THE CELEBRITY APPRENTICE. 9 p.m. Sunday, Channel 10.

You could say that Holly Robinson Peete went into NBC's "The Celebrity Apprentice" with her eyes wide open.

"I did my due diligence," the Philadelphia-born actress said in January in Pasadena, Calif.

"I called about five or six former contestants," and asked them, among other things, about the way the show was edited and whether it distorted the way they'd been on the show.

"Almost all of them said the same thing, that it was pretty real. And a lot of them were reality vets. They know," said Peete, who acknowledged that she's still a little nervous about what we'll see starting Sunday.

"I'd never done a reality show. I come from scripted TV. I was way out of my element."

But spending several weeks trying not to get fired by Donald Trump happened to be one way Peete could raise money to fight autism, a cause that hits particularly close to home. Peete and her husband, former Eagles quarterback Rodney Peete, have four children, including 12-year-old Rodney Jr., who, she said, has "high-functioning autism."

Their other joint production is the HollyRod Foundation. Originally founded to aid those with Parkinson's, the disease that killed her father, Matthew Robinson - a TV writer and "Sesame Street's" original Gordon - the foundation "now has an initiative for autism specifically. We raise money still for Parkinson's, for my dad, but now we're building an autism center in Los Angeles, so it's all about that capital campaign," she said.

"I can tell you that ['The Apprentice'] was the best, worst, hardest, easiest, craziest thing I've ever done," she said. "To leave Rodney and the kids for all that time, you know, it was a little bit scary. I missed my family so much, but my charity is like my fifth child . . . and the opportunity to get on TV . . . and talk about autism with this national audience - I couldn't pass that up."

Even if the man she calls "Mr. Trump" "didn't have a clue who I was," said Peete, whose TV career spans more than two decades. "Not a clue. He was like, 'When you get off this show, people are going to know who you are.' And at one point someone said, 'Well, um, we were out on the street and we were doing our task and all the cops' " were calling out to Peete.

Though she's starred in several series, including multiple seasons on the former WB's "For Your Love," she's still, she acknowledged, most recognized for having played Officer Judy Hoffs opposite Johnny Depp on "21 Jump Street" and for "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper," which "is widely syndicated worldwide," she said, but Trump must not have seen either. "I'm totally off his radar."

But then Peete admits that she didn't immediately recognize the celebrity status of some of her fellow contestants. Pointing across the room, she said, "This guy right here? He's a chef, his name is Curtis Stone. I had no clue who he was until I did this. He has got one of the biggest followings. . . . He's a Food Network guy.

"I think they did a good job in casting, in that they picked people who really are strong in their fields," she said.

Which doesn't exactly explain the presence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who's currently under indictment and whose shtick in Sunday's premiere consists of introducing himself to people as "innocent on all charges."

Peete found common ground with the former governor.

"I loved talking to him about football. He knew everything about Rodney's career, he knew I'd written a book about football. I mean, he's a guy who does his homework and I found him very charming and very sweet."

Did he seem worried about his legal situation?

"I mean, a little bit, but you know what? He likes people to like him. . . . He's very social," she said.

"Television-wise, I think it's going to be brilliant. . . . He's such a fish out of water. We all were, but there were moments when the governor was so out of his element," she said, laughing.

Blagojevich and Trump also "had some hair conversations," she said. "When it comes to the hair, not everyone's as self-deprecating about hair as Mr. Trump is. He works it. I think his hair has its own publicist. He's very self-deprecating and I found that extremely disarming and very charming."

Oscars draw a crowd

With two hosts and 10 best-picture nominees - one the top-grossing film of all time - Sunday's Oscarcast was the highest-rated in five years, ABC crowed yesterday.

According to the early Nielsens, the show averaged 41.3 million viewers, up 5 million from last year, when there were no James Cameron blockbusters in the running.

'Fringe' to return

Fox's "Fringe" has been renewed for a third season, the network announced yesterday. *

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