Holly Robinson of 21 Jump Street may not be an experienced actress, but …
This Rookie Cop Shoots a Mean Water Pistol, Sings Rock and Speaks Four Languages
By Bill Davidson
Young female series stars pop up like a row of almost exactly identical yellow tulips in spring: blonde and blue-eyed, built like high-school cheerleaders, they’re nearly always what is known in the industry as “airheads”. A notable exception to this standard (which is what the television moguls think the public wants to see) is Holly Robinon, who plays baby faced police officer Judy Hoffs in Fox Broadcasting’s 21 Jump Street. Robinson is not blonde and blue-eyed. She is black. She is definitely not an airhead. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, spent a year studying at the Sorbonne in France and speaks three foreign languages fluently.
If that’s not enough to prove how different she is from the other tulips in the garden, consider the following example of almost unheard-of frankness. When asked how she got her start in show business, her straightforward reply is: “Pure nepotism.”
Unbelievable. The other tulips would mumble something about high-school dramatics, beauty contests and being seen by an agent. Robinson does not beat around the bush. She knows her advantages. Her mother,Dolores, is one of the top personal managers in Hollywood; her father, Matt, played the part of Gordon for years on Sesame Street and now is a co-producer of Bill Cosb’ys show. “All that didn’t hurt in getting me started,” she says, “but after that, I was on my own against all that blonde-and-blue-eyed competition.”
You are forgiven if you are not immediately familiar with Robinson and 21 Jump Street. As part of the fledgling Fox Broadcasting Company, the show reaches only 87 percent of the country. But where it is seen, it has proven to be a popular alternative to its network competition, occasionally beating CBS’s 60 Minutes, ABC’s Disney Sunday Movie and NBC’s Our House in some markets. It’s Fox’s second highest rated show this season, and Holly Robinson has become one of Fox’s most popular female stars.
All of which is surprising, since in her23-year existence, Robinson has played only one previous role (obtained for her by her mother) — as LeVar Burton’s sister in the movie “Dummy.” Even today, 21 Jump Street’s creator and executive producer, Patrick Hasburgh, says, “I had to be nuts to go with a girl with so little acting background, buts he was the brightest and the most naturally talented of all the young women I interviewed for the part.”
Then he adds (also with candor), “Of course, what wed o on this show doesn’t exactly require the skills of a Meryl Streep or a Robert Redford.”
For those unfamiliar with the program, it is about a team of cops who are so young-looking that they can successfully infiltrate high schools as “students,” wipe out crimes such as drug-dealing, and confront teen-age social problems such as parental incest and AIDS. There is a lot of running, jumping and yelling, as well as acting, and Robinson more than keeps up with co-stars Johnny Depp (“Platoon”) and Peter DeLuise (comic Dom DeLuise’s son). She even elicits the praise of the one veteran actor in the group, Steven Williams (Hill Street Blues, The Equalizer), who plays the captain of the squad of young cops. Williams says, “Except for the fact that it takes Holly forever to get her hair done every day, I’m really proud of the way she’s learned so much so fast.” Hearing this – and proving that she is still a kid – Robinson splatters Williams with a water-pistol that she uses in her almost daily off-screen duels with Depp and DeLuise.
How does a young actress get so far so fast? As she herself readily admits, she did have a certain edge – even back in the early days in her native Philadelphia. While other kids on her block worshiped the Sesame Street regulars, her father was one of the stars of Sesame Street. Strangely, that led to a childhood heartbreak for her. As she tells it, “Mom was working as a public-relations director for the NBC television station in Philadelphia, and Dad had to commute every day to New York to play the part of Gordon in Sesame Street. That lead to their separation and eventually to their divorce. I was 6 years old, and I didn’t want them to divorce.”
A year or so later, Dolores Robinson moved to California with Holly and her son, Matthew, and moved into a house in posh, virtually all-white Malibu. The house was loaned to them by family friend Cleavon Little, who then was in New York acting in a long-running play. Says Robinson, “The only other black kids in town were Flip Wilson’s, but the white kids all were from show-business families, too, and they were impressed that my dad was Gordon on Sesame Street. So I got to be good friends with Rob Lowe, Sean Penn, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen all through elementary school, junior high, and Santa Monica High School. They’re still my good friends.”
In the meantime, Dolores Robinson began her talent-managing business (with such clients as Margot Kidder) and Holly suffered no financial hardships as she winged her way through high school with a 3.8 average. She was wooed by several major universities, but on the insistence of her father, she chose prestigious Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, N.Y., where she continued her A-average ways, majoring in languages.
In her freshman year there, she was involved in a minor contretemps, an incident involving, of all people, Robin Givens, now one of the stars of Head of the Class and the wife of Mike Tyson, the heavyweight boxing champ of the world. “Robin was two years ahead of me at Sarah Lawrence,” Robinson recalls. “One day she said something nasty about my mother, and I hung one on her jaw. That was followed by a lot of clutching and clawing, and we were broken apart by a resident adviser. It was no big thing, and I apologized to Robin for the way the press handled it later. Would I do it today? No way. Not with the champ in her corner.”
Later she decided to take part in a Sarah Lawrence program that enabled her to spend her junior year studying at the Sorbonne. Never the diplomat, she says she “Wasn’t too popular with the other American girls there; they were mostly interested in going down to the American Embassy and picking up marines.” What Robinson was interested in was singing (she had developed a good rock-style voice in school), so, to augment her finances and gain experience, she worked during vacations as a band singer in Club Med resorts in Africa and Spain. The band was Italian. She warbled mostly Italian songs.
In her senior year at Sarah Lawrence, Robinson (with the help of her mother) got a job as a singer with a rock group called Cherry Bomb in the movie “Howard the Duck.” The film is famous as one of the great screen disasters of all time, even resulting in a high-level executive shake-up at Universal Pictures. It also was personally disastrous for Robinson. Her 30-minute role was cut to less than three minutes in the final version. She didn’t have much time to brood about it. She had to take makeup courses and final exams at Sarah Lawrence in order to get her Bachelor of Arts degree, which she did.
Until this point, at age 21, Robinson hadn’t even thought of a career in acting. She was hooked on becoming a pop singer. But she didn’t have enough money to get demonstration tapes made. So through her mother and an agent named Bob Gersh, she went out on TV casting calls, “just to make enough money to pay for my demo tapes.” One of the first calls was for the role of Judy Hoffs in 21 Jump Street. A few weeks later she had the job – a development that even astounded Dolores.
Executive producer Patrick Hasbrugh still recalls the event with some incredulity. He says, “Originally I wrote the role for a blue-eyed blonde, but then in walked this black kid with enormous brown eyes and a sleek body, and so intelligent that she made me feel outmatched. So I sent Holly away and rewrote the part. My old Judy Hoffs began to look to me like a naive, sappy Nancy Drew.
“Then I called Holly back for maybe eight more readings and interviews. I still wasn’t sure, because her lack of acting experience, but her brains and her natural beauty made me feel more and more like she was exactly the Judy Hoffs I now had in mind. Or maybe I had Holly in mind when I conceived the new Judy Hoffs. Anyway, she finally won out over some tough, more experienced competition – Troy Beyer, who had played Diahann Carroll’s daughter in Dynasty, and Paris Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan’s daughter.
So Robinson, who was living (and still lives) with her mother in a house in West Hollywood, went off to Vancouver, British Colombia, where the show is filmed. Hasbrugh asked Les Sheldon, one of the show’s directors, to give her some acting pointers. She fit in easily with the other young actors in the cast, who are all about the same age. She is not too sophisticated to join in with their pranks, such as the water-pistol warfare and the burning of their underwear when they are displayed; yet she is sophisticated enough to refrain from flaunting her superior education in front of Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, “who would hand me my head if I tried to pull the smarts on them.” She is closest to Dustin Nguyen, who plays Officer Ioki and was one of the boat-people refugees from Vietnam when he was 10. On days off, Nguyen and Robinson visit the spectacular sights of British Colombia together. “Dustin’s teaching me how to speak Vietnamese,” says Robinson, “and I’m helping him to bring back the French he learned as a child.” She has no steady boy friend, but there is “one guy I see a lot, a young Canadian actor, a real good buddy.”
In the show, Robinson’s role has gradually increased in importance. She gets most of the scenes in which a cop has to reason compassionately with a troubled youngster. Says producer Hasburgh, “I want Judy Hoffs to be the healthiest person in my group of young cops, not quite as consumed or neurotic or as egotistical as the others. Holly carries it off well. Personally, she’s an independent, rational lady, not victimized by the fact that she’s young,black and female. Also, she doesn’t give the air of self-righteousness, which is true of many female cops on TV, Cagney and Lacey, for example.”
But all is not perfect. Hasbrugh rants about the amount of time Robinson takes to get her hair and makeup done, and he confesses to an occasional explosion of temperament between producer and star. Recently, for example, Robinson left the Vancouver set on a Friday, not expecting to work again until late the following week. Tuesday came, however, and she was needed on the set for a scene. Robinson was in Philadelphia. Hasbrugh says, “That’s resulted in quite a flap. I phoned Holly’s mother. Then Holly called in from Philadelphia, and there was a lot of screaming and yelling. I threatened to suspend her, not pay her, and I gave her a letcure about discipline. She cried. Then we made up and she promised to rush right back to do the scene the next day. She still thinks I’m mad at her.”
And she’s still not sure that she even wants to be an actress. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” she says, hinting slyly that she’s just learned how to ski in Canada and “I might become the Debi Thomas of skiing”.
She ismore serious about her revitalized singing career, which is what took her to Philadelphia on the day of her big flap with Hasbrugh. “I’ve just started to record,” she says, “and I’m getting to be a big national anthem singer.” She has sung the Star-Spangled Banner for big crowds before Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games and Seattle Seahawks football games. She did the same with the U.S. Army Marching Band at last year’s celebration of the Constitution on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. With her usual candor, Robinson says, “They wanted Whitney Houston, but they couldn’t afford her, so I decided I’d take her leftovers.” She takes nobody’s leftovers when she creditably sings the theme song of 21 Jump Street at the beginning and end of each show.
So where is this multitalented young woman going? No one knows. Least of all the executives of Fox Broadcasing, who wince when she cocks her head thoughtfully and says, “Maybe I’ll go back to a college and get my Ph.D. and become a language expert for the State Department.”
Don’t count on that. At least not while that juicy four-figure salary keeps rolling in from 21 Jump Street every week.