Melvin Van Peebles, an actor, writer, director, producer and icon of Black cinema whose films include Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Watermelon Man, died Tuesday night at his Manhattan home. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his son, Mario Van Peebles, who said in a statement: “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”
Janus Films and Criterion Collection also announced the news on Twitter and said in a statement: “In an unparalleled career, distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music. His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
Born on August 21, 1932, in Chicago, Van Peebles started out doing short films and began his feature writing and directing career with 1967’s The Story of a Three-Day Pass, about a Black GI who is demoted for a romance with a white shop clerk in Paris.
Black filmmakers were scarce in Hollywood at the time, and his next film was Watermelon Man (1970), directed from a screenplay by Herman Raugher. The comedy follows a white bigot who looks in the mirror one day to find his pigment has changed. The result is a hard lesson on what it’s like to be Black in America. Star Godfrey Cambridge, also a popular stand-up comic, played the first part of the movie in white makeup.
But Van Peebles probably is best known for writing, directing, producing and starring in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the landmark 1971 blaxploitation pic that was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry last year. It centers on a brothel-raised orphan whose sexual prowess helps get him out of some tense situations as he confronts racism in Los Angeles.
The film opened in very limited release — in just one Atlanta theater and another in Detroit — and built on word of mouth en route to becoming the highest-grossing indie in movie history at the time, powered by a soundtrack from then-rising L.A. band Earth, Wind & Fire. It initially drew an X rating, and critics were mixed about the film.
Also in 1971, Van Peebles wrote the book, music and lyrics for Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which would enjoy an eight-month run on Broadway and earned him a pair of Tony Award nominations for Best Book for a Musical and Best Original Score.
He followed that success with Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1972), for which Van Peebles again wrote the book, lyrics and music and this time also directed and produced. That musical played the Main Stem for about four months and scored him a Tony nom for Best Book of a Musical, though he lost to Hugh Wheeler for A Little Night Music.
Van Peebles directed and wrote the screenplay for a 1972 film adaptation of Don’t Play Us Cheap! The stage and screen versions featured a pair of actresses who would go on to TV sitcom fame later in the decade: Esther Rolle, who’d star in Good Times after originating her Florida Evans role in Maude, and Mabel King, who played Mama Thomas in What’s Happening!!
Van Peebles would return to Broadway with the short-lived 1980 musical Reggae, for which he wrote the book, and 1982’s Waltz of the Stork. For the latter, he again took on all the same behind-the-scenes roles as Don’t Play Us Cheap! but this also starred as Edward Aloysius Younger. The show ran for nearly five months.
In the interim, Van Peebles continued to write features and for the then-popular TV movie and miniseries genres.
He co-penned the screenplay for Greased Lightning, the 1977 biopic starring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win a top-level NASCAR race. He also wrote Just an Old Sweet Song, a 1976 telefilm starring Cicely Tyson — who was coming off her Emmy-winning role in 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman — and Robert Hooks.
Van Peebles went on to wrote and co-star in The Sophisticated Gents, a 1981 NBC miniseries whose cast also included his son Mario Van Peebles, Hooks and a young Alfre Woodard.
The elder Van Peebles would write and direct only sporadically after that but continued to land acting gigs well into the 2010s. He was a series regular in Sonny Spoon, a 1988 detective drama for NBC in which he played the bar-owner father of the character played by his son Mario. The latter starred as a streetwise private eye in the series, which aired from February to December that year. Mario also played his father in the 2003 film Baadasssss.
The elder Van Peebles appeared in Mario’s films Posse (1993) and Panther (1995) and also worked in such features as Redemption Road, Boomerang, Terminal Velocity, Last Action Hero, True Identity and Boomerang. His small-screen credits include 1997 miniseries The Shining and guest roles on Dream On, Girlfriends, All My Children and the memorable 1997 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street titled “The Documentary.”
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