Depending on which generation the viewer was born into would dictate which iconic role of Peggy Lipton’s is the one that resonates the most. For the American baby-boomers that grew up in the 1960s it would be that of Julie Barnes, one third of the Mod Squad, a trio of counterculture youths that infiltrate various criminal organisations as secret agents for the police. Yet for those born in the generation that followed Lipton was Norma Jennings, the middle-aged owner of a diner in the surreal cult series Twin Peaks, which aired during the early 1990s and would become an unexpected sensation due to its cryptic whodunnit plot that mixed elements of soap opera, procedural drama and offbeat comedy.
‘I grew up in the Five Towns on the south shore of Long Island, New York. I was given the name Peggy Ann at birth,’ recalled Lipton in her 2005 memoir Breathing Out. ‘I learned from my father that my mother went back and changed my birth certificate to read Margaret Ann, feeling the name Peggy was either too Irish or too unsophisticated. But it was too late. I was always known as Peggy.’
Lipton first entered the entertainment industry in her-mid teens when her father, a successful lawyer, arranged for some modelling opportunities around New York. Soon afterwards she would be encouraged by her mother to attend acting lessons and before long the family relocated to Los Angeles where, with the support of both parents, she made her television debut in an episode of the popular sitcom Bewitched. More minor roles would follow, during which Lipton would make appearances in the likes of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the Invaders but within a few years she would be launched into the mainstream.
‘In the beginning of Mod Squad we were all so new, so idealistic – so into making the show good, not just successful,’ Lipton would later explain in an interview with Life, while looking back on the show that would turn her into a star. ‘I do look back on it with a certain pride. I would never have been where I am without it.’ Yet after several years of playing the same character and having to adhere to a strict working schedule the young actress had become tired of the experience, later adding, ‘After Mod Squad I don’t want to do TV ever again. I want to do a movie. I don’t care what it is.’
Lipton’s aspirations to become an actress on the big screen would soon be pushed aside, however, when she met Quincy Jones. Thirteen years her senior, Jones was an acclaimed producer and musician, having composed the soundtracks to such motion pictures as The Italian Job, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and, most recently, The Anderson Tapes. Through his studio work he had collaborated with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, while also forming a close friendship with music legend Ray Charles.
By the beginning of 1974 Lipton was pregnant with her first child and by the end of the year the two were married. ‘Jones recently was granted a divorce from his first actress wife and he obtained a wedding licence to marry actress Lipton two days after his divorce become final,’ revealed an article published by Jet in October 1974. ‘Jones arrived at the Santa Monica Courthouse at about the same time as another celebrated Hollywood couple, actress Liza Minnelli and producer Jack Haley, obtained their marriage licence.’
Lipton decided to take an extended break from her career in order to raise their two daughters, Kidada and Rashida, before finally returning to acting with the role that made her fame. The Return of Mod Squad, a made-for-television movie, reunited Lipton with former co-stars Clarence Williams III and Michael Cole but her time back in the spotlight would prove to be short-lived and the actress would not appear on the screen again for almost a decade. During this time Jones would enjoy further success as a producer through his work with former Motown star Michael Jackson, with the two collaborating on the Platinum-selling Off the Wall and its successor Thriller, the latter remaining the best-selling album of all time after almost forty years.
Despite having placed her career on hold almost a decade earlier Lipton decided to return to acting in the late 1980s. I had a tremendous opportunity when I was young and I worked my ass off but I never had the commitment I have now,’ she would tell People while preparing to revive her career. ‘Back then I just kind of showed up. Now I mean it. In acting class I used to hide in the corner and pray the teacher wouldn’t call on me. Now I beg to be picked. I used to worry I’d make a fool of myself but I don’t care what anyone thinks of me anymore. Really. I just can’t wait to get out there.’
A small town in the Pacific Northwest is shocked to its core after the discovery that their homecoming queen was brutally murdered
In 1990, a little over twenty years after her breakout role with the Mod Squad and Lipton would take on a supporting role in another show that would become something of a pop culture sensation. Twin Peaks was the latest project from cult filmmaker David Lynch and would prove to be his most ambitious concept to date: a small town in the Pacific Northwest is shocked to its core after the discovery that their homecoming queen was brutally murdered, prompting the arrival of an FBI agent. During his investigation he becomes seduced by the tranquil landscape and the array of eccentric people that inhabit it but soon comes to discover that many of the residents have secrets that they would do almost anything to keep.
‘I read the script and thought it was amazing. I went into his office and he cast me right there,’ explained Lipton on how she landed the role of Norma, the owner of the local diner, whose own person life is plagued with demons, the most significant of which is her dangerous psychotic husband Hank Jennings. ‘It’s the most fun acting job I’ve ever had. It was the most fun and the deepest. I had crazy deep experiences, because he allowed you to, the material allowed you to.’
While Lipton would return to the role of Norma in both a big screen prequel two years later and a revived short-lived TV series in 2017, Lipton would continue to make occasional appearances in supporting roles throughout the remainder of her career. Among these would be a villainous turn as Olivia Reed in the third season of Alias, J. J. Abrams’ acclaimed series that would see Lipton return to the world of secret agents over thirty years after the cancellation of the Mod Squad. The same year that she would enjoy her recurring role on Alias Lipton would be diagnosed with colon cancer.
On 11 May, after a fifteen-year battle with the disease, Lipton passed away at the age of seventy-two. ‘She made her journey peacefully with her daughters and nieces by her side. We feel so lucky for every moment we spent with her,’ announced daughters Kidada and Rashida, both of whom also work in the entertainment industry. ‘We can’t put all of our feelings into words right now, but we will say: Peggy was and will always be our beacon of light, both in this world and beyond. She will always be a part of us.’
Many friends and former collaborators paid tribute to the late actress upon hearing of her passing. Kathy Griffin, who had co-starred in the comedy Intern back in 2000, said, ‘I’m heartbroken. I had the opportunity to work with Peggy for a few days on a film. I absolutely fell in love with her. I’ve honestly always thought of Peggy as…perfect. Honest, funny, nurturing, oh and loved some good, juicy, gossip.’ Lipton’s final on-screen appearance was once again as Norma Jennings in the concluding chapter of Twin Peaks, broadcast in August 2017.