Around his neck, just below the Adam’s apple, playwright Melvin Van Peebles has had a neat circle of dots tattooed. On the left, the circle is broken by the French phrase “Couper sur la ligne.” Rough translation: Cut along the dotted line.
Van Peebles’ guillotine humor is part of the credo of a man who believes in sticking his neck out. “Lynch me if you can,” he cheerfully declares. “That’s my philosophy.” The critics, certainly, have tried to comply, but so far both Melvin and his work survive. His new musical comedy, Waltz of the Stork, which he wrote, produced and stars in, was eviscerated in reviews, but plays on to small Broadway audiences. “It could go on forever,” vows Van Peebles, 49, who has spent up to $28,000 a week to keep it running.
Chances are, however, that forever will come all too soon unless word of mouth lures in the same crowds that loved Van Peebles’ last Broadway shows, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don’t Play Us Cheap. Both received mixed reviews, yet played for a cumulative 24 months in 1971 and 1972. The man who believes “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise” enlisted friends like Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis and Rep. Shirley Chisholm to spread the word that the shows were worth saving. By the time of the Tony Awards, Death and Cheap received a total of 11 nominations.
That same determination was evident in 1971 when Van Peebles made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a raucous adventure-chase film with a black point of view. “I wrote, edited, produced, directed and played the f—ing lead,” he says with a shrug. “But that was only because no one would work with me.” In the title role of a pimp and all-around stud, he claims he gave a performance so realistic that he came down with gonorrhea after an on-camera love scene. For the production time his love’s labors cost him, Melvin insists, he even collected workman’s compensation. Hyperbole aside, the movie grossed $14 million and for several weeks outdrew even Love Story.
As the son of a tailor on Chicago’s South Side, Van Peebles learned pragmatism early. “You didn’t graduate from schools,” he remembers. “You just got big enough to climb over the walls. I wasn’t much of a climber.” Avoiding street rumbles whenever possible, he studied hard and set his sights on a college degree. He earned one from Ohio Wesleyan as an English major in 1953 before enlisting in the Air Force. Trained as a navigator, he flew B-47s with the Strategic Air Command. “When all the planes were crashing during test flights and everyone was getting killed, I married a girlfriend from college,” he says. “I figured someone should get all the dough the Air Force would pay if I died.”
A civilian again in 1956, Van Peebles and his bride, Maria, settled in San Francisco. Melvin worked as a cable car operator and dabbled in film production. In 1959 he moved his wife and their children, Mario and Megan, to Holland, where he studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam. Soon he moved on to Paris and wrote five novels, including the widely acclaimed Story of a Three-Day Pass, which he later made into a movie.
By 1960 Van Peebles’ marriage had ended, and he supported himself as a virtual gigolo. “I lived off women,” he says unabashedly. “I had a lady for each day of the week. I only had to worry about my back giving out.” In 1968 Van Peebles returned to the U.S., anxious to keep on making movies (and leaving behind an out-of-wedlock son, Melvin, now 17). For Columbia Pictures, Van Peebles directed Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man. Then came Sweetback and a string of record and TV projects. Last fall Van Peebles’ adaptation of John Williams’ novel Sophisticated Gents aired as a critically acclaimed NBC miniseries.
Nowadays Melvin lives and works in an unpretentious office-apartment in midtown Manhattan. He admits to a few other hideaways in New York, Paris and L.A. but won’t divulge their addresses. “It’s a poor rat that’s got only one hole,” he says. “Sometimes I just need a change of scenery or sometimes I don’t feel like hearing some young lady’s mouth, so I like to have a place where I can go alone.”
Besides wine, women and song, Van Peebles has few vices—and none he can’t afford. “I don’t have costly habits,” he says. “My wardrobe looks as if it comes from Goodwill. Blackberry cobbler, oxtail stew at the Chinese-Cuban restaurant, and maybe a new pair of running shoes are what I spend money on.” (He has run six marathons.) Van Peebles’ biggest expense in recent years has been tuition payments to Columbia University for Megan, 23, and Mario, 25, both of whom work as professional models. Mario also acts. He appeared in the opening scene of Sweetback as a 12-year-old street kid receiving his sexual initiation from a hooker. Currently he is one of three backup actors in Waltz of the Stork.
Until that show closes, his dad’s evenings are accounted for. During the day Melvin applies himself frenetically to new projects. His adaptation of Peter Jenkins’ best-seller Walk Across America is now in development at CBS. An off-Broadway play, The Champeen, based on the life of Bessie Smith, is in the works, as is a Broadway-bound musical version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, for which Melvin will be co-lyricist, writer and producer.
Given such eclectic assignments and ambitions, Van Peebles blithely resists being classified. “I’m free to try anything,” he declares. “If you worry about failing, then you’re frozen half the time. I don’t try to follow any particular style. Your own essence ends up being a style. I just try to do it right. My niche,” he adds with an eye cast confidently toward the marquee of Waltz of the Stork, “is surviving.”