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Actress is at home in TV role as busy mom

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. -- On screen and off, Holly Robinson Peete is a multitasker.

As Tanya Ward in the WB sitcom "Like Family" (9:30 p.m. on Fridays), she's the take-charge mom of her household -- husband, two kids, father-in-law -- but also has time for best friend Maddie Hudson and Maddie's teenage son, Keith, who have moved in with them.

In her own life, Peete juggles her career and family life with her husband, Rodney Peete, a quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, and their three young children. She also runs the HollyRod Foundation, which helps people with Parkinson's. (The disease killed her father, Matt Robinson, the original Gordon on "Sesame Street.")

And if that's not enough, Peete is writing a women's guide to watching football, designing a line of maternity clothing, and recording a lullaby album.

Tanya, she says, is "very much like myself in that she tries to be in control of everything."

Warren Littlefield, executive producer of "Like Family," says his star has "strength and amazing grace" and can cope with the demands she places on herself.

"When you have to keep as many plates spinning as she does, you know something is sometimes going to crash. If it does she always deals with it with humor," he says. "That's what's really great about her."

Peete, whose sitcoms include "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" and "For Your Love," wanted to get back to work after her youngest child was born a year ago. But the 39-year-old actress says she was looking for something that "could make some sort of statement . . . a really, really positive show on the landscape of television."

One reason "Like Family" fit the bill, she says: "I was just really tired of segregated television." Tanya's family is black; Maggie and Keith are white.

"I love how the characters blend harmoniously with very little talk of race," says Peete.

In a scene being rehearsed on a recent day, Tanya and Maggie (Diane Farr) squabble over which of two girls Keith (J. Mack Slaughter) should date.

Caught between the two women as their quarrel deepens, Tanya's husband, Ed (Kevin Michael Richardson), backs out by clambering over the sofa. He accomplishes his move with silent comic skill. Cast and crew crack up, as the audience probably will as well.

Peete is pleased that her series has not been "ghettoized" in its Friday night slot, but is part of a "multiethnic evening" that includes "Reba," "What I Like About You," and "Grounded For Life."

She's also pleased that it's genuine family fare. "There aren't a lot of shows where my kids can walk into the room and we can all watch it together," she says.

When Peete's father was on "Sesame Street," she says, she begged to be on the show, but "he wouldn't let me. He was so scared I would become one of those typical little show-biz kids."

When she was about 6, she got the chance to say one line, and blew it. "It was `Hi, Daddy,' she says, blowing it again. "I'm sorry, it was `Hi, Gordon,' but I kept saying `Hi, Daddy.' " The line was finally edited out. "I got to walk down the street with Big Bird, but I barely made it off the cutting room floor."

She didn't try show business again until after college at Sarah Lawrence, where she studied psychology and French. In 1987, she was cast as Officer Judy Hoffs on "21 Jump Street," for which she also sang the theme song. "I never made it to grad school. That's one of the few regrets I have about my career," she says.

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