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Mario Van Peebles

Destined For Show "business"

While Van Peebles was still young, his parents divorced. Thereafter he and his sister Megan lived in San Francisco with their mother, whom Van Peebles described in People as the "original hippie," a free-spirited woman who was open to the ideas of the day. Despite the divorce, Van Peebles's parents remained on cordial terms, so Mario saw his father frequently and even appeared in his landmark film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, in 1971. The youngster had only a small part in the motion picture, which his father wrote and directed, but—as would happen later with New Jack City—that low-budget enterprise ultimately earned a hefty profit at the box office.

As a teenager, Van Peebles knew he wanted to be an actor, and after finishing high school, he sought his father's help. To Mario's surprise, his father was unwilling to lend a hand or afford him special opportunities to acquire roles. Van Peebles recalled in Ebony that his father said, "'I'm going to give you some free advice: Early to bed, early to rise, work like a dog and advertise!' That was the end of the conversation." Offended at first, Van Peebles began to ponder just what his father was trying to tell him. He eventually realized that "that was my father's way of telling me I had to learn to do it for myself; that he loved me enough not to allow me to ride on his success by doing it for me," the actor related in Ebony. "Though it didn't seem like it then, it was the greatest gift he could have ever given me. So many kids of famous people never learned the value of earning something, or how sweet it is to have accomplishments to call your own."

Another piece of advice Van Peebles's father passed on was the notion that show business is a business, and anyone looking for a career in that market had better know how to manage money. Therefore, Mario enrolled at Columbia University as an economics major and earned his degree in 1978. The following year he worked for the City of New York as a budget analyst—a far cry from the glamorous world of films and television. Still, Van Peebles recognized in Ebony that "the degree has helped. With the business background you don't say, 'Would you put me in this movie,' you say, 'Let's do this movie.'"

By 1981 Van Peebles was firmly on his way to a career in his father's field. The two appeared together on Broadway in a 1981 play, Waltz of the Stork, written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles. When the play closed, Mario studied acting with Stella Adler and paid his bills by modeling and working as a photographer. Long before he made a name as an actor, Van Peebles earned excellent wages with the Elite and Ford agencies, appearing in the pages of Essence, Gentlemen's Quarterly, and other glossy magazines. He never lost sight of his original goals, though. He continued to take acting lessons and began to write screenplays, hoping to sell a feature film to a studio.

Van Peebles began to land major acting roles in 1984; he took a bit part in the film version of The Cotton Club, but he drew more notice for playing a menacing villain named X in Exterminator II. He also worked as a regular on the daytime television drama One Life to Live for several years. Van Peebles observed in Jet that when he finally began to make a decent living as an actor, his father told him, "Hey, now if you want to work together you can bring something to the pot and I'm not just carrying my son along." In recent years, the father-son collaboration has swung in Mario's favor—he has helped earn roles for his father and has found financial backing for some his father's projects.

Van Peebles's rise to the front ranks as an actor came after his performance in Clint Eastwood's well-received adventure-drama Heartbreak Ridge. In the 1986 film Van Peebles appeared as "Stitch" Jones, a marine recruit who becomes Eastwood's right-hand man during an invasion. In the meantime, Van Peebles also took a recurring role on the popular television show L.A. Law. Though he was offered a full-time position on that series, other obligations forced him to forgo the opportunity. One of his commitments was the portrayal of an off-beat scientist in Jaws: The Revenge, a role for which Van Peebles put on weight, grew dreadlocks, and adopted a thick Bahamian accent. The actor commented in People that he was willing to try any character part, however small, as long as it was interesting. "I'm one actor who will be on time, won't be high and won't want a star on his dressing room door," he promised.

At a Glance...

Born Mario Cain Van Peebles on January 15, 1957, in Mexico City, Mexico; son of Melvin (a writer, director, and actor) and Maria Magdalena (a photographer) Van Peebles. Education: Columbia University, BS, 1978; studied acting with Stella Adler.

Career: City of New York, budget analyst, c. 1979-80; Elite and Ford agencies, New York City, model, 1982-85; actor, 1982–; film director, 1990–.

Awards: Image Award, for outstanding supporting actor, 1989, for Heartbreak Ridge; Black Reel Award, for best director, 2005, for How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass.

Addresses: Home—Los Angeles, CA. Agent—Chris Black, William Morris Agency, Inc., 151 El Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

Television was the next vehicle for expanding Van Peebles's acting talent. In 1987 he landed the lead role in Sonny Spoon, a comedy-drama about an unorthodox big city private detective. The show allowed Van Peebles many opportunities for displaying his versatility since his character frequently employed disguises. In one episode, for instance, he donned a wig and sang with a gospel choir in order to hide from maleficent pursuers. "One of the things I wanted to show was that here you have this young Black guy in the lead and he's able to cross every line," Van Peebles explained in Jet. "This guy's going to go from the church lady to the blond yuppie. They have me speaking French in the show, Spanish." Still, the actor added, "I really try to keep an eye on not letting get too super human." Sonny Spoon was one of the first hour-long television dramas to star a black actor. It never quite found a large audience, though, and was canceled after one season.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - PersonalMario Van Peebles Biography - Destined For Show "business", From Acting To Directing, Continued In His Father's Footsteps - Selected works