‘You Do What You Have To Do’

At first glance, Lilly Tartikoff and Holly Robinson Peete seem to have only one thing in common: busy Hollywood lives. Tartikoff found fame, visibility and fortune during her marriage to wunderkind NBC programmer Brandon Tartikoff. Robinson Peete, married to former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, became a familiar face when she appeared opposite Johnny Depp on the show "21 Jump Street."

But the two women share a deeper connection. Both endured the death of a loved one: Brandon Tartikoff died of Hodgkin's disease in 1997; Robinson Peete's father, Matt Robinson (Gordon on "Sesame Street"), succumbed to Parkinson's disease in 2002. Both also know the heartache of raising children with disabilities. On New Year's Day 1991, Tartikoff's oldest daughter, Calla, 8 at the time, suffered a severe brain injury in a car accident. Robinson Peete's 9-year-old son, Rodney, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. And both have turned personal pain into public good, raising money and awareness of the problems that transformed their families. The women spoke with NEWSWEEK's Allison Samuels at Robinson Peete's Beverly Hills home.

Samuels: Lilly, tell us about your journey with your husband.
Brandon was on the receiving end of some amazing science that kept him alive for 10 years, or maybe longer, than expected. I became obsessed with moving that science forward. So I took my husband's massive Rolodex and just started calling everyone in it for money [to fund research]. No one was safe from my call. It was tough work. You have to remember this was in the '80s, when can-cer was still very hush-hush in some circles.

Holly, your experience began with your father taking you to college.
Robinson Peete: My dad was a writer for "The Cosby Show" in New York when I began college. The day he dropped me off, I saw him wobbling a little bit as he walked away, so I yelled, "Hey, why are you walking like Fred Sanford?" And he yelled back, "You just make sure you don't end up in the junkyard with bad grades." We always laughed things off in our family. But gradually the symptoms became worse and we couldn't ignore it anymore.

He had Parkinson's. And you ended up starting a foundation for those with the disease.
Robinson Peete: At a certain point my dad couldn't take care of himself anymore, so my husband and I moved him to Los Angeles. It was a lot of work and it took a lot of help—which made my husband ask, "What do people do when they don't have the resources we have?" And so the HollyRod Foundation was born.

So you dealt with cancer and Parkinson's disease, but it doesn't end there. You have both very privately faced other challenges.
Tartikoff: You do what you have to. I would take Brandon to chemo in the mornings and go to rehab with Calla in the evenings. They told me she'd never walk again, and I couldn't accept that. She was such a bright girl who wrote her first book when she was 5. So it broke my heart, like it would any mother's, to hear that.

There had to be days when it was too much.
Tartikoff: Of course. I remember the year that most of Calla's friends turned 16 and had birthday parties. [Calla is now 24.] Those days were tough, because so many mothers get excited when their kids begin applying and getting accepted at Yale or Harvard. For me as a mother, the day my daughter was able to lift her head up and hold it for several minutes at a time was my great day. I don't know if many mothers can understand how the little things bring joy when you face what we've faced.

Robinson Peete: Amen. The day Rodney said his first complete sentence was just so incredible for me, and it sounds like nothing to most moms. I didn't really come out and talk about my son's autism until this year, because I just couldn't. I had to get a handle on it myself before telling the world.

Do you keep trying to give back, or do you stop at some point for your own sanity?
Robinson Peete: For me there is no stopping, because now I have another journey with my son and it's really important that I get that story out there, particularly for African-American parents.

Tartikoff: I don't do the Fire and Ice Ball [a legendary Hollywood fund-raiser] anymore, but money and awareness are still being raised. I took time off to focus on my daughter and help her adjust to adulthood, and she's doing wonderfully. But as Holly said, you're always giving, and I do remember having to leave my kids when they were young to work on projects because one woman said, "Your work is going to save the next woman—maybe not me—but the next woman." That's a hard thing to walk away from.