Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles

Born in Chicago, IL, Van Peebles was raised in a working class home headed by his tailor father. Having endured regular beatings at the hands of fellow classmates as a child, Van Peebles joined the ROTC and attended Ohio Wesleyan University, before spending three years serving as a navigator and bombardier in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command starting in 1954. After leaving the Air Force, he lived in Mexico where he worked as a portrait painter and met his wife, photographer Maria Marx. The couple soon gave birth to future actor and director, Mario Van Peebles, before moving back to the United States, where the elder Van Peebles made his first short films - "Sunlight" (1958) and "Three Pickup Men for Herrick" (1958) - while working in a San Francisco post office. He went on to live in Holland and France, earning his living as a crime reporter in Paris where he also began writing French language novels like Un Ours pour le F.B.I. (1964), Un Americain en enfer (1965) and La Fete a Harlem (1967). With the help of a grant from the French Cinema Center, Van Peebles made his feature debut by adapting his novel, La Permission (1967) into "The Story of a Three-Day Pass" (1967), a romantic drama about the relationship between an African-American soldier (Harry Baird) and a white French girl (Nicole Berger). The film was selected as the French entry in the 1968 San Francisco Film Festival, where some American reviewers embraced the picture as a promising directorial debut. Choosing between various offers from American studios, Van Peebles returned to the United States to direct and score the hilarious, sharp-edged comedy, "The Watermelon Man" (1970), about a white bigot - played by African-American comedian Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface - who wakes up one day to discover he has become black. Though a crowd-pleaser, some contemporary reviewers deemed it a one-joke movie that was too broadly played. Around the time he was filming, Van Peebles recorded his first album, Brer Soul (1969), a spoken word album that was subsequently cited as a precursor to rap music. Combining his musical and narrative talents, he wrote the book, music and lyrics for "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death" (1971), a series of 19 darkly comic politically-themed monologues about life for African-Americans in the ghetto which earned seven Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical.In arguably his greatest accomplishment, Van Peebles independently produced, directed, wrote, scored and starred in his best known film, the tough, controversial "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971). A violent, frenzied, and exceedingly stylized tale of a black sex show performer (Van Peebles) on the run from the police, "Sweetback" cost $500,000 to make - which included $50,000 borrowed from comedian Bill Cosby - and became a significant hit, grossing over $14 million - a small fortune at the time. Opening to mixed reviews ranging from adoration from the hipsters to cautious condemnation from both the black and non-black critical establishment, its reputation only grew with time despite early controversy due to its X-rating. "Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man," the film was an art film in the guise of an exploitation flick, with Van Peebles using gritty zoom photography, multiple exposures and hallucinatory colors. "Sweetback" was subsequently hailed as one of the first films to define an African-American esthetic, while helping to usher in the edgy blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. With his reputation as an African-American folk hero established, Van Peebles returned to the musical stage with an adaptation of his novel Harlem Party called "Don't Play Us Cheap" (1972), for which he wrote both the book and music and earned two Tony Award nominations. Though he filmed a version for the big screen the following year, the movie ultimately languished on the shelf for 18 years, when it was released on video in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, Van Peebles segued to television, scripting and composing the title song for a the small screen movie "Just an Old Sweet Song" (CBS, 1976), a drama starring Cicely Tyson and Robert Hooks about a Detroit family that becomes strongly affected by a two-week vacation down South. He next wrote the screenplay for "Greased Lightning" (1977), a low-budget biopic starring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first black racecar driver. Van Peebles moved on to writing the pilot for "Down Home" (CBS, 1978), the story about a couple (Madge Sinclair and Robert Hooks) who move from Detroit to a small town in the South in search of a more peaceful, meaningful life, but the project failed to get picked up and turned into a series.After making his television acting debut in the three-part miniseries "The Sophisticated Gents" (NBC, 1981), Van Peebles shifted focus from artistic endeavors to work on Wall Street as the first black trader at the American Stock Exchange in 1983. Though initially planning to partake for just six months, he instead spent several successful years on Wall Street, even penning an investing how-to book Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market (1986) and forming his own municipal bonds firm, Van Peebles and Hayes Municipal Securities, in 1987. But Van Peebles continued to keep his artistic knives sharpened by appearing onscreen in features like "O.C. & Stiggs" (1987) and alongside his son Mario Van Peebles in the wretched "Jaws: The Revenge" (1987). He worked quite often with his son, appearing on "Sonny Spoon" (NBC, 1988), a quirky, but short-lived detective series that afforded him his first opportunity as a recurring player. Van Peebles again collaborated with Mario on "Identity Crisis" (1989), his first directing effort in 17 years. A broad farce about a straight, black American rapper (Lenny Henry) who gets reincarnated in the same body with a gay, white French fashion designer, the film bombed both with critics and at the box office.Following supporting roles in the Eddie Murphy romantic comedy "Boomerang" (1992) and his son's mostly black Western "Posse" (1993), Van Peebles helmed a vignette for the German-made sex comedy "Tales of Erotica" (1994). He returned to the spotlight with "Panther" (1995), a fictionalized chronicle of the rise of the Panther Party for Self Defense, which he produced with his son, who directed, and scripted from his unpublished novel while also appearing in a small role. The modestly budgeted feature opened to mixed reviews, disappointing box office and blistering attacks from both the political left and right. Controversy arose from the many liberties the film took with the historical record for dramatic purposes. He moved on to co-direct with his son the indie crime thriller "Gang in Blue" (1996) before examining African-American film history with "Classified X" (1998), an hour-long documentary made for European television. Van Peebles continued making films overseas with "Le Conte du Ventre Plein" (2000), an adaptation of his satirical novel about two close-minded restaurant owners (Jacques Boudet and Andrea Ferreol) who hire an orphan girl on the cheap, only to incur her wrath after she learns of their true ulterior motives. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and made the festival rounds, while seeing a limited release in the United States.In a callback to the movie that made his name, Van Peebles made a cameo appearance as Sweetback in "The Hebrew Hammer" (2003), which starred Adam Samberg as a hard-edged Jewish detective determined to save Jewish children from celebrating Christmas while urging them to be proud of their own heritage. That same year, his son directed "Baadasssss!" (2003), a docudrama in which Mario played his father at the time Van Peebles was making "Sweetback." The film explored the elder Van Peebles' struggles with making the film, particularly with financing and the personal sacrifices he was forced to make. Though he had little to do with the making of the film - his only credit was source material - there was no doubt that Van Peebles was as much of an influence on his son as he was on the filmmaking community himself. He was next the subject of director Joe Angio's documentary "How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)" (2005), which chronicled Van Peebles' career while interviewing the likes of Spike Lee and film critic Elvis Mitchell. After a prominent supporting role in "Blackout" (BET, 2008), a docudrama about the massive Northeast Blackout in 2003 that wiped out power for 55 million people and triggered a chain of events fueled by frustration and despair. Back to directing, Van Peebles wore multiple hats for "Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha" (2009), writing, directing, editing, producing and starring in this avant-garde comedy loosely based on the early part of his own life. Melvin Van Peebles died on September 21, 2021 at the age of 89.