Sunday, June 20, 2021

Steven Ivory: That Day I was Peggy ‘Mod Squad’ Lipton

Mod Squad season 1 poster

*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.

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Martin Luther King (Getty)
Martin Luther King (Getty)

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  Tonymy 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.

Peggy Lipton - Getty - 60247150_2531490486895688_1340044906046947328_o
Peggy Lipton

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.

chilli-dog

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.

Jimmy Stewart - gettyimages-3169699-2048x2048
Jimmy Stewart (Getty)

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?

Quincy Jones & Peggy Lipton (Getty)
Peggy Lipton and Quincy Jones (Getty)

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
Steven Ivory

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]

 

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