Though he was the son of legendary blaxploitation filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, actor and director Mario Van Peebles made his own name both in front of and behind the camera in numerous film and television projects. After a few years of finding his footing as an actor, Van Peebles broke through with a memorable turn in "Heartbreak Ridge" (1986), which opened the doors to bigger and better things, including directing. He made his debut in the director's chair with episodes of "21 Jump Street" (Fox. 1987-1991) and "Wiseguy" (CBS, 1987-1990), though it was his hit feature debut, "New Jack City" (1991) that propelled him to the next level. But Van Peebles stumbled with both "Posse" (1993) and "Panther" (1995), while flailing a bit onscreen in rather unworthy B-thrillers and television movies. Following a small, but solid performance as Malcolm X in "Ali" (2001), Van Peebles triumphantly returned to feature filmmaking with "Baadasssss!," an intensely entertaining depiction of his father's struggles to film his seminal movie "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971). While his career endured several ups and downs, there was no doubt that Van Peebles always remained a potent force both onscreen and off.
Born on Jan. 15, 1957 in Mexico City, Mexico, Van Peebles was raised by his father, Melvin Van Peebles, a director of several acclaimed blaxploitation films like the seminal "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971) and "Watermelon Man" (1970), and his mother, Maria Marx, a photographer. Having grown up in Europe - his mother was of French extraction - Van Peebles returned to the United States when he was eight years old, where he made his film debut in "Sweet Sweetback," playing the younger version of the randy protagonist (Melvin Van Peebles), a sex show performer who goes on the run after beating down two corrupt cops who themselves where brutalizing a young black man. Even though Van Peebles was born into a filmmaking home, he largely steered clear of the spotlight outside of a role in the busted pilot for "The Cable Car Murder" (CBS, 1971). Instead, Van Peebles sought a career in finance after earning his degree from Columbia University in 1980, setting up limited partnerships for a film investment firm, working on Wall Street on the commodities exchange, and serving two years as a budget analyst in the Department of Environmental Protection for the city of New York under the administration of Mayor Edward Koch.
After a heart-to-heart with his father regarding a drastic career change from finance to entertainment, Van Peebles struck out on his own and became an actor, performing in numerous off-off-Broadway plays while studying with Stella Adler and earning money as a Ford model. His father gave him another shot before the cameras with "The Sophisticated Gents" (NBC, 1981), a three-part miniseries shot in 1979, but shelved for two years. Meanwhile, he received a good deal of fan mail for his short stint as football star Doc Gilmore on the daytime soap, "One Life to Live" (ABC, 1968-2013), before earning screenplay credit for the indie drama, "South Bronx Heroes" (1983), in which he played an inner-city youth who - along with real-life sibling Megan Van Peebles - blackmail a cruel and depraved foster care father (Martin Zurla). After a small role in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Cotton Club" (1984), he was the mean-spirited rival to a team of breakdancing pizza delivery guys competing for $10,000 in the rather forgettable comedy "Delivery Boys" (1984). He next starred in the violently mindless sequel "Exterminator 2" (1984), playing a messianic gang leader named X, who incurs the wrath of street vigilante Johnny Eastland (Robert Ginty).
Also musically inclined, Van Peebles performed several songs for the urban drama "Rappin'" (1985), another in a long line of breakdancing movies from that thankfully long forgotten time. With a résumé few actors would envy, Van Peebles finally landed a breakthrough role in Clint Eastwood's "Heartbreak Ridge" (1986), playing a glib U.S. Marine in a platoon of misfits who suddenly find themselves being led by a gruff gunnery sergeant (Eastwood) determined to whip them into shape. Also that year, he landed a recurring role as an attorney eventually denied partnership on the first season of "L.A. Law" (NBC, 1986-1994), before making an ill-advised turn in the dreadful sequel "Jaws: The Revenge" (1987). Van Peebles next was showcased as detective "Sonny Spoon" (NBC, 1988) in the light-hearted Stephen J. Cannell-produced series which featured Melvin in a recurring role as his character's bartender father. Despite a promising debut as a midseason pickup, the show failed to maintain its momentum that fall and was eventually canceled. The following year, he made his directorial debut with an episode of "21 Jump Street" (Fox. 1987-1991), which led to further directing gigs on "Wiseguy" (CBS, 1987-1990) and the CBS Schoolbreak Special, "Malcolm Takes a Shot" (1990).
Van Peebles next associate produced, scripted and starred in the poorly received farce "Identity Crisis" (1989), directed by his father, in which he played a white gay designer whose spirit is trapped in the body of a young black rapper. He graduated to helming features with "New Jack City (1991), a slick and commercially successful saga of the urban drug wars. The film provided Wesley Snipes with a breakthrough role as a vicious drug kingpin, whose rise and fall rests on his unquenchable thirst for power. Praised by critics, the gritty action thriller was the highest-grossing feature film directed by an African-American at the time. After starring in the made-for-television movie "Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story" (CBS, 1991), Van Peebles helmed the largely black Western "Posse" (1993), a less successful outing which strove to evoke the look of Sergio Leone, the stylized violence of Sam Peckinpah and the traditional values of John Ford. For his next directorial outing, he teamed with his father to produce the elder Van Peebles' adaptation of his unpublished novel "Panther" (1995), a fictionalized account of the rise of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reviews were mixed and box office returns were disappointing but the film was an absorbing and well-crafted demonstration of Van Peebles' increasing skill as a director.
Putting aside directing to return to acting, Van Peebles starred in two action dramas opposite Christopher Lambert, "Gunmen" (1994) and "Highlander: The Final Dimension" (1994), both of which did little to advance that part of his career. He next was the titular mercenary in the action flick "Solo" (1996) and was among the guests at a bachelor party that turns deadly in the uneven "Stag" (HBO, 1996). After directing his father in the race-themed police drama "Gang in Blue" (Showtime, 1996), Van Peebles wrote, produced and starred in "Los Locos" (The Movie Channel, 1997), a follow up of sorts to "Posse" that had no narrative connection other than taking place in the Old West and starring Van Peebles. Meanwhile, he directed his fourth feature, "Love Kills" (1998), a psychological drama about a masseur (Van Peebles) drawn into the strange goings-on at the estate of a widow actress (Lesley Ann Warren). Meanwhile, he labored onscreen in several undistinguished television movies and B-movie action thrillers, though he managed a few occasional standouts like the adaptation of Alex Haley's "Mama Flora's Family" (1998) and "10,000 Black Men Named George" (2002), along with a season-long stint as Sherilyn Fenn's love interest on the sitcom "Rude Awakening" (Showtime, 1998-2001).
Van Peebles began resurfacing in major films, appearing as Malcolm X in director Michael Mann's biopic "Ali" (2001), the big screen exploration of the life of boxing legend Muhammed Ali (Will Smith). In the screwy, high-concept comedy "The Hebrew Hammer" (2003), Van Peebles played Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahiem, the head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front who helps the Orthodox Hebrew Hammer (Adam Goldberg) oppose Santa Claus' evil son (Andy Dick) and his plot to eradicate Hanukkah. He next appeared in the ensemble of the well-crafted television movie "44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-Out" (FX, 2003), a depiction of the real-life 1996 bank robbery that led to the most intense firefight in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department. He followed with a leading role in the telepic "Crown Heights" (Showtime, 2004), based on the events surrounding the 1991 race riots in Brooklyn after a black child was hit by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew, after which two leaders from the Jewish and African-American communities - Howie Mandel and Van Peebles - join forces to try to re-establish peace.
In 2004, Van Peebles reached a high point in his career as a hyphenate when he wrote, directed and starred in "Baadasssss!," an intensely entertaining depiction of his father Melvin's struggles to film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" in 1971. Critics praised Van Peebles for his clarity and honesty in documenting his father's pioneering film while also slyly and stylishly playing homage to it, Many critics even labeled "Baadasssss!" one of the best movies of the year. Meanwhile, he began directing episodes of several highly-regarded television dramas, including "Damages" (FX/The 101 Network, 2006-12), on which he also appeared as an FBI agent trying to help a young law associate (Rose Byrne) take down her ruthless boss (Glenn Close). Van Peebles also helmed episodes of hit series like "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010), "Lost" (ABC, 2004-10) and "Sons of Anarchy" (FX, 2008-14), while appearing in movies like "Carlito's Way: Rise to Power" (2005) and the made-for-cable thriller "Sharpshooter" (Spike TV, 2008). Returning to series television, Van Peebles had a recurring role as the father of Alice (Heather Cyrus Hemmens) on the hit cheerleading drama "Hellcats" (The CW, 2010-11).
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Returned to USA at age eight (date approximate)
TV acting debut, "The Cable Car Murder/Cross Current", an unsold pilot
First film appearance (in bit part as the young Sweetback) in father's "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song"
Played a small part in "The Sophisticated Gents", a superior NBC miniseries scripted by his father (who also acted), shelved for two years before airing in 1981
Film acting and writing (provided additional dialogue) debut, "South Bronx Heroes" (released direct-to-video 1985)
First released feature as an adult, "Exterminator 2"
Broadway acting debut in his father's comedy with music, "Waltz of the Stork"
First appearance in a major film, a bit part in Francis Coppola's "The Cotton Club"
First TV guest shot, "The Cosby Show"
Wrote song, "Two of a Kind" and performed five songs in film "Rappin'" (also actor)
Breakthrough feature supporting role, Clint Eastwood's "Heartbreak Ridge"
Played a recurring role during the first season of "L.A. Law" (also performed songs)
Starred as title character in the NBC-TV detective comedy series, "Sonny Spoon", produced by Stephen J. Cannell
Directed an episode of Cannell's acclaimed crime drama "Wiseguy"
Feature producing (co-produced with father) and scripting debut, "Identity Crisis", a broad farce directed by his father (also starred), released in 1990
TV directing debut, helmed several episodes of the Cannell-produced quasi-teen cop show "21 Jump Street"
Directed "Malcolm Takes a Shot", a presentation of "CBS Schoolbreak Specials" about a high school athelete who develops epilepsy
Starred in CBS TV-movie "Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story"
Directed first feature, "New Jack City" (also co-star)
Directed less successful "Posse"
Collaborated with father Melvin Van Peebles on "Panther"
Directed by father in "Gang in Blue" (Showtime)
Wrote, produced and starred in "Los Locos", a TV-movie sequel to "Posse" aired on The Movie Channel
Produced, wrote, directed and co-starred in "Love Kills"
Signed development deal with CBS to star in a TV series
Joined cast of the Showtime series "Rude Awakening" for its final season
Portrayed Malcolm X in "Ali", Michael Mann biopic of the boxer Muhammed Ali
Played Mohammed and Sweetback in the holiday comedy "The Hebrew Hammer"
Wrote, produced, directed and starred in "Baadasssss!" a homage to his father Melvin's 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song; received Independent Spirit Award Nominations for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Screenplay