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On This Day

Melvin Van Peebles

todaySeptember 21, 2021 10

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Melvin Van Peebles (born Melvin Peebles)

21 August 1932 –  21 September 2021

Melvin Van Peebles was an American actor, filmmaker, playwright, novelist and composer., the groundbreaking playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the “Blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced film-makers long after, died at his home in Manhattan at age 89.


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.


Early Life

He was known for creating and starring in the film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. He was the father of actor and director Mario Van Peebles.

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.

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.

Other writing credits

  • Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) Broadway musical book and score
  • 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)

Written by: Mandy Law

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