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Van Peebles Exercises Stock Option : Van Peebles

May 22, 1986|MARTIN ZIMMERMAN

Melvin Van Peebles has resurfaced--albeit in a different arena than the one he usually works in.

This time the screenwriter/film maker/novelist/theatrical producer has exchanged the glamour of Hollywood and Broadway for the trading pits of Wall Street and the world of nonfiction publishing.

"I'm just doing it like I did the other things," said Van Peebles, 54, who shocked the Hollywood establishment in 1971 with the success of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." A landmark black chase film, "Sweetback" helped launch a wave of so-called blaxploitation films that included "Shaft," "Superfly" and "Cleopatra Jones."

"It (Wall Street) is quite refreshing, the black-and-white of it," said Van Peebles, who became the first black trader at the American Stock Exchange three years ago and who has just authored "Bold Money," a guide to the ins and outs of options trading. "It's a simplistic world; there are no grays in it, no 'Should I make it D-minor or D-major?' The artistic world is one of high nuance. . . . By the time I'm bonkers with the simplicity of trading, then I'm back in the world of emotions and nuance.

"And by the time I can't take nuance anymore and I'm ready to blow my brains out, then it's time to go back and trade, where it's all simple, cut and dried. I find it very, very complementary, the two worlds."

The wiry, salt-and-pepper-haired Van Peebles is reputed to be a millionaire from the success of "Sweetback." That he would tackle Wall Street--and write a book about it--wouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his convoluted careers.

A native of Chicago, he joined the Air Force after his graduation from Ohio Wesleyan University and served as a navigator on a Strategic Air Command bomber. Returning to civilian life, he made several short films while working as a cable car operator and a postman in San Francisco. After attending graduate school in Amsterdam, he went to Paris and worked as a reporter and began writing in English, then in French. He had five novels published and one of them, "La Permission," became his first feature film, "The Story of a Three-Day Pass."

It was selected as the French entry in the San Francisco Film Festival in 1969, and Van Peebles found himself back here with a deal with Columbia Pictures to direct "Watermelon Man," starring Godfrey Cambridge. He followed that with the X-rated "Sweetback"--a raunchy, violent film that he financed, produced, directed, wrote, scored and starred in.

"Sweetback" was a ripping success, grossing more than $10 million on a $500,000 investment, astonishing for an independently made film that Van Peebles had to distribute himself and that played almost exclusively in black movie theaters and drive-ins.

Notwithstanding his career on the trading floor and hoped-for success with "Bold Money," Van Peebles has not turned his back on show business. Even while working on the final revisions for "Bold Money," he found time to finish a screenplay for the producers of "Tender Mercies" and to write an "Afterschool Special" for ABC-TV. He's working on a script with Jules Fisher (of "Beatlemania"), has directed a music video for the rap group Whodini's single, "Funky Beat," and is in "the final stages of financing a low-budget movie."

And he still has hopes of bringing his long-stalled musical version of Thackery's Vanity Fair to the stage: "I would love to have Pia Zadora or Cyndi Lauper play Becky Sharp."

Van Peebles is a witty story-teller whose easygoing demeanor stands in direct contrast to his portrayal of the hot-tempered, close-mouthed, super-stud pimp in "Sweetback." Van Peebles' raw style of acting cemented his image as a black revolutionary--he never directed another film and is somewhat bitter that his only work in Hollywood since "Sweetback" has been as a hired hand, doing screenplays.

"Even after the commercial success of the film, I've never been approached. I've always had to go it alone," he said, his voice taking on a slight edge as he reflected on his aborted career as a film director. "I get jobs often to write a this or a that, or offers usually from the sort of people who decry racism at great length, but are usually not above profiting by the deal you're offered.

"A lot of times, people will say 'Gee, isn't it terrible?' but when they come to offer (something to) an actor or writer of color, many times they will then offer him a lesser amount of money . . . because he's so desperate.

"Sweetback II" has been ready for some time, but "I just can't swing it alone, just by the very nature of it; it's hard for a maverick artist to get the financing and being a colored maverick compounds the problem."

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