You've Met Dad Van Peebles, Now Here's the Son

updated 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

If Prince Edward thinks he had it rough in the Royal Marines, he should talk to Mario Van Peebles. First Van Peebles got a call from Heartbreak Ridge director-star Clint Eastwood. "Mario," ordered the gravelly voice on the phone, "make my movie." The role required him to storm the island of Grenada with Dirty Harry as his commanding officer. Van Peebles, playing a conniving, jive-talking, rap-singing Marine recruit, also had to fire weapons, run obstacle courses and rappel off an 80-foot parachute tower. "Basically, I went through basic training," says the 32-year-old actor, who had never served a day of military duty.

When Van Peebles arrived on location at Camp Pendleton, Calif. last spring, he wasn't recognized from his films, Exterminator 2, Rappin' or The Cotton Club. At first the drill instructors thought he was a recruit. "The first one yelled, 'Mother------, get down and give me 50 pushups! Now!' Then another Dl looked at me and said: 'Don't you be eyeballing the sergeant, boy! Git down!' " Van Peebles obeyed. "I felt it was in my best interest," he says.

Van Peebles, who has a sporadic role on TV's L.A. Law as pin-striped, buppie lawyer Andrew Taylor, is fast becoming one of Hollywood's most versatile actors. He hasn't coasted on his G.Q. good looks either (since 1982 he has been a top New York model working for the Elite and Ford agencies). Mario, who won his first acting job at 11, now looks for roles that work against his pretty-boy image. In his next film, Jaws—The Revenge, he plays a heavily accented Bahamian oceanographer who sports dreadlocks. "I'm a character actor in a leading man's body," says Van Peebles, who credits Eastwood with encouraging his drive to be taken seriously. "Clint instilled a gung-ho attitude in me," says Mario. "He told me to be all I could be."

So did Mario's real-life Big Daddy, Melvin Van Peebles. In 1971, Melvin wrote, directed, produced and starred in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, an angry black film. Melvin, now 54, is also a painter, composer, playwright and astronomer. Six years ago he became an options trader and has just written Bold Money, a book about insider trading.

Rather than shrink in his father's shadow, Mario has tried to learn from his example. "My father taught me that show business is a business," says Mario, who graduated from Columbia College in 1978 with a degree in economics and worked for one year as a budget analyst for the city of New York. "I felt it was important that he have a base in economics," says Melvin. "That way he could do whatever he wants in life." Mario, who wants to produce films—he's already written three movie scripts and sold one—is indeed grateful for his dad's guidance. "If I can help to balance the budget of New York, I can certainly put a film project together," he says.

With his newfound success, Mario has just rented a condo in Hollywood. "I've gone from Mario Who? to Mario, baby!" he says. Still, home is New York City, where he lives on the top floor of an Upper East Side five-story walk-up. His railroad apartment is a study in struggling-actor chic. His living room furniture is a matched set of car seats, which, he proudly explains, he got "from an automobile junkyard, off a Volvo." Van Peebles lives alone, and does not have, nor, he says, ever had, a serious romantic involvement. "I'm pretty much wrapped up in my work," he says. "But if you're single and free to mingle, my number is...."

On this day Mario has a visitor, his mother, photographer Maria Marx Van Peebles, 49, who is white. His parents separated in Europe and later divorced. With her blond, unkempt hair and unpainted face, she could be the original hippie. "Believe me, she was," says Mario. After the divorce Mario and his sister, Megan, 26, lived with Marie in San Francisco. "She and I hitchhiked to Altamont," says Mario. "She got me drum lessons with the Grateful Dead. She's that kind of mom."

Despite the divorce Mario's parents have remained friends. (Marie never remarried; Melvin did, and has since divorced.) "We're always with each other on holidays," says Mario. "It's true," says Melvin, "there's no rancor when we're together. We believe in helping each other out."

Mario, who was born in Mexico City, did a lot of traveling in Europe with his parents as a child. "We were always broke. My room was usually a hotel closet. Mom was my schoolteacher." Mario's gypsy life had advantages. "I can speak four languages fluently," he says. "French, Spanish, Uptown and Downtown."

Those who have worked with or know Mario say he's as genuinely nice as he is ambitious. Despite the racial overtones of his father's films, Van Peebles claims he's never suffered the repercussions of prejudice. "I've always thought my color was an advantage," he says, adding, "but that's me, dumb Mario, always looking on the bright side." Dumb? Hardly. In a star era of deals, dope and brat pack egos, Mario remains a savvy economics major who knows how to pitch a product in short supply. "Use me," he tells producers. "I'm one actor who will be on time, won't be high and won't want a star on his dressing room door." With an attitude like that, the star will come.

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