African-American actor, musician, director and writer Melvin Van Peebles, father of Mario, is credited to have saved the behind of Hollywood in the ’70s when as an independent filmmaker he proved that black films involving all-black casts could sell. His 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is said to have led the “blaxploitation” flicks of the 1970s.
With Melvin’s success, Hollywood started churning out ‘blaxploitation’ films and even though the Black actors were paid a pittance compared to what those films grossed, it enabled Blacks to no longer be relegated to playing maids and butler roles. Some even believe Melvin deserves an Honorary Oscar as there would be no Spike Lee and others in the industry without his ground-breaking contribution.
Melvin’s son Mario Cain Van Peebles, born to German actress and photographer Maria Marx in Mexico City, Mexico, is also making a name for himself in the film industry even if he didn’t set out to follow his father’s lead.
His movie debut came when he was 13 in his father’s 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song where he had a love scene with an older woman. His father directed and played the lead role while Mario played his character as a child. The film became a hit and a historical American piece.
Mario graduated from Saint Thomas More School in Connecticut in 1974 and from Columbia University in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He “wavered between a financial and an acting career” before becoming a full-time actor with the 1984 film Cotton Club.
In 1988, Mario played the lead in the short-lived detective show Sonny Spoon as the series was canceled. The show would mark his directorial debut, for which he handled one episode. That same year, he also acted in the TV film The Child Saver.
In 1989, he directed for the show Top of the Hill, three episodes of 21 Jump Street, and an episode of the TV series Wiseguy.
“His acting efforts of that year were 21 Jump Street – he appeared in two of the episodes he directed, one episode of American Playwrights Theater: The One-Acts, and the film Identity Crisis directed by his father. At the beginning of the decade, he performed in the TV film Blue Bayou and one episode of In Living Color,” according to accounts.
In 1991, Mario directed Malcolm Takes a Shot, a CBS Schoolbreak Special about an aspiring high-school basketball star whose obstacles include epilepsy and his own arrogance. He earned a DGA Award nomination by the Directors Guild of America for “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Shows” as the doctor for the main character.
In 1991, he made his feature film directorial debut with the black gangster film New Jack City, in which he also co-stars. Other lead actors were Wesley Snipes, Ice-T and Judd Nelson. New Jack City was produced with an estimated $8,000,000 budget grossing $7,039,622 during its opening weekend. It became the highest-grossing independent film of 1991, grossing a total of $47,624,253 domestically. It was also well received by critics. That same year, he directed one episode of Gabriel’s Fire and acted in the TV film A Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story.
His next directorial project was Panthers (1995), a recounting of the Black Panther Movement. Mario occasionally appears in the films of others such as Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge (1986) and for his performance earned an NAACP Image Award. On television, the film director has starred in a number of prestigious productions, including The Emperor Jones for PBS and The Pool Hall opposite James Earl Jones. For his work in Children of the Night, he received a Bronze Halo Award.
Mario as a director, actor, producer and writer is highly regarded. He has directed award-winning shows such as Empire and The Last Ship, as well as Sons of Anarchy, Lost, Damages, and Boss. He is also behind We the Party, which he wrote, directed and produced as well as the short documentary Bring You’re a Game and the 2003 biopic Baadasssss! of which he portrayed his father co-writing and directing.
Borrowing a leaf from his father Melvin, Mario is also an independent filmmaker funding his own work via his movie production company named “MVP Filmz”.
In 1994, Hofstra University awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
The father of five is also eco-conscious. After all, after Columbia University, he spent two years working at New York’s Department of Environmental Protection before heading for Hollywood.