just until school started. She auditioned for a new series called Jump Street Chapel on the Fox network, which was still in its infancy. She was cast as Sergeant Judy Hoffs, and the show, retitled 21 Jump Street, became a hit. Peete never made it to grad school.
When 21 Jump Street wrapped after five seasons, Peete found success on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. She also penned two books: Get Your Own Damn Beer, I’m Watching the Game!: A Woman’s Guide to Loving Pro Football and My Brother Charlie, which she wrote with her daughter Ryan about life with R.J. In 2010 Peete joined the daytime talk show, The Talk. However, Peete and co-star Leah Remini were mysteriously asked not to return for the second season. Peete still doesn’t know what happened.
“I couldn’t get anyone to tell me why,” Peete says. “It was like, ‘We’re going to pretend she doesn’t exist.’ That was the hard part. It wasn’t so much what happened, but how it was executed. I would have liked it to have happened with a little more compassion, but you don’t always get things delivered the way you want it.” What she learned from the experience was not only that she loved working in daytime television, but also that she was good at it. She hopes to find another daytime opportunity. Even though Peete is currently in what she calls “showbiz rehab,” she is busy. This fall she will release her own brand of lifestyle products in stores across the country—including a full pet line, featuring “Peete Treats.”
But perhaps her biggest commitment outside of show business began 15 years ago when she and Rodney launched the HollyRod Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides medical, physical, and emotional support to individuals and families living with Parkinson’s disease, which Holly’s father died of in 2002, and autism. The foundation is currently planning to open its first “HollyRod4kids Compassionate Care Center for Autism” in Los Angeles. In addition to her own organization, she supports the American Humane Association and Dogs for Autism.
Through all of Peete’s ups and downs, she pats herself on the back for being able to remain relevant in a tough business for close to three decades.
“It’s not easy,” Peete admits. “I’ve always wanted to do it organically and authentically with class and poise. Those are things my mother always taught me, and I’m very proud of the way I’ve been able to overcome adversity.”