It goes without saying, yet it must be said Peggy Lipton was impossibly beautiful. I’m always amazed by the fact that she was born in New York City. Her golden tresses and sun-kissed skin always seemed to epitomize California allure.
Lipton’s career began in the 60s as a model. She soon turned to television and screen with bit parts in a variety of projects. Her big break wouldn’t come until 1968, when She landed the role that would make her an icon, that of Julie Barnes, “the canary with a broken wing,” on The Mod Squad.
Produced by Aaron Spelling, The Mod Squad embraced the counterculture of the 60s. Lipton’s co-stars were Michael Cole and Clarence Williams III. Together, they formed a trio of ne’er-do-wells forced to become undercover detectives to avoid jail. The show was groundbreaking on several levels. It was the first show to put forth characters from the “hippy” culture as leads. It also broke down racial barriers by putting an African American (Williams’ Linc) on equal footing with Caucasian co-stars. Williams even planted a chaste kiss on Lipton. A near revolutionary move at the time. Spelling had to fight ABC to keep it in. The network feared an overflow of hate mail. After the episode aired, Spelling reported back that he had not received a single complaint.
The Mod Squad also dealt with topics rarely covered on television at the time. While elements of it may seem dated by today’s standards, late 60s to early 70s television was far behind the bold films that emerged after the end of the censorship era. Movies like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider were challenging audiences in the theater. In its own decidedly milder way, The Mod Squad did the same. Not just along the lines of racial representation in the cast, but on subject matter as well. Topics such as abortion, Vietnam, drug abuse, immigration, and police brutality were all covered over the show’s six-year run.
And of course, it was cool as hell. No one had seen three lead characters on TV like Julie, Linc, and Pete before. You can see its influence in shows that followed like 21 Jump Street and even Miami Vice.
The show received critical acclaim too. Especially for Lipton, who received four Emmy nominations to go with an equal number of Golden Globe nods (winning one from the Hollywood Foreign Press).
Lipton also had an occasional singing career. In 1968 she had a minor chart hit with Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End” – later a bigger hit for Barbra Streisand. She recorded a lovely version of Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” in 1970. Lipton is also credited as one of the songwriters on Frank Sinatra’s late career hit, “L.A. Is My Lady” from 1984.
Just as her career was peaking, Lipton pressed the pause button after falling in love with and marrying legendary music producer, Quincy Jones in 1974. Lipton’s creative output stopped cold for nearly 15 years – apart from a Mod Squad reunion movie in 1979 – as she focused on being a wife and mother to her and Jones’ two daughters, Rashida and Kidada.
Lipton and Jones separated in 1986 (they divorced four years later). The dissolution of their relationship coincided with Lipton’s return to acting. A few unremarkable credits followed before Lipton landed her second great role on David Lynch’s groundbreaking foray into television in 1989, Twin Peaks.
Lynch’s bizarre Pacific Northwest murder mystery found Lipton in the role of Norma Jennings, owner of the Double R Diner. The time away had not diminished Lipton’s beauty or talent. Always an enigmatic, hard to peg, presence onscreen, Twin Peaks took great advantage of that quality. Lipton’s Norma exuded mystery even when she was doing something as trivial as pushing a cup of coffee over the counter in her baby blue waitress outfit. With Lipton, it was always the unsaid that drew you in. What secrets did she know? One glance from her would set the mind reeling considering all the possibilities.
Peaks was canceled by ABC after just two seasons. Lipton reprised the role of Norma for Lynch’s Showtime continuation, Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017. Lipton never did find a third role as impactful as the two she is most known for, despite her talent and radiant appearance, Hollywood seldom knew what to do with her very particular qualities. Had she been born just a little earlier, you could easily imagine her having a long and fruitful career playing a succession of chilly blondes in a variety of Hitchcock films.
Alas, it was not to be. But while the length of Lipton’s resume is short on meaningful credits, the two most significant are remarkably so. Peggy Lipton was an actress, a singer, and a model. But more than anything, she was a remarkable presence. One that not only turned heads but made them linger past the point of comfort. Not just because of her otherworldly beauty, but because she seemed to know something the rest of us didn’t. Whatever those secrets were, she has taken them with her now. Leaving us once again bewitched and befuddled. This time forever.
And that’s exactly how it should be.
Peggy Lipton died yesterday. She was 72 years old.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.