For Peete’s Sake (OWN, Saturday nights, 10 p.m. ET) just might be the best reality series on television not only because it stars 21 Jump Street actress Holly Robinson Peete, her husband retired NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and their four amazing kids, but because it also stars Delores Robinson - Holly’s mom and former manager, doting grandmother (also known as G-Money to the little ones) and unbeknownst to some, longtime talent manager spanning back to the 70s.
At 80 years old, Robinson is vibrant, stylish and bubbly; she is a self-described people person whose charm and wit propelled her to turn a job as a receptionist at an L.A. talent agency (after moving from Philadelphia to California as a recently divorced, single mother of two small children) into a rewarding career as a talent manager whose agency, Delores Robinson Entertainment, helped launch the careers of noted actors Levar Burton (Roots, Reading Rainbow), Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU), Martin Sheen (The West Wing), Jada Pinkett (Set It Off), Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club), Tea Leoni (Madam Secretary), and of course, Holly.
Here, Robinson tells TNJ.com about her decades-long career in show business management, the allure of working in California and why she loves being on For Peete’s Sake.
TNJ.com: How did you end up in California and begin your career in talent management?
Delores Robinson: When I packed up my children, left Philadelphia and moved to California, I had the advantage of knowing actor Cleavon Little. He was my friend who provided a home for my children and me in Malibu. Cleavon’s rep was talent agent named Maggie Henderson who, after meeting me, said, “That girl can talk!” So, she hired me to be her receptionist. I quickly found that beach life in Malibu was so attractive that I found it difficult to go into town to work at the office. That was the first lesson. California can be so attractive that one can think we are on vacation; but I had to remember that although I was working in a business known as “show business,” it was still business and one must act accordingly.
TNJ.com: What were some of the challenges and some of the joys you encountered in launching your company, Delores Robinson Entertainment?
D.R.: I really had a blindfold on back then about things that I wouldn’t be so blind about now. I was 38 years old at the time and I had a blindfold on in the sense that I ignored the obstacles and just kept moving. And sometimes, I did not know the obstacles were there. When I did, I charmed my way past them.
The first person who trusted me was actress Rosalind Cash. She was the first person who took me on as a manager and from there I represented Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez, Tea Leoni, Corey Haim, LeVar Burton, Mariska Hargitay and so many others. I was very active in my day!
TNJ.com: What was the climate like back then when it came to getting roles for Black actors compared to getting roles for white actors?
D.R.: At the time, I had to bear some degree of criticism. I had to children to support; I had to make money, and it was very difficult to make money representing Black actors. So, when I took on white actors, which was something I did very quickly, everyone looked at me because there I was this little Black woman, and people wondered who I thought I was representing white actors. It really had not been done before. So I was kind of like “the great Black hope” because I had had some success in booking talent. Black actors came to me and wanted me to take them on but I couldn’t sometimes because the question was “can I sell you?” “Are you saleable?” Then I was looking like a Black person who was hiring white actors and not being loyal to Black actors. And it wasn’t true. I had to sell what I could sell.
It was a difficult thing for me; I was straddling a fence that I had to stay in business to make a living and put my kids through college.
Back then, the only outlets were CBS, ABC and NBC. Now, there’s a whole world of cable. There were no Lee Daniels and Ava DuVernays. I knew them, but they were young and struggling. I once said to Lee that it must have been so difficult to walk around and have all that talent and no outlet for it. I watched him work his way through it. And Ava. And now, to watch them shine…
There was also the battle between managers and agents. I was a manager, and the entertainment business only had a handful of us. Agents were competing with us. All the agents who said to me “my clients will never have managers” those agents are now managers. The world has changed.
TNJ.com: How do managers differ from agents?
D.R.: I looked at the client’s career as a wheel with different spokes in the wheel. There is an agent, a lawyer, a business manager and a publicist. As a manager, I made sure that wheel went around thoroughly.
TNJ.com: What were some of your experiences with some of the actors?
D.R.: It was fascinating. It’s so funny that Roman wants to be related to the Kunta Kinte character. In a stretch, he is. I represented LeVar Burton who played the role. While Rosalind Cash was my first client on the agency side, LeVar Burton was my first client on the management side. It was interesting because although he was world famous when he was in Roots, it was very difficult to get him a role afterwards that had the same level of success. He struggled to get jobs because he was so type cast. We did well, but it was very difficult because the world was not open. The Black production companies were not there. The companies that existed were not looking at any project starring Black people as moneymakers.
LeVar went on to do Reading Rainbow, which I booked, and he did extraordinarily well with it. He was a smart enough businessman to hang in there with it.
But even when I repped Wesley Snipes, who had worldwide movie fame, it was difficult. I remember a billboard for Passenger 57, his big, starring movie role which was the first time a Black man saved a white man and saved an entire plane from going down. When it got to the foreign markets, they used the face of one of the white actors instead of Wesley’s face in promoting the movie. Now, that might not happen.
TNJ.com: How would you sum up show business management?
D.R.: The nature of the manager business and agency business is that clients move around. We represent them and then somebody else represents them. And there is always a reason why. The reason why my clients always left me was because I told the truth. Sometimes actors live in their own space, in their own world and in their own truth and when you tell them the truth of the business, which is that it’s a business; a no nonsense business in which one must act accordingly, it can be very difficult for a young actor to understand this. Your box office is what means something. Also, you must respect others while on set. It can be a fun great business, but you can't go on set and be big headed. And when managers have to take down some of the big-headedness, we get chopped down with it. It is just the nature of what we do.
TNJ.com: What advice do you have for someone looking to launch a career in talent management today? What skills would the person need to have in order to stay afloat?
D.R.: People ability. People skills. Charm really means a lot. The phrase “you can get more flies with honey than vinegar” is really true. But you can’t walk around saying, “Hi, I’m a nice girl” or “Hi, I’m charming.” It’s hard work. It’s about connecting; it’s about getting to know who’s who. People have to be willing to take your phone call when you call them. They have to have a reason to take your phone call. It’s such a different world now though. I come from a world where when people would say, “It’s a deal,” it really was a deal. It’s not that world anymore. Now, “it’s a deal,” means “It’s a deal unless I can find something better in the next couple of days.”
It’s very difficult for me to give advice for today’s business because although I am still in it, I am no longer knee-deep in it. I do represent little Monae Davis, a baseball player. These days, it’s fun for me rather than serious business. She’s a Philadelphia girl, like me, and she needed to be protected, so I was asked to come out of retirement! We are in the process of making a movie deal for her to do her life story on Nickelodeon. Representing her gives me enough work to keep me interested and not be overwhelmed, and also do For Peete’s Sake without anything getting in the way.
TNJ.com: What was your experience in being a talent manager for others compared to representing your own daughter, Holly Robinson Peete?
D.R.: I created the term, Mom Manager. Kris Jenner stole it from me! I think she goes by “Momager,” but I like to say Mom Manager. Repping my daughter and repping others is much the same. Those of us who do this and do it well are basically mothers. We are protectors; it’s the protective desire to take care of your flock that makes you good or bad at this job, and I think women are much better at it because we have that overall “take care of me” ability in ways that men don’t.
TNJ.com: Tell me about this season of “For Peete’s Sake.” I think it is admirable that little Roman wants to know about his African ancestry and is ready to take a DNA test to do so. He has made it very clear that he hopes he is related to both Jackie Chan and “Roots” character Kunte Kinte!
D.R.: Yes! Roman and I find out some fun things about who we are. Also, I have a sister that is somewhere out there that I have not seen since she was 7. My father moved to New York and remarried a white woman, so there is a mixed little sister of mine out there. In one episode of the show, we go on a bit of a search for her. It is a bit interesting that I have not seen or heard from this person since she was 7. She would be 66 years old now.
TNJ.com: I love the premise of “For Peete’s Sake.” How did the idea come to be?
D.R.: It was Holly. She is a re-inventor; she keeps re-inventing herself and everyone around her. She decided that we would do this show. But I think the most interesting one of us is R.J. He is such an inspiration to everybody everywhere. He is now tackling driving and becoming more and more independent. I think Holly had a good idea in pitching the show and I am very happy that Oprah Winfrey’s company thought so, too. It's been a great deal of fun for me particularly because I have spent my entire life getting people jobs on television and in the movies and at 80 I look up and there I am in front of the camera.
TNJ.com: Speaking of R.J., several episodes of For Peete’s Sake shine a light on autism and some of the issues parents face in dealing with their autistic children. We see R.J. driving now and embracing his independence, but we also hear him say that he does not want to be autistic anymore. Is that difficult to hear?
D.R.: The prognosis for him was really slim. Autism is a spectrum, and some people are higher on that spectrum and some people are lower. He was pretty low on that spectrum and the expectations were really low, so to see him drive and become confident, and to hear him say that he does not want to be autistic anymore is encouraging. To me, it means he is striving and taking it on. I cheer him on when he says that and we all jump in with him. He will always have social problems; he just has to learn to tackle them.
TNJ.com: Last season, he took on a modeling job. Did that job come from your talent management background?
D.R.: That was me - good ‘ol G-Money using a bit of my old school “I can find talent” thing. I have been looking at his cheekbones since he was born, but I was thinking like any other grandmother thinks about her beautiful grandbaby. My friend Omar saw what I saw; another friend Andrew took the photos, which came out wonderful; and R.J. fell right into it. Now, when I ask him about it, he says he will continue to model off-season. Now, he is busy working for the L.A. Dodgers. He has put modeling on the back burner. He is very interested in making money, he has a bank account and a credit card and he knows that every day with the Dodgers is a paycheck. Modeling is “maybe.” He likes a sure thing!