Melvin Van Peebles Biography

For the Hanna-Barbera character, see Mr Peebles.American actor, filmmaker, writer and composer

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

He is most well known for creating and starring in the film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. He is the father of actor and director Mario Van Peebles.


  • 1 Early life and education
  • 2 Career
  • 3 Personal life
  • 4 Bibliography
  • 5 Filmography
    • 5.1 As director
    • 5.2 Other writing credits
    • 5.3 As himself
    • 5.4 Other acting-only credits
  • 6 Plays
  • 7 Discography
    • 7.1 Studio albums
    • 7.2 Compilations
    • 7.3 Soundtrack albums
  • 8 See also
  • 9 References
  • 10 Further reading
  • 11 External links

Early life and education

Born Melvin Peebles, in Chicago, Illinois, his father was a tailor. In 1954, Melvin graduated with a B.A. in literature from Ohio Wesleyan University and, thirteen days later, joined the Air Force, serving for three and a half years.


He worked as a cable car gripman in San Francisco. Later, he wrote about these experiences. His first book, The Big Heart, credited to Melvin Van, evolved from a small article and a series of photographs taken by Ruth Bernhard.

According to Van Peebles, a passenger suggested that he should become a filmmaker. Van Peebles shot his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick in 1957, and made two more short films during the same period. About these films, Van Peebles says: "I thought they were features. Each one turned out to be eleven minutes long. I was trying to do features. I knew nothing." As he learned more about the filmmaking process, he found out that "I could make a feature for five hundred dollars. That was the cost of 90 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."

After Van Peebles completed his first short films, he took them with him to Hollywood to try to find work, but was unable to find anyone who wanted to hire him as a director. Van Peebles decided to move his family to the Netherlands where he planned to study Astronomy. On the way to Europe, in New York City, he met Amos Vogel, founder of the avant-garde Cinema 16 who agreed to place two of Van Peebles's shorts in his rental catalog. Vogel screened Van Peebles's Three Pickup Men for Herrick at Cinema 16 on a program with City of Jazz in the spring of 1960 with Ralph Ellison leading a post-film discussion. When Vogel went to Paris shortly after, he brought Van Peebles's films to show Henri Langlois and Mary Meerson at the Cinémathèque Française. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Van Peebles's marriage dissolved and his wife and children went back to America. Shortly after, Van Peebles was invited to Paris probably by Mary Meerson and/or Lotte Eisner, founders of the Cinémathèque Française, on the strength of his short films. In France, Van Peebles created a short film Les Cinq Cent Balles (500 Francs) (1961) and then established himself as a French writer. He did investigative reporting for France Observateur during 1963-64 during which he profiled, and later became friends with, Chester Himes. Chester Himes got him a job at the anti-authoritarian humor magazine Hara-kiri where Van Peebles wrote a monthly column and eventually joined the editorial board. During 1965–66, Mad magazine attempted a French edition and hired Van Peebles as the Editor and Chief during its short-lived five-issue run. 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.

Van Peebles was a prolific writer in France. He published four novels and a collection of short stories. He completed at least one play, La Fête à Harlem which was also released as a novel, and which he would later make into the musical Don't Play Us Cheap. Roger Blin directed La Fête a Harlem with the Les Griots theatrical troop for the Festival du jeune théâtre in Leige, Belgium in September 1964. Van Peebles made his first feature-length film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission) (1968) based on a novel by the same title. The film caught the attention of Hollywood producers who mistook him for a French auteur after it won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival as the French entry. Van Peebles's first Hollywood film was the 1970 Columbia Pictures comedy Watermelon Man, written by Herman Raucher. The movie tells 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.

After Watermelon Man, 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 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 2003 film BAADASSSSS! tells the story behind the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song; father and son presented the film together as the Closing Night selection for Maryland Film Festival 2004.

In the 1980s, Van Peebles became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange while continuing to work in theater and film.

In 1995, he co-starred in the Tony Randel American live-action version of Japanese manga Fist of the North Star, alongside Gary Daniels, Costas Mandylor, Chris Penn, Isako Washio Malcolm McDowell, Downtown Julie Brown, Dante Basco, Tracey Walter, Clint Howard, Tony Halme, and Big Van Vader.

In 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of a documentary entitled How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). Also in 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of the documentary Unstoppable: Conversation with Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis, which also featured Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks in the same room. It was moderated by Warrington Hudlin.

In 2005, it was announced that Van Peebles would collaborate with Madlib for a proposed double album titled Brer Soul Meets Quasimoto. However, nothing has been said about this project since it was announced.

In 2008, Van Peebles completed the film Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha, which was the Closing Night selection for Maryland Film Festival 2008, and appeared on All My Children as Melvin Woods, the father of Samuel Woods, a character portrayed by his son, Mario.

In 2009, Van Peebles became involved with a project to adapt Sweet Sweetback into a musical. 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.

In 2011, Van Peebles started doing shows in NYC with members of Burnt Sugar, under the name Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative. Van Peebles has said that the band is called Laxative because they "make shit happen". In November, 2011, Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative performed his song "Love, That's America" at Zebulon Cafe Concert, two weeks after the venue showed the original video for this song involving Occupy Wall Street footage, which was uploaded to YouTube in October 2011.

Van Peebles in front of his artwork, A Ghetto Mother's Prayer, in 2017

On August 21, 2012, he distributed a new album, on vinyl only, called Nahh... Nahh Mofo. This album was distributed at his birthday celebration at Film Forum. On November 10, 2012, he released a video for the song Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail to go with the album, which was announced on his Facebook page.

On May 5, 2013, he returned to the Film Forum for a screening of Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) and was a judge at the Charlie Chaplin Dress-Alike Contest that was after the screening. He wore a bowler hat and baggy pants in honor of Chaplin.

In September 2013, Van Peebles made his public debut as a visual artist, as a part of a gallery featured called "eMerge 2.0: Melvin Van Peebles & Artists on the Cusp". It features "Ex-Voto Monochrome (A Ghetto Mother's Prayer)", one of many pieces of art he created to be on display in his home.

In 2017, Methane Momma, a short film directed by Alain Rimbert, featured Van Peebles and his narration of poetic work with accompaniment of music by The Heliocentrics.

In 2019, Burnt Sugar presented the film Sweetback in Brooklyn while playing their own interpretation of the soundtrack. Van Peebles appeared at the presentation.

Personal life

Melvin Van Peebles married Maria Marx. They lived in Mexico for a period in the late 1950s, where he painted portraits. Their son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles, was born while they resided in Mexico. The family subsequently returned to the United States.


  • (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).
  • Un Ours pour le F.B.I. (1964); A Bear for the F.B.I., Trident, 1968.
  • Un Américain en enfer (1965); The True American, Doubleday, 1976.
  • Le Chinois du XIV (1966) (short stories)
  • La Fête à Harlem (Harlem Party) (1967) (novel)
  • La Permission (1967)
  • Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Lancer Books, New York, 1971.
  • Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Bantam, New York, 1973.
  • Don't Play Us Cheap: A Harlem Party, Bantam Books, New York, 1973.
  • Just an Old Sweet Song, Ballantine, New York, 1976.
  • Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market, Warner Books, New York, 1986, ISBN:0-446-51340-7 (nonfiction)
  • Melvin and Mario Van Peebles: No Identity Crisis, A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1990.
  • Panther, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1995.


Peebles' 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song received acclaim from black rights groups for its political resonance with the black struggle and grossed $10 million.

As director

  • Three Pickup Men for Herrick (short, 1957); also writer and composer
  • Sunlight (short, 1957); also writer, composer and producer
  • Cinq cent balles (short, 1961); also writer and composer
  • The Story of a Three-Day Pass (also known as La Permission, 1967); also writer, from his novel La Permission, and composer
  • Watermelon Man (1970); also composer
  • Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971); also actor, writer, composer, co-producer and editor
  • Don't Play Us Cheap (1973); also writer (from his book Harlem Party and stage musical Don't Play Us Cheap) and composer
  • Identity Crisis (1989) also actor, producer and editor
  • Vroom Vroom Vroooom (segment from Tales of Erotica, also known as Erotic Tales, 1996); also writer, composer, producer and editor
  • Gang in Blue (1996) co-director, actor and producer
  • Le Conte du ventre plein (also known as Bellyful, 2000); also writer, composer and delegate producer
  • Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (2008)
  • Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail (2012); also editor, performer

Other writing credits

  • Slogan (Pierre Grimblat, 1969) screenwriter
  • 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

As himself

  • Unstoppable (2005)
  • How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (2005)

Other acting-only credits

  • O.C. and Stiggs (1987) as Bob 'Wino Bob'
  • Jaws: The Revenge (1987) as Mr. Witherspoon
  • Taking Care of Terrific (1987) (television film) as 'Hawk'
  • Sonny Spoon (1988) (television series) as Mel Spoon
  • Boomerang (1992) as Editor
  • Posse (1993) as Joe 'Papa Joe'
  • Terminal Velocity (1994) as Noble
  • Fist of the North Star (1995) as Asher
  • Living Single (1996) as Warner Devant
  • The Shining (1997) (miniseries) as Dick Hallorann
  • The Hebrew Hammer (2003) as Sweetback
  • BlacKout (2007) as George
  • Redemption Road (2010) as Elmo
  • We the Party (2012) as 'Big D'
  • Armed (2018) as Grandpa V


  • The Hostage (Dutch National Theatre Tour, writer, 1964)
  • Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (writer, 1972)
  • Don't Play Us Cheap (writer, 1972)
  • Out There by Your Lonesome (one-man play, 1973)
  • Waltz of the Stork (actor, writer, 1982)
  • Champeen (musical, writer, 1983)


Studio albums

  • Brer Soul (1968)
  • Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1970)
  • As Serious as a Heart-Attack (1974)
  • What the....You Mean I Can't Sing?! (1974)
  • Ghetto Gothic (1995)
  • Nahh... Nahh Mofo (2012)
  • The Last Transmission (2014, with The Heliocentrics)


  • X-Rated By an All-White Jury (1997) - including Brer Soul, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and As Serious as a Heart-Attack

Soundtrack albums

  • Watermelon Man (1970)
  • Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)
  • Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1972)
  • Don't Play Us Cheap (1973)

See also

  • Works by Melvin Van Peebles


    Further reading

    • Chaffin-Quiray, Garrett. "Great Directors: Melvin Van Peebles." Senses of Cinema Issue 25 (21 March 2003).
    • Greasley, Philip A. The Authors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print. ISBN:0253336090, ISBN:9780253336095

    External links

    • Melvin Van Peebles at IMDb
    • Melvin Van Peebles on Charlie Rose
    • Works by or about Melvin Van Peebles in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
    • "Melvin Van Peebles collected news and commentary". The New York Times.
    • Melvin Van Peebles's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
    • Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Critical Database
    • "Melvin Van Peebles interview" on the WGBH series, Say Brother
    • Interview at
    • Interview with Melvin Van Peebles at the Red Bull Music Academy (2008)
    Melvin Van Peebles