HOLLY IN BLOOM
A Popular Actress Springs Into Philanthropy
As a budding star, Holly Robinson Peete was eager to play opposite her dad, Matt Robinson, the lovable Gordon on Sesame Street, but she flubbed her line. That turned out to be only a speed-bump on the road to success. She went on to work consistently in television on such shows as 21 Jump Street, and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, as well as the upcoming ABC pilot Football Wives, with her mother Delores behind the scenes as her manager. Getting a gig on Wives is ironic because for more than a decade, the actress has been married to Rodney Peete, who played in the NFL for many years. After Holly’s dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the husband-and-wife team created the HollyRod Foundation. Though too late to help Holly’s dad, who died of his disease a few years ago, the couple is determined to help find a cure for Parkinson’s and to assist those living with the condition. As parents of four: twins Ryan & RJ, as well as Robinson and Roman, they were also inspired to start HollyRod4Kids, to advocate for those too young to fight for themselves.
Chet Cooper: Why did you start the HollyRod Foundation?
Holly Robinson Peete: Rodney and I created it over 10 years ago because my father had Parkinson’s for many years, and we had to support him. We were so thankful that Rodney had a job in the NFL and I had TV work in order to support him. But my father was an amazing writer. He originated the part of Gordon on Sesame Street, and went on to write and produce The Cosby Show for the whole run of the show. He had such an amazing career, and Parkinson’s disease got him at 46, very young. It was during a time when I was in college and it just wiped him out on so many levels. And as it progressed, and he got more and more debilitated, it became really difficult for him to do pretty much anything. So he lived with it for 20-some years, and passed away four years ago. But about 10 years ago, I was moaning and groaning about, “Why me? Why my dad?” My husband came to me and said, “You know what? The worst-case scenario would be if we weren’t able to take care of him—then what?” We all know the health-care situation in this country. That’s when we started to go on television programs and talk about what my dad was going through. Afterwards, we started getting a lot of letters. People were saying, “I live in Harlem. My uncle has Parkinson’s. We’re all each other has, and he’s in a corner in a ball, and he can’t get out of that ball because he can’t afford to medicate.”
Then we said, “We need to expand this and help other people with their quality of life.” That’s where the HollyRod Foundation came in. It’s grown. We do events around Super Bowl time in the Los Angeles area. We’ve expanded our mission a little bit with the kids’ arm, HollyRod4Kids, to help and support children’s causes. So it’s really been an amazing blessing. Whenever you have something tragic happen, it really is true that when you focus on helping other people, you don’t forget the pain, but you’re somehow a little more OK with the thing that’s a bummer in your life. We firmly believe that you’ve got to balance out the earth by giving back to it in some way. It’s kind of like our family credo. So HollyRod has been such a blessing. So many amazing things have happened to me as a result of really trying to hone the philanthropic arm of my life. I’m really glad that we started it, and I think my dad would be proud of it.
CC: While your father was alive, was he able to be treated with any of the newer medications for Parkinson’s?
HRP: He came down with it around the time when the Internet was just getting started. Information wasn’t as readily available as it is now. There were some breakthroughs. I’d have to say that if we’d had a different administration during most of the time that he was sick, I really feel we would be closer to a total cure for Parkinson’s now. But with all the ethical issues with the stem cells—that field of research was probably the most promising thing from which he might have benefited. He did have some stem cells implanted in his brain and they really did help alleviate some of his symptoms, but he was too far into the disease, too debilitated to really benefit from some of the treatments. That was one of the reasons we wanted to do HollyRod as well, because we really felt as though, for a while there, a cure was coming on a fast track. But so much government bureaucracy has blocked a lot of the progress. There are a lot of people for whom a cure is going to be way too late. So we wanted to really focus on those people, or on those who won’t be able to afford the cure. My father wasn’t really the beneficiary of a lot of things, but there were some new medications. There’s a lot more available now, and sadly he’s not here to reap the benefits.
CC: Are you allied with any of the companies working in this area?
HRP: We have worked in the past with Novartis, as well as some other companies. We’re actively seeking another corporate partnership with a pharmaceutical company. We’re in talks right now to align HollyRod with some pharmaceutical companies that we can brand with. For a while there, the pharmaceutical companies had stopped supporting foundations. There was some kind of corporate policy where they all stopped doing it. But now they’re back on board with foundations, helping and giving in-kind products. We have a compassionate care center down at the University of Southern California, where we give out medications and samples and physical and occupational therapy just to help people get through this disease. So we reach out to many pharmaceutical companies for in-kind donations, such as samples of Sinemet, which is the most widely used drug for Parkinson’s. We’re really trying to line ourselves up to get more involved with pharmaceuticals.
CC: What about medical technology companies like Medtronic?
HRP: There are other companies that we’re reaching out to as well. We have really great corporate sponsorships that have nothing to do with Parkinson’s disease, such as our alliances with Anheuser Busch and Outback Steakhouse, which have been supporting us all these years. We do have a relationship with Teva Neuroscience, which helps us a lot. But the kind of underwriting we’re looking for has a few more zeros to it.
CC: Do you know Medtronic and what they do?
HRP: I’ve heard of them.
CC: They are a leader in the area of neuromodulation. I interviewed Earl Bakken, the founder. He is the father of the wearable pacemaker.
HRP: I’ve seen something on him recently.
CC: Neuromodulation uses electrical stimulation in a medical procedure to alter nervous system functioning. Neurostimulator probes are put into the brain creating a programmable therapy that manages how neurons fire in specific mapped areas. This therapy is used with people whose drugs are ineffective for controlling their tremors due to Parkinson’s disease. They have a foundation—you might find it interesting to talk with them.
HRP: I’ll definitely look more into that, because that’s exactly what we’re doing now. We hired a new executive director and we’re really working hard to get more done. We’ve been very event-driven, celebrity-driven, begging our celebrity friends to come and show their faces and raise some money. But we haven’t been as involved in the scientific area as we want, even though we do have scientists to whom we funnel money at USC, who are in the trenches and who inform us about what’s going on. But they’re scientists, not fundraisers. So we are working to make more connections.
CC: Your experience with your father led you to create this foundation, and earlier you mentioned doing something for children. Can you tell me more about that?
HRP: I had a brand of maternity clothes, and part of the deal with the line, which I did with Mervyn’s department store for about three years, was there had to be a philanthropic aspect to it. In other words, they had to donate to HollyRod. But the Parkinson’s cause really wasn’t on their radar as far as their corporate mission. When they brought me onboard, one of the things that we did was a children’s carnival. We’d just invite our friends and their kids and it turned out to be this really wonderful event. We raised a lot of money. At the end, I basically farmed out $100,000 or so to several children’s charities that I researched and liked. We did that a few years ago. But we recently came back from this trip to South Africa where we were invited to go with Oprah Winfrey and her delegation to open her school there, and I had a sense that it was time to rethink the HollyRod4Kids mission.
CC: So that trip had an impact on you.
HRP: It was unbelievable. We took our children. It was an insane trip, but boy, was it worth it. Our kids visited homes run by 11-year-olds, because the parents had been decimated by HIV-AIDS. It’s one thing to tell kids about the starving children in Africa, but when they sit down and connect with them, that was just—you can’t even describe what that’s like. They really came back changed and generally respectful about everything. They’re nine, nine, four and two, and it impacted them at different levels. We connected with several organizations over there that really support these households that are run by these kids. So we really felt that we wanted to expand our mission to the quality of life for children.
It’s very broad, but probably specializing and focusing on children in southern Africa, as well as in New Orleans. We went and made several visits to New Orleans post-Katrina, and the children have just been completely forgotten down there. Schools haven’t been opened yet. There’s no money allocated for them. The red tape is crazy. If you’re looking from the children’s perspective, it can feel like a hopeless scenario.
So we went down there several times and talked with them. I had a really great moment recently, because I went to a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, and I got a chance to ask her about it in front of a lot of people. My knees were knocking. My husband was like, “What are you about to do? You’ve got the microphone in your hand.” I asked her very straightforward questions, because they were talking about 9/11 widows and how they came to Washington and they wouldn’t be denied. I said, “With all due respect to them, where is the money for the people in New Orleans? I know that the 9/11 widows lost their loved ones, but these people lost their entire infrastructure, their homes, their jobs, their livelihood, their schools—everything. Where is that money?” So she thought it was a very good question and said during the time of 9/11, there was a Democratic Congress. She gave a very partisan sort of answer. But the bottom line was, what she said to me really kind of made me think that there was no face for these children. There was no face for them. The 9/11 widows, they didn’t need celebrities. They didn’t need anybody. They just rolled up and they were determined women and you couldn’t say no to them on Capitol Hill. And I realized that she’s right. There really is no person who’s spearheading the children’s causes and getting it on the docket of some of these congressmen and senators.
So then I was sort of inspired and I thought about seeing if I could get some of these families to come with me to Capitol Hill to lobby for these children, because the children are just suffering so badly. So I think HollyRod4Kids is sort of still finding its mission. We’ve allocated quite a bit of money in South Africa, where we visited, as well as in the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans. I’m thinking that it’s really more of a qualityof-life issue for children, who are really facing some unbelievable uphill circumstances. Now we’re putting together our current carnival. I just went to New York and met with more corporations about reinventing the carnival with a slightly different mission, and doling the monies out to organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund and people who are really focused on these tangible missions.
CC: I would love to introduce you to a woman, Valerie Sobel. I don’t know if you’ve heard her name recently— she was in People magazine under a “Heroes” section. You mentioned red tape, which is so frustrating sometimes, and that problem also motivated her to set up her own philanthropy. She created a foundation after losing her child, and then almost immediately afterward her husband died. So she’s there looking at her life, just as you looked at your life and your family, saying, “The one thing I know I like is giving back, doing good work and feeling good about it.”
Valerie found herself wondering how she could help other women faced with the same tragedy. She said,“I had money. I had the ability to do what I needed. What if I was a working mother and needed to go and sit by my son as he was dying? How do women do that? How are single parents capable of dealing with children who are sick?” So she put up $4 million of her own money to start the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation (named after her son).
She has set up alliances with the social workers at major children’s cancer hospitals across the country, and as soon as somebody says, “I can’t pay my rent because I have to go to the hospital and be with my child,” or “I’m caring for a child at home and I’m going to lose my job,” the social workers know they can call her foundation if other resources have been exhausted.
Like you, Valerie is concerned with the red tape that can prevent people from getting the services they need, so her foundation does its best to make the money available immediately—sometimes the very same day—for families in dire straits. She started off with a focus on single mothers, but she’s expanded beyond that. It’s about the gaps that exist in our system. There are funds in place most of the time, but to get through the paperwork and figure out how to access them—who has the ability to do all that most of the time? It’s daunting.
HRP: I swear, if I had more time in my life… there’s this part of me that sometimes wants to just forget the acting and do this full time. I don’t want to put down anybody else as far as celebrity organizations, but a lot of people
are in it for the wrong reasons, or they don’t devote the time and energy. I have been so touched over the years by philanthropy, and the first few years that we started the foundation, I let somebody else do everything and I just showed up. It just wasn’t enough. So I’m listening. I’m constantly trying to network and meet new people who might bring any kind of different angle or sway to HollyRod. I’d love to meet her.
We’re working with two big yearly events right now—we have our annual summer event, and we’re also trying to get the go on the carnival, which will probably be in October. So we’re right in the throes of both HollyRod4Kids and HollyRod, just trying to bring as many people on board as possible.
CC: I got so far into the philanthropy line of thinking, I forgot to ask you about your new TV project.
HRP: I have a new pilot. I don’t usually like to talk about pilots, because it could jinx them. But this one certainly has a lot of heat to it, and there is a certain ironic twist about the subject matter, because it’s called Football Wives. I’ve been married to Rodney going on 12 years, though he’s actually retired now. He played 16 years in the NFL, with an even longer career if you include all his college and high school football years. And I wrote a book about football for women, called Get Your Own Damn Beer, I’m Watching the Game: A Woman’s Guide to Football. It was just ironic; when I saw the part, I thought, “Might get a little too on the nose—but I certainly know about it.”
CC: So it’s just coincidental that you also wrote a book about football wives—you weren’t involved in writing this pilot? Is any of it taken from your book?
HRP: No, my book is really more of an instructional guide, with funny and sometimes sad and scary stories about my life as a wife. It’s really more about chronicling my life, but also helping women learn about the game in a non-condescending way. And I did, ironically, pitch a sitcom based on my book to CBS a couple of years ago, but that show didn’t quite get past the script form. And then along came this show, which is based on the BBC show Footballers’ Wives, which has a little bit of a following and is very popular in other parts of the world. So another irony is that I don’t even play a wife—I play a football mom, which is a little bit humbling. I play this young, hot mom, if you will, of a wide receiver, and the corresponding character in the BBC show is quite the promiscuous nymphet.
CC: And that’s why they called you?
HRP: (laughs) Well, I’m not really sure why, but I have a feeling. The character is supposed to be 44; I’ll be 43 in a few months. I think they were looking for an actress who was in her forties but kind of looked a little younger. That was flattering to me. I have to say, it’s the first time I ever auditioned for a job where I brought my birth certificate along to prove to them I was actually approaching my mid-forties—because that’s how the character was written. It’s next to impossible to find a part on a major television series for a black actress who’s over 40. Especially a role that’s kind of sexy. That’s a hard gig to locate.
CC: I guess the Yellow Pages wouldn’t help. So do you remember us hanging out.
HRP: (laughs) What?
CC: Don’t leave me Hanging…
HRP: Oh. (laughs) I actually loved that show, and I just got a chance to see Mark Curry from the show about a week and a half ago. He had a terrible accident where he got burned. His water heater exploded.
CC: Is he okay?
HRP: He was severely burned on about 20 percent of his body. But he’s better now. He’s on the road, making fun of himself. When I saw him, I joked, “I know you admired Richard Pryor, but this is ridiculous!” He’s gotten past it, but it was a rough ride, he was in a coma for a while.
Fortunately, I got a great chance to reconnect with him in Richmond, Virginia. We both happened to be in town doing separate appearances. We talked about the old Cooper days.
CC: It’s apparent that a large part of your life has been in TV studios, but even your marriage proposal was filmed on set…
HRP: (laughs) Well, Rodney is a very resourceful guy. I was in the middle of shooting a show. Rodney was playing for the Dallas Cowboys at the time. We shot on Friday nights, and technically that was two nights before a game, when you’re supposed to be getting ready for it. But Rodney asked his coach if he could take off and miss practice on Friday to fly to L.A., propose, and then get on the plane to Dallas late Friday night to get back Saturday. And he did, and he called the executive producers and organized it with the studio and said, “I really want to do this. Will you guys help me?” They were like, “Yeah.” So they kept the cameras rolling and in he came. We were shooting a scene. They got the scene and then they said, “Let’s do it again.” I remember having this little attitude like, “What are you talking about? We got it. What are we doing it again for?”
CC: “I did that one great! It was perfect!”
HRP: (laughs) Yeah! “It was perfect, what are you talking about?” And they were saying, “No, we just need to do…” and they made up some little thing. I’m like, “All right.” So then we did it again, and the doorbell rang, and I thought, “Who is that?” and in comes Rodney with his little white suit on, looking like Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island. And he just came in and got on one knee, and the rest is history.
CC: That’s funny.
HRP: The cool thing is, that’s on video and we have it for eternity. It’s a really nice memory.
CC: I heard something about Oprah chronicling your marriage.
HRP: We’ve been making appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show over the years. They’ve sort of had us as their resident couple, whom they’ve followed. They saw the video of the proposal and they wanted to air it. Also, they do a Valentine special—or “I Love You Day”—so we came and we talked about that. And then we did something else called Celebrity-Spouse Challenge, where we switched roles for a day. Oh, then we started having kids, and I was pregnant. So every little milestone, they were there and chronicled it. We were just on a couple of months ago. We’re friends, and Oprah’s been really, really nice to our family.
CC: I actually caught part of a late night Oprah rerun, and I saw you and Rod.
HRP: We shot that in December and they aired it in late January, and then they just re-aired it. It was really nice that we got a chance to see it all put together. You can go through shooting footage and film, but to have Harpo Productions cut it all together, that’s kind of tight. I took that, burned a copy of the show and put it in each one of the kids’ little memory boxes. It was like bada-bing, you know? So that’s kind of cool.
We’ve been very fortunate to have made friends with Oprah. What she did in South Africa just made me feel like I was—on the philanthropic scale—like a negative 10. I felt like, Wait, man, I’m not even a real philanthropist. I’ve gotta get a move on! I was so blown away. That was the mother of all philanthropic acts. Just her attention to the detail in that school she built—in every little corner there was art. It was the culmination of her life’s work. She said it was the reason why she didn’t have kids, and the reason why she made all this money. It was really, really amazing. From a philanthropic standpoint it inspired me tremendously.
CC: I think she sets an example that encourages other people to further what they’re doing.
HRP: Yes, it does. We spent five days with her, we partied and did New Year’s Eve with her, and then went to her school. It was just really quite an uplifting and amazing trip. We were having a good old time, and then we got a chance to see these really amazing things. It was such an interesting five days. The last message that she gave us as we were getting ready to all go our separate ways was, “I hope God’s inspired you to do something like this.” We all looked at her like, “You’re right. If only we had $40 million.” She replied, “No, it’s not about money. It’s about just volunteering, spreading the word, whatever you can do.” So all of us walked away extremely inspired. I’m telling you, philanthropy is like a little bit of a drug. I have to say, it’s intoxicating.
CC: I think you’re right—it is.
HRP: I wasn’t born with a trust fund or anything. I don’t have $900 million to give out like a lot of people. There are some people in this world who do. I didn’t have money handed to me, so it’s a little hard for me, because I have to raise the money and then give it out. But to be able to raise that money and then write those checks and finally see things come together—to me, there’s no better feeling. You can go buy all the Bentleys you want, buy all the Louis Vuitton bags, buy homes around the world, but when you give to someone else and you make their life livable, or you help them get up every day so they can go to work, there’s nothing more invigorating. Oh, I just can’t tell you! It just makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. It makes you float. There are certain people who just don’t get that. They don’t get the power of giving. They’re so into taking and taking and saving their money. I’m like, “What are you saving it for? Give it! Donate it back! Make it do something that’s going to affect this world.”
If I didn’t have four kids and have to work and do the things I have to do, if someone said to me, “Here’s a bunch of money,” I’d have such a great time running around trying to figure out what to support. I just think that that is the biggest blessing to be able to do that, and I’m wholly inspired by philanthropists who do it. Wallis Annenberg from the Annenberg Foundation is probably one of our biggest underwriters and supporters. She’s one who is sitting on an endowment, and she’s got to write checks. People think that it’s easy, too, but you have to weigh out things and decide and really stick to your mission. You’ve also got to focus on what it is that you’re doing and make sure everything you support is going to support your mission. I’m inspired by Wallis and Oprah. They’re who I one day want to be. As a child I didn’t. I wanted to be like Diana Ross, you know? But I’ve grown up and traveled through the world and seen things. Now I just really want to give back, give back and give back.
CC: You started off wanting to be an actress or a singer?
HRP: I wanted to be a singer, actually. I saw a Broadway musical called Pearlie years ago. My dad’s friend starred in it at the time, and I got to see it at six or seven years old, and I was like, “Ooh, yeah, I’ve got to be on stage! I’ve got to sing!” Then my dad threatened me to within an inch of my life that I could never go into show business until I got my college degree, and I’m glad he did that, because getting an education was really worth it. I did that, got 21 Jump Street and got solid with television, which was a blessing. I enjoy TV, but never quite got to do the singing thing. I did sing the theme song to 21 Jump Street and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.
CC: Oh, did you?
HRP: Yeah, I got to do some fun closet-singing stuff, but never really realized that dream. Seriously, I really feel like, after 40-plus years, what I want people to remember me by is how I gave back. I mean, I don’t want an Academy Award or a Grammy; I want someone to say, “She made a difference in the world where it really counted.” Not that the arts don’t count. The arts are great. But I would way rather win a Nobel Peace Prize than win an Academy Award. Everyone’s got her dreams, and that’s really what the culmination of this half of my life has meant to me. The philanthropic edge is what I’d like to sharpen more than anything. I love to act and I’ve got to work—I’ve got four kids and I have to keep them all in school. But if I didn’t have to work and could focus on HollyRod all day? I would do it.