A Feisty Straight-Shooter, Holly Robinson Puts the Jump in TV's 21 Jump Street

updated 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Maybe Holly Robinson looks composed as she sits in the West Hollywood duplex she shares with her mother, but she's still reeling from the night before. "The wildest thing happened," she says. "I was in the bathroom at the Hard Rock Cafe, and there were 12 girls in there. I'm just standing there being kind of cool, and these girls look at me and say, 'Oh, my God, you're on 21 Jump Street' So I start signing autographs on toilet paper. Then they all break out into the show's title song, all 12 of them! I couldn't believe it. It was the greatest feeling. It was the coolest thing I've seen yet!"

Ditto for her and the show. Robinson and 21 Jump Street—a sort of Mod Squad Goes to High School—are the coolest things to be had on the Fox network. She's officer Judy Hoffs, one of four baby-faced cops who go undercover as students to battle coke dealers, smut peddlers and heavy-metal cult kings. Robinson's nymphet enthusiasm and extra-strength Pepsodent smile are two reasons why the show is leading the pack on Fox's Sunday night schedule.

But what is most striking about this feisty 23-year-old is her disarming honesty. Not only will Robinson gush about the high she gets from her fans, she also has no problem owning up to the time she punched out actress Robin (Head of the Class) Givens for making an insulting remark about Robinson's mother. Or admitting that she and her boyfriend of two months just broke up because her career is going stronger than his. In fact, it was her probity quotient that landed her on Jump Street in the first place. "When Holly came in the room, everyone else was second choice, and it wasn't her acting," says the show's executive producer, Peter Hasburgh. "It was her honesty and carriage. If we could deliver on who she is, I knew we'd have the character."

Robinson attributes her sense of self to "the perfect combination of being raised on both the East and West coasts—you get anxiety but with some relaxation." She was first raised in Philadelphia, where her mother, Dolores, worked as public relations director for the local NBC affiliate. Holly's father, Matt Robinson, commuted to New York, where he appeared as Gordon on Sesame Street. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and she and her brother, Matthew, now 25, moved to Malibu with their mother. "It was a little weird going from a well-integrated school to a sea of white faces," says Holly. "The only other black family in town was the Flip Wilsons."

Still, Holly made friends, including Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez and Sean Penn—who, she says, wasn't beating people up back then. Dolores got a job as secretary to an agent, and eventually became a talent manager. Matt, no longer consorting with Big Bird, is now a writer for The Cosby Show.

Show business rubbed off on Holly. Her first gig, at age 4, was a Sesame Street walk-on, but she blew her one line. "Instead of saying, 'Hi, Gordon,' I said, 'Hi, Daddy.' " At 11, she started a two-year stint on Kids World, a weekly syndicated news show, interviewing the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marty Allen. But mostly she focused on academics. Robinson graduated from Sarah Lawrence College—with a junior year at the Sorbonne—as a straight-A student, studying French, Spanish, Italian and psychology.

It was at Sarah Lawrence that Holly claims she had a falling-out with Givens, her friend and classmate. "I find out that behind my back she said my mother was a slut," says Robinson. "I confronted her with it, and she said, 'Yeah, so what?' So I punched her. You know how everyone is about their mother. Talk about my dog, talk about my house, but don't talk about my mother. We jumped on each other, and the resident assistant had to pull us apart." When the two run into each other at parties today, they are polite—probably, conjectures Holly, because "we've never been up for the same part."

Which is surprising, because roles for young black actresses are few, far between and often demeaning. Before auditioning for Jump Street, Robinson tried out for four roles, including a hooker, a pregnant ghetto girl and a pimp's girlfriend. The fourth role was as a black nurse for an episode of ABC's Sledge Hammer!, and Robinson says the casting director asked her to read her lines "like Prissy in Gone With the Wind."

By contrast, the role of 21 Jump Street's Judy Hoffs seemed surprisingly intelligent and well-rounded, and Robinson reacted to the part with characteristic candor. "At the audition I asked if I had the right script," she says. "I thought it was a white actress's part."

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