She was a groovy and sexy icon of the late hippie era. To millions of TV viewers she became familiar as the reformed juvenile delinquent, turned undercover cop, Julie Barnes. With her expressive brown eyes and trademark long blonde hair, sylphlike Peggy Lipton was one third of a streetwise urban trio who – at least to baby boomers in the 60s – represented a more anti-authoritarian point of view. As a police drama with a difference, Mod Squad (1968) was a counterculture trend-setter which addressed previously neglected (or taboo) issues such as the Vietnam War, child abuse, police brutality, racism and drugs. Along with Star Trek: The Original Series (1966), I Spy (1965), Mannix (1967) and Mission: Impossible (1966), it was also among the first shows to feature an interracial cast.
Peggy Lipton was born into a well-to-do upper middle-class family of Russian-Jewish ancestry. Her father was a corporate lawyer, her mother an artist. Her upbringing was strict, her childhood lonely. According to her co-authored autobiography “Breathing Out”, she was abused by an uncle. An introverted child of self-confessed ‘morbid and gloomy’ disposition, she became prone to a debilitating nervous stutter which began to disappear when she left home and struck out on her own at the age of 15. With her dad’s assistance she obtained her first job as a model for the Eileen Ford agency in New York. Her mother then prompted her to take drama classes with Uta Hagen at the Herbert Berghof studio in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. At age 19, Lipton got her first gigs on TV, mostly small guest spots, albeit in popular cult shows like Bewitched (1964), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962) and The Invaders (1967). She also co-starred (opposite a very young Kurt Russell) in Disney’s Mosby’s Marauders (1967), set during the Civil War. In between acting, Lipton enjoyed a brief, but moderately successful, singing career. Three of her singles made it to the Billboard charts. At the same time, her private life was punctuated by unhappy or abusive romantic dalliances and experimentation with drugs, including cocaine and peyote.
In 1968, Lipton’s career as a TV star was properly inaugurated with Mod Squad. Success led to four Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe Award in 1971. Four years into the show she was asked by an interviewer whether she was bored with her character. She replied: “Creatively I’m bored, yes, but I’m certainly not bored with the success of it, not at all. I know what I’m doing isn’t ‘Medea,’ or even necessarily very good TV, but it’s exciting to be famous”.
Fame might have been exciting, but there was a flipside. After five years of Mod Squad (“we were always working”), she was burnt out. Uncomfortable with attention from the press, Lipton became more and more withdrawn and insecure. Her subsequent marriage to music legend Quincy Jones (1974-1989) settled her down to raising a family but also led to a lengthy hiatus from acting. However, in 1988, somewhat rehabilitated from a miasma of personal problems, she made her screen comeback and a year later co-starred opposite Charles Bronson in the tough action thriller Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989). Her most high profile role during the following years was that of Norma Jennings, proprietor of the Double R Diner, in David Lynch’s bizarre supernatural drama Twin Peaks (1990) (a role she reprised in a later cinematic prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), as well as in the 2017 re-launch). Other sporadic appearances included a role as an antagonist in J.J. Abrams’s spy series Alias (2001).
Peggy Lipton was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. The disease eventually claimed her life on May 11 2019 at the age of 72. She left two daughters from her marriage to Quincy Jones, Rashida and Kidada, who have also become actresses.
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