Melvin Van Peebles

Active - 1967 - 2018  |   Born - Aug 21, 1932 in Chicago, Illinois, United States  |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Action

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The son of a black Chicago tailor, Melvin Van Peebles attended West Virginia State College, then earned a BA from Ohio Wesleyan. Van Peebles served three years in the Air Force as a navigator/bombardier. Out of uniform, Van Peebles pursued a painting career, made a handful of amateur films, and held down jobs as a postal worker and San Francisco cable-car grip. Refusing ever to allow grass to grow under his feet, he spent some time in Mexico, attended graduate school in Holland and picked up spare change (and a few overnight jail terms) as an unlicensed street entertainer in Paris. Still a relatively young man, he remained in Paris to write five novels (all in English, because he never bothered to learn any French); one of these was La Permission, the story of a star-crossed interracial romance. On the strength of his book, Van Peebles became eligible for admission to the French Cinema Center as a director. Unexpectedly receiving a grant of $70,000, he converted La Permission into his first feature film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968). On the strength of this film, Van Peebles was courted by several Hollywood studios, who had no idea he was African American and assumed he was a French auteur. While few studios in 1968 were willing to take a chance on a black director (couldn't offend any bigots, you know), Columbia Pictures gave Van Peebles carte blanche to direct a satirical comedy-fantasy on the topic of black-white stereotyping, Watermelon Man (1970). He kept the costs low on this project so that he could invest his salary into a privately financed labor of love, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1970). Crude and offensive by "establishment" standards, this tale of a black fugitive's one-man vendetta against Whitey proved to be an enormous hit with African American audiences. It also proved that Hollywood had itself a genuine "renaissance man" in Van Peebles; he not only produced, directed, wrote and starred in Sweet Sweetback, but also edited and scored the film. Having briefly satiated his filmmaking aspirations, Van Peebles turned to Broadway, writing and scoring the 1971 musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death. His next theatrical project was 1972's Don't Play Us Cheap, which won first prize at the Belgian Film Festival when a hastily produced movie version was offered in competition. Since that time, VanPeebles has developed a TV-movie pilot, Just an Old Sweet Song (1977), and has written and acted in a number of movie and TV projects, frequently in collaboration with his actor/director son Mario Van Peebles. As of this writing, Melvin Van Peebles' only movie directorial effort of the past two decades has been the hit-and-miss fantasy Identity Crisis (1990).

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  • Attended graduate school at the University of Amsterdam in Holland, where he studied astronomy.
  • Lived in France in the 1960s, during which time he wrote five novels. The Chinamen of the 14th District was his first book to get published, in 1967. 
  • Made his motion-picture directorial debut with the 1967 drama Story of a Three Day Pass. Film was based on his novel La Permission and it received the Critics' Choice Award at the San Francisco Film Festival.
  • Directed and wrote the musical arrangement for the 1970 comedy flick Watermelon Man
  • Financed, directed, wrote and starred in the 1971 crime-drama Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which started the blaxploitation film craze.   
  • First Broadway production, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971), earned several Drama Desk Awards.   
  • In 2001, was named Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honor for contributions to art culture.
  • In 2012, released a new album, Nahh, Nahh...MoFo.