Melvin Van Peebles: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Melvin Van Peebles

Van Peebles at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.
Born Melvin Peebles
August 21, 1932 (1932-08-21) (age 77)
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Other name(s) Brer Soul
Occupation Actor, director, screenwriter, playwright, composer
Years active 1955—present

Melvin Van Peebles (born August 21, 1932) is an American actor, director, screenwriter, playwright, novelist and composer.

He is most famous for creating the acclaimed film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which heralded a new era of African American focused films. He is the father of actor and director Mario Van Peebles.


Early life

Van Peebles was born Melvin Peebles in Chicago, Illinois. He joined the Air Force thirteen days after graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University, staying for three and a half years.[1] He lived in Mexico for a brief period, earning a living by painting portraits, before coming back to the United States, where he started driving cable cars in San Francisco.[1]


Van Peebles began writing about his experiences as a cable car driver. What evolved from an initially small article and a series of photographs was Van Peebles' first book, The Big Heart.[1]

One day, a passenger suggested that Van Peebles should become a filmmaker. He shot his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick, in 1957. He made two more short films during the same period. According to Van Peebles, "I thought they were features. Each one turned out to be eleven minutes long. I was trying to do features. I knew nothing." As Van Peebles learned more about the filmmaking process, he found out that "I could make a feature for five hundred dollars. That was the cost of ninety minutes of film. I didn't know a thing about shooting a film sixteen to one or ten to one or none of that shit. Then I forgot you had to develop film. And I didn't know you needed a work print. All I can say is that after I did one thing he would say, 'Well, aren't you gonna put sound on it?' and I would go, 'Oh shit!' That's all I could say."[1]

After Van Peebles completed his first short films, he took them with him to Hollywood in order to try and find work, but was unable to find anyone who wanted to hire him as a director. In New York City, Van Peebles met a man who saw his films and wanted to screen them in France. In 1959 he went to Europe and worked for the Dutch National Theater before being invited to Paris by Henry Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, on the strength of his short films. In France, Van Peebles learned French, and was hired to translate Mad magazine into French. He began to write plays in French, utilizing the sprechgesang form of songwriting, where the lyrics were spoken over the music. This style carried over to Van Peebles' debut album, Brer Soul.[1]

He wrote a number of novels and made another short film, Cinq cent balles (1965). It was here that he made his first feature length film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission) (1968), which caught the attention of Hollywood producers who mistook him for a French auteur. His first Hollywood film was the 1970 Columbia Pictures comedy Watermelon Man, written by Herman Raucher. The movie told the story of a casually racist white man who suddenly wakes up black and finds himself alienated from his friends, family and job. In 1970 Van Peebles was also to direct filming of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival, which was banned by court injunction.

It was after the resulting bad experience directing Watermelon Man that Van Peebles became determined to have complete control over his next production, which became the groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), privately funded with his own money, and in part by a $50,000.00 loan from Bill Cosby. Van Peebles not only directed, scripted, and edited the film, but wrote the score and directed the marketing campaign. The film, which in the end grossed $10 million, was, among many others, acclaimed by the Black Panthers for its political resonance with the black struggle. His son Mario's 2004 film BAADASSSSS! tells the story behind the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

In 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of a documentary entitled How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). In 2008, Van Peebles completed the film Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha, and appeared on All My Children as Melvin Woods, the father of Samuel Woods, a character portrayed by his son, Mario.[2][3]

In 2005 Van Peebles collaborated on a double album with Madlib, to be released on Stones Throw Records. The first disc of the album will was Brer Soul Meets Quasimoto and the second is the Madlib Invazion remix. Madlib had previously sampled Van Peebles heavily on both of his albums under the Quasimoto moniker.[4]

In 2009 Van Peebles became involved with a project to make Sweet Sweetback a musical.[5] A preliminary version of this was staged at the Apollo on April 25-26, 2009. As well, he wrote and performed in a stage musical, Unmitigated Truth: Life, a Lavatory, Loves, and Ladies, which featured some of his previous songs as well as some new material.[6]

Personal life

In 2008, Van Peebles mentioned that he suffered from Alzheimer's Disease.[7]


  • (As "Melvin Van".) The Big Heart. San Francisco: Fearon, 1957. With photographs by Ruth Bernhard, a book about life on San Francisco's cable cars. "A cable car is a big heart with people for blood. The people pump on and off — if you think of it like that it is pretty simple" (p. 21).
  • La Permission, (1967)
  • Bold Money, 1986, ISBN 0446513407
  • Panther, 1995, ISBN 1560250968


As director

Other writing credits

  • Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971 Broadway musical book and score)
  • Just an Old Sweet Song (also known as Down Home, Robert Ellis Miller, 1976) made for television; screenwriter and theme song
  • Greased Lightning (Michael Schultz, 1977) screenwriter
  • The Sophisticated Gents (Harry Falk, 1981) made for television; actor, screenwriter, song “Greased Lightning” and producer
  • The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (Gilbert Moses, 1987) made for television; screenwriter
  • Panther (Mario Van Peebles, 1995) based on his novel Panther, screenwriter, actor and producer
  • Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X (Mark Daniels, 1998) documentary; screenwriter, actor and executive producer)
  • Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song: The Musical (2008) writer, singer
  • Unmitigated Truth: Life, a Lavatory, Loves, and Ladies (2009) writer, performer

Other acting-only credits



External links

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address