The term “renaissance man” seems tailor-made for Melvin Van Peebles, an artist who, in his 76 years, has achieved and created more than pretty much anyone you can name. He’s a film director, screenwriter, actor, novelist, photographer, playwright, theater director and producer, lyricist, composer, translator, four-time Tony nominee, Drama Desk and Emmy Award winner, and cable-car driver who speaks three languages. He won a Humanitas Prize in 1987, and today he’ll add a Gotham Tribute to his credits.
“It’s about fucking time!” Van Peebles says with a laugh. “It’s always nice, you know, but it’s not about me, it’s about what I’ve managed to pull off when everyone said it ain’t possible.”
With his 1971 pic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Van Peebles was indie before indie, and opened the door for the black low-budget filmmakers who followed. “The indie thing that the IFP and Gothams represent didn’t get a toehold until I did what I did,” he says, adding, “We’re in a society where if you make money, that’s the best door opener of all — but I’m not in it for the money. If (my success) lets people know that it’s possible for (indie art) to make money, that’s the best thing.”
What’s Van Peebles’ secret to staying in the game? “I get the paper every morning and I read the obituary column. If I’m not there, I get my ass up and go to work.”