*I didn’t care for Derek. He had the kind of nervous energy grown-ups attributed to kids who ate too much sugar.
He talked too much, laughed too loud, and despite Melvin’s mom’s edict for us to keep our 13 year-old selves close to home on that still, humid, lazy Oklahoma City Saturday afternoon—she said Melvin’s uncle was driving up from tiny Seminole, about 50 miles away from us—Derek kept insisting the three of us abandon our perch on the peeling white banister along the front porch of Melvin’s family’s faded lemon clapboard house and go hang out at Washington Park.
When it was clear we weren’t budging, Derek introduced another idea.
“Let’s play Mod Squad!”
“Cool,” said Melvin.
Before he or I could say anything else, Derek blurted, “I’m Linc!”
Like most children, those in my predominantly Black, Eastside neighborhood played pretend. You know—pretend to be someone or something you’re not: a cowboy, fireman, policeman, soldier. When we got older but still kids, we pretended to be characters from our favorite TV shows. After it made its premiere on ABC-TV in 1968, one of our favorite things to play was “The Mod Squad.”
The drama, starring 20-something white unknowns Michael Cole, Peggy Lipton and black newcomer Clarence Williams III, about a trio of young, hip undercover cops (“One Black, One White, One Blonde,” went the show’s catchphrase), might have seemed unbelievable, but in 1968, we desperately needed the escape.
Think things are crazy today? Consider 1968: On April 4th, six months before “Mod Squad”’s debut, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. It was one of the few times I saw mama cry. King’s murder cast a pall of anger, fear and hopelessness over black America, where, in several major cities, riots broke out.
That June, Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and the man on whom Black America hung its last, anguished political hope, was gunned down during a campaign appearance at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the Viet Nam war, under the direction of President Lyndon Johnson, raged on.
At least “The Mod Squad”’s cool “counter culture” cops took a smidgen of edge off how Blacks felt about law enforcement. After all the horrific evening news images of Blacks being beaten water hosed and shot during the nation’s civil unrest, young Black America was more than ready to see a Soul Brother like Williams’s Lincoln “Linc” Hayes character, with his together ‘fro, dark glasses and super cool demeanor, sock it to white crooks. Clarence Williams would go on to an acting career of varied roles, notably, almost two decades later, as father to Prince‘s character in “Purple Rain.” But in ’68, he was Linc, whose dramatic running dive while chasing down a bad guy became the trademark move every young, male black “Mod Squad” fan imitated at least once.
But I’d never played “Mod Squad.” How could you, with no female around to be Lipton’s Julie Barnes? See, when it came to pretend, I was adamant about authenticity. Some people have an aversion to different foods on their plate touching; it was the same with me and playing pretend. It had to be right.
I remember attending a boy’s birthday party, where, in the backyard, some of the kids were playing pretend. There was Superman, “Kato” ( the sidekick to TV’s “Green Hornet,” portrayed on the show by a young unknown martial artist named Bruce Lee), the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch, somebody pretending to be Greg Morris’ character on “Mission Impossible” and 60s’ TV private eye, “Mannix.”
I found it all disgusting: Not in a million years would Mannix have ever been acquainted with the Human Torch. Ever.
I’d bully Tony, my younger brother, into joining me and our friend Donnie Minnis in pretending to be the Beatles: Would it kill you to stand here, hold that broom and be George Harrison? I’d assign Donnie to be John Lennon. I was always Paul. We didn’t have a Ringo. Okay, so I wasn’t always consistent in my insistence on authenticity.
After Derek jumped on being “Linc,” Melvin immediately said he’d be “Mod Squad”’s Cool White Boy, “Pete Cochran.” Then they looked at me. Uh uh. No way am I going to be the chick. I’m not a girl.
“But we just playin’,” Derek coyly pushed back. “You know I ain’t really Linc. Melvin ain’t that white cat. We just playin’.”
“Yeah, but…I ain’t doin’ it.”
We went back and forth about this, before Derek tossed a grenade into the mix: “…And we was gon’ play Mod Squad all the way to Grady’s,” he said, referring to the mid-sized trailer a few blocks away that had been permanentized by a cement foundation and plumbing into an air conditioned, counter seating-only diner serving burgers and hot dogs. “I was going to treat.” Melvin’s eyes widened. Again, he looked at me.
Shoot. I did not want to do this. I suspected Derek simply wanted me to be Julie Barnes in the name of humiliation.
But the stakes were high. A Grady’s hot dog, smothered in chili and onions, accessorized by a bag of Lay’s potato chips, all of it washed down with an ice cold grape Nehi pop, was no joke.
So I relented to being Julie Barnes. But I had rules. For one, they couldn’t call me Julie Barnes. No yelling out, “Let’s get outta here, Julie!” or “Duck, Julie, it’s a bomb!” None of that. Melvin’s mother agreed that he could go to Grady’s. However, coolness had its limits: she gave him some change and instructed him to at some point Mod Squad himself into Safeway and return with a bottle of Clorox.
Playing Mod Squad involved what playing pretend usually entailed: a lot of stylized running, peeking around the corners of trees, cars, buildings, and socking it out with imaginary crooks.
As Julie, I merely walked with the guys. Thanks to God’s divine mercy, on TV Julie Barnes never sashayed or was purposefully “sexy.” Indeed, Lipton’s character, which appeared perpetually contemplative and seldom smiled, was the first woman in a man’s world that I remember watching on TV who didn’t exist simply for the pleasure of men. She was a human being. Quiet, introspective.
We fought crime all the way to Safeway ’s massive parking lot, where we ran into Joseph Weeks. Fifteen, JW, as we called him, seemed even older, his maturity the result of stunning circumstances.
When his mother passed away suddenly, with no father in the house and apparently no extended family to speak of, JW and his two siblings–Pam and Jonathan, thirteen and fourteen, respectively–all working various jobs after school (where they made good grades), simply continued living in the ramshackle house on their own. They raised themselves.
Tall, lanky, handsome, smart, resourceful and dignified for a kid, JW always reminded me of a mashup of actor Jimmy Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and Gregory Peck in “To Kill A Mockingbird” were the combination Black and teenaged. JW’s dry humor could strike like a cobra. He didn’t suffer Derek’s silly antics easily, often putting Derek in his place, even when Derek didn’t always know it was happening.
“Wha’ chall doin.’”
“Playing Mod Squad,” said Melvin.
“Oh yeah? Who’s Linc?”
“I am,” Derek said proudly.
I’m the white boy….” Chimed Melvin.
“Just two Mod Squad?” JW asked. “Where’s the chick?” He looked at me. I looked away.
“We’re going to Grady’s,” Derek interjected, attempting to impress JW. “Wanna come? I’m buyin’….”
“Naw, I just ate.”
“Where you headed,’” I asked.
JW said he was going over to Darvin Bennett’s house, who, under the guidance of his dad, owned a monster Lionel train set, legendary in the neighborhood, that nearly took up their whole garage. “You wanna come?”
I looked at the Mod Squad. “I’m goin’ to Grady’s,” Melvin insisted, as if to say, no train set can compete with a hotdog smothered in chili and onions. And cheese. Melvin liked grated cheddar on his.
Derek’s covert glare at me said, Ima tell JW you’re Julie Barnes. Nervous, I braced myself for the ridicule…that never came. Derek didn’t say boo about me being Julie. I bailed on the Squad for JW and the train set, but not without finding new love for Derek that day, for keeping his mouth shut.
While taking an alley shortcut to Darvin’s, we came upon a group of kids I didn’t know. Turns out, they were playing Justice League of America, D.C. Comics’ collective of superhero crimefighters, the comic book’s original version of which included, among others, Superman, Batman, Aquaman and The Flash. JW knew the kid who, as Green Lantern, seemed to be running things.
Unlike the usual pretend-play, where the enemy is imaginary, these kids were about to head over to the grounds of Woodson Elementary, where another group of kids—evil space invaders—were waiting to do battle. At stake was dominion of the Universe.
JW’s buddy said that, were we interested, we could round out the League. “We could use a Batman,” the kid said matter-of-factly. “We had one, but he had to go home and cut the grass….”
“I’ll be Batman,” I perked up.
“No, I’ll be Batman,” said JW.
“Nope, I said it first. I’m Batman.”
JW waited until his friend walked away and then turned to me. “Now, niggarito,” he undertoned firmly, “I just rescued yo’ Black ass from being a white woman. I’m GON’ be Batman, motherfucka.”
So JW was hip all along. That he knew I was Julie Barnes back there and never said anything made him my real life hero.
Robin the Boy Wonder wasn’t in the original Justice League, but what’s a small discrepancy among super friends?
Fast forward nine years to Los Angeles, 1977. I’m standing in the lobby of the Music Center downtown swigging Heineken with Ed Eckstein, then running Quincy Jones Productions. We’re awaiting the start of a concert for jazz-rock band Return To Forever, when Ecktein’s famous boss, with whom I’d become acquainted through my young career as a music journalist, suddenly appears. He’s not alone.
“Steve, have you met Peggy?” Quincy asks, just as she walks up. It’s…it’s Julie Barnes! Only it’s not Julie Barnes, it’s Peggy Lipton. Casually chic in a flowing white summer dress and immediately personable, the actress is nothing like her old Mod Squad character. For one thing, Lipton smiles. “Hi ya doin,’” she says, extending a small hand that executes a firm handshake.
So taken was I to meet Lipton that I’m sure I didn’t give proper respect to another introduction Quincy made to me right after Lipton: his runnin’ buddy standing right there, legendary composer Henry Mancini, with his wife, singer Virginia O’Connor-Mancini.
It was all over in a matter of minutes, the surreal encounter. Soon, Eckstein and I were in our seats digging the ferocious musicianship of RTF’s Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and Al Di Meola. The concert climaxed with an encore of Stevie Wonder being led onstage to join the quartet for a perfunctory rendition of Wonder’s “Superstition,” made exciting only by the unexpected presence of Wonder himself.
I enjoyed it all immensely. But even before Wonder’s arrival, in my mind, the night’s music had been relegated to serving as soundtrack to sentimental memories. All I could think about was childhood buddies Melvin, Derek and JW, and the fact that I’d just met Ms. Mod Squad. After the concert Eckstein and I headed into Hollywood for Greenblatt’s deli, when what I really craved was a Grady’s hot dog with chili. And plenty onions. END
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]