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Remembering Melvin Van Peebles, the 'Godfather' of Black cinema


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. We're going to start today's show by remembering Melvin Van Peebles. He died last week at age 89. His death was announced by his son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles. We'll hear from him later in the show. Melvin Van Peebles is best known for his 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," which he wrote, directed, scored, produced and starred in. He played Sweetback, a young black man in LA who was on the run after a violent altercation with police, trying to save the life of a Black Panther who was being beaten by two white LAPD cops. It was dedicated to, quote, "all the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of the man," unquote.

Although the film's success helped open the door to Hollywood for other Black filmmakers, Van Peebles never quite walked through that door himself. After "Sweetback," Van Peebles left filmmaking. He produced two Broadway shows, wrote for television, worked as a Wall Street trader and wrote a book about stock options. Terry Gross spoke with him in 1990 and asked why he cast himself in the starring role as Sweetback.


MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, number of reasons. First, I needed someone with a large understanding of cinema who had a number of years of experience. And the people that had that number of years' experience in the cinema generally were not of the street ilk that I needed, one. Two, those that were wanted him to have more lines. He said six lines in the whole movie. They had been taught that lines equal the size of film, a size of a part. Do you follow me?


MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Since he - and I didn't want him to talk a lot. He didn't have to talk a lot. And that's why I did it.

GROSS: There are a couple of weeks when "Sweetback" outdid "Love Story" at the box office, which is pretty extraordinary considering it was an independently produced film. How did you independently get that kind of distribution?

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, I didn't independently get that kind of distribution. What I simply did was make a good movie. Only two theaters in the United States would show it - two theaters at all would show the movie. And they did so well. Then everybody called me. And at that stage of the game, hey, it was their turn in the barrel. I made deals, and the audience went to see it. That's - and that's how that happened.

GROSS: Your film "Sweetback" was considered to be the first of the Blaxploitation films. What you did was you took the action genre and put it into a Black politicized context. And I'd really be interested in hearing what gave you the idea to do that.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, I'm being alive really gave me the idea of doing it. I just got - the reason - my original reason for going into films was that I had gotten tired of seeing Blacks portrayed in an image that I didn't agree with. And so I said, gee, I can do better than that. And if you don't control your images, then you don't have a base for controlling your destiny. So I wanted to control how I was perceived. And therefore, I went into films.

Now, you said something very interesting when you said that the film was the first Blaxploitation film. It was not really a Blaxploitation film. It started Blaxploitation, which took out the political content and just kept the action and the winning Black person. In fact, the revolutionary aspect of "Sweetback" was put at a 180-degree turn and became almost an apology for the man. Up until that time, there had really been no Black movies that mirrored the ethos, the want and the desires of the lumpenproletariat, the urban proletariat. And that's what "Sweetback" did.

GROSS: You're talking about wanting to make movies that had an image that you believed in. Now, "Sweetback" was praised by a lot of people for - really, for being a Black film, you know, made by Blacks, starring Blacks, set in the Black community. On the other hand, it was criticized by many people within the Black community for having its hero be the real stud. And some people saw that as perpetuating a stereotype instead of shattering it. And I wonder what you thought of those criticisms and what you think of them now in retrospect.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, I thought that Jesus Christ was nothing but a carpenter in his own hometown. And so it really didn't bother me too much. I think that's completely valid, what they said. And I disagree with it 100%. That is, you can have - you can take a stereotype, and you don't have to run from it. You can take it to the other side and throw it back a la jiujitsu and use that stereotype as the impetus for your force. You see - I could have taken Sweetback and had him a college professor. But that didn't - that was not the situation of the people that I wanted to talk to, the larger group of people that I wanted to talk to. I took Sweetback from, let's say, one of the lowest possible common denominators in the community and therefore moved him forward. I didn't move him forward from some elevated period or position in the community from the first place, whereas the people once again left out in the cold - it wasn't somebody that they knew. That's why I felt that the audience reacted so positively. The major audience, the - much of the intelligentsia or many of the cultural nationalists did not like that move. Well, that's - that is a valid point of view. It didn't happen to be my own.

GROSS: You were one of the first or perhaps the first Black director of a feature film, feature-length film.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, I was probably the first commercial feature film outside of - after Oscar Micheaux...

GROSS: Oscar Micheaux, yeah.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: ...Went out of business in - around 1932 with the - really, with the advent of sound, he had to phase out. I came back to the States in 1967 as one of the French delegates to the San Francisco Film Festival. No one knew I was an American, let alone Black. And I had lived in Europe for many years, and I was a French journalist and then writer. And there was a law that a French writer can have a director's card to direct his own work. So one of my novels I turned into a film script. And that's how I got the French director's card. And that's how the film was made in France.

GROSS: So you started your film career in France in...

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: No, I didn't start making movies in France. I made movies in San Francisco when I used to drive a cable car many years ago.

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, I see. So you'd made, like, small, short, independent films.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: I made short independent films, and I went to Hollywood with my films. And I said, here are my films. Here's some of my work. I've written this story, et cetera. And I'd like to - I'd like a job. And they offered me a job as an elevator operator. I said, no, no, you don't understand. I like to write. I like to direct. Then they offered me a job as a tap dancer or a dancer. You know, I said, hey, guys, this is not what I had in mind. And then they explained to me that one day, my people might learn to operate this complicated equipment - (vocalizing) et cetera, et cetera. And the rainfall at Kilimanjaro was this that - you know, and it was at that juncture I left America.

GROSS: And you went to France?

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: No, I went to Holland to get my Ph.D. in astronomy. I used to be an astronomer. And however, those early first films I made were seen in France. And only Langlois, who started, really, the first cinema museum, La Cinematheque Francaise, declared me a genius and looked me up - and I was living in Holland at the time - and said I should be making films. Well, once he called me a genius, I said, finally there's somebody who understands me.


MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: And so (laughter)...

GROSS: So you don't think it would have been possible to start your career as director had you just stayed in America?

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: What do I know? I mean, it didn't seem that it was burgeoning with opportunity at the time.

GROSS: You ended up leaving movies to work on Wall Street. You were probably, when you started on Wall Street, one of the few Black traders with a seat on the Exchange.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: I was the only Black trader on the American Stock Exchange at the time I started there. There were a number - there was, I think, five brokers. Now, a broker is different than a trader. A broker, he works on the commission, and he execute orders for others. A trader executes from his own - for his account or his own company's account. And he does not work on a commission.

GROSS: So what was it like being the only Black trader on the Exchange?

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, I've been in a number of other situations. I was the first Black Eagle Scout on the Bohagen (ph) Trail. I was the first...


MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: ...The first Black navigator in my squadron. I was the first Black in - out of ROTC in my college. You know, on and on and on and on again - it was not particularly disconcerting to me.

GROSS: In your new book "No Identity Crisis," your son Mario, with tongue-in-cheek, calls you his lizard dad (laughter)...


GROSS: ...And talks about you as being the person who really lacks diplomacy when it comes to, you know, dealing with somebody.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: I gave at the office. I gave - my diplomacy was worn away a few years ago - well, a long time ago.

GROSS: Did you ever have any (laughter)?

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Now, I don't - can't remember back that far. That's very unfair. How do I know?


MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: As I look back, I don't think that was one of my strong points.

BIANCULLI: Melvin Van Peebles speaking to Terry Gross in 1990. He died last week at age 89.

After a break, we'll hear from his son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles, who made a film about the making of his father's film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Next, we're going to hear from actor and director Mario Van Peebles, the son of filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who died last week. Mario Van Peebles made his directorial debut with the 1991 movie "New Jack City" in which he also co-starred. He also played Malcolm X in the film "Ali" and directed "Panther," a film about the Black Panther Party. He made his movie debut when he was a boy in his father's 1971 film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song."

More than 30 years later, Mario wrote and directed "Baadasssss!", a movie about the making of his father's 1971 groundbreaking film. That was the occasion of his interview with Terry. He starred in the film in the role of his father, Melvin.

Here's Mario as his father in a scene from the film. Melvin's agent is trying to negotiate a three-picture deal with the studio. The studio wants a follow-up to his film "Watermelon Man," one that doesn't have anything to do with "Sweetback." The agent is played by Saul Rubinek.


MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (As Melvin) This idea I got is kind of like a ghetto western. In fact...

SAUL RUBINEK: (As Howie) Ghetto western?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (As Melvin) ...The brother even wears, like, a black kind of cowboy hat.

RUBINEK: (As Howie) Yeah?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (As Melvin) And dig this man. At the end of the movie, when he gets away, words come blazing across the screen, badass [expletive] gonna come back and collect some dues.

RUBINEK: (As Howie) What? Have you lost your mind? Are you taking drugs now? Listen to me. Listen to me. Melvin, listen to me. On "Watermelon Man," your white lead was supposed to wake up from this nightmare where he's a Black guy and turns back into being white again. And you said, no, no. Being Black is not a nightmare. And you didn't shoot the ending the studio wanted. Who backed you 100%?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (As Melvin) You're the man, Howie.

RUBINEK: (As Howie) Me. So why are you doing this to me? I can't take this kind of inflammatory [expletive] to a major studio. Nobody legitimate is gonna take "Baadasssss." No one. You know how hard we worked to get here? Melvin, just do [expletive] comedy, OK?

All right. Look, they're coming. Hey, listen. You know what this is? You're terrified you're going to fail, so you're failing yourself. It's nothing to do with being Black or blue or green. You hear me? It's self-destruction.

Hey, Marty (ph). (Laughter) Alan (ph)? How are you doing? So listen...

GROSS: Now, why did you want to make a film about the making of the film?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, great (laughter) - that's a good one. Well, you know, I was - it was an interesting process for me. Why did I make "Baadasssss!"? And I was on the set of "Ali" and - being directed by Michael Mann. And we had these great sort of political discussions. And Michael is a real historian. And of course, Ali is there himself. And I started to think about the notion - if Ali were, you know, one of the first athletes to use the ring not just to box but to stand for something, then Melvin Van Peebles was one of the first filmmakers to use the silver screen not just to entertain us but to stand for something; to say, we no longer want to be depicted as butlers and maids or as uber-Negroes trying to fit in and guess who's coming to dinner?

That's fine. It's got its place. But there's also a place for folks - Black folks in cinema that do live to the end, that do have a sexuality, that are empowered and are not just sort of dealing with the oppressor.

And so I thought, no, I'll go see my dad. My dad's got a great book on the making of "Sweetback." And my dad said, yeah, I love you. I - if you want the book, I don't want to get screwed on the deal. You have to option it, pay for it like everybody else. And if you play me - or whoever plays me, don't make me too damn nice. And as you saw in the movie "Baadasssss!", I - you know, I didn't sugarcoat him. He is who he is.

GROSS: Now, you were 12 years old when your father was making "Sweet Sweetback"?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, 12 going on 13.

GROSS: Now, you have a small, famous or infamous part (laughter)...


GROSS: ...In "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." I want you to describe the scene that you're in.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Well, actually, I'm in two scenes. One scene people...

GROSS: You know the scene I want you to describe.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: ...People tend to remember more than others.

GROSS: Yeah.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: I blew up a car - where I did keep my Afro. And the other scene is the beginning of the movie where I play, ironically, Sweetback as a kid. So I'm playing my dad's character as a kid. And now in "Baadasssss!", I'm playing my dad as an adult.

But in the "Sweetback" scene as a kid, you see how Sweetback gets his name. And sweetback was an old sort of blues term about a guy that was good at making love. And so as a kid, he gets initiated with this prostitute in a brothel. And I played the kid in that scene. And then I turn into - then it turns into my dad playing Sweetback. I often tease him that I'd like another crack at the role now.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (Laughter) But, you know, at the time I didn't want to - there was a number - I didn't want to be working with him on the movie after a while. You know, I thought - my dad and I didn't always get along. I would never put my kids in a scene like this. But I came to understand him differently as a man, you know, walking in those shoes.

GROSS: Well, in 1990, I interviewed your father, and I asked him about why he cast you in that scene. And I want to play you that part of the interview. It'll just take a minute. So here it is, a 1990 interview with Melvin Van Peebles, who was the father of my guest, Mario Van Peebles.


GROSS: "Sweetback" - the movie opens with a 10-year-old Sweetback finding a home for himself in a whorehouse and having his sexual initiation with a 40-year-old woman. And it's a fairly explicitly done scene. They're both nude. He's in between her legs. And this is your son in that role - your 10-year-old son. I was astonished when I found out it was your son. What made you decide to cast him in that part?

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, one, he tends to look like me, being my...

GROSS: Right.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: ...Son and all. And what I always found very interesting was people saying, but it's your son. But every child is someone's son. And I wouldn't ask my son or myself to do anything that I wouldn't ask of anyone else's child. I don't have that differentiation of, well, it's mine, and therefore it cannot be.

GROSS: Let me just ask you, how much did your son know about sex when that scene was shot? I mean, did he get what was happening?

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, let me put it this way. He wanted a bicycle for Christmas, so he didn't have a lot of leverage. And I didn't (laughter) ask him, actually. He did say something rather funny, though. He said, Dad, is going to be an X movie? I said, yes. He said, phew. Oh, I don't want the kids at school to see me.

GROSS: OK. So that's Melvin Van Peebles recorded in 1990.

Mario, what did you think of his answer that he wouldn't have asked his son to do anything that he wouldn't have asked anyone else's son to do, and he wouldn't have asked anyone else's son to do something that he wouldn't - that he couldn't ask his own son to do?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: You know what? I didn't enjoy it at all. I didn't want to be in that scene. I didn't want to get - have to give that lovely bike back. That bike had a banana seat (laughter), you know? And I didn't want to get my Afro cut. Luckily, I got to keep my, you know, Afro intact.

GROSS: One of the things your father mentioned when I was talking to him is that you asked how the movie would be rated, and you were relieved when it was X - when he told you would be X-rated 'cause you didn't want your friends to see you nude in that scene. Did your friends...


GROSS: ...See you in the scene?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: A couple of them did. And then I got a lot of date calls.

GROSS: Oh, really? So it worked in your favor.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (Laughter) Like I said, I wouldn't mind another shot now. He said, well, I am not giving you another shot. I had to fill in for you last time.

GROSS: Now, you were in the position - I mean, you not only, like, play your father in "Baadasssss!," but you were in your father's position of having to cast a boy to play the role that your father made you play when he was making his film. So how did you cast for it? Who did you choose? And how explicit did you want to make your version of his scene?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Well, I thought I didn't want to make anyone do that scene twice. So in "Baadasssss!," I just used the original footage of me as a kid in "Sweetback" during that scene. So he didn't - the kid I cast wasn't going to have to do anything like that. And that's just something that I wanted to do was - you know, I'm not going to repeat - you know, do unto someone else what I didn't like done unto me. But I did want to show the scene because I thought it was a point in my life. And it just showed something interesting about Melvin, that he was sort of like that "Great Santini"-esque father - almost that which does not kill you, in a Nietzsche-esque way makes you stronger. And if I bounce this basketball off your head a little bit, well, you'll be tough, and you'll know how to just deal and, you know. So he has his whole philosophy, and, you know, I'm a filmmaker. And I've benefited from him, you know, knocking down the doors he knocked down - absolutely.

GROSS: Did your father charge you a lot of money for rights to use the scene in your film?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (Laughter) It's a good question, Terry. This guy is a trip, man. So I go to my dad, I say, OK, Dad, listen. I got the movie funded. So I go to see my old man about - 'cause I wanted to put some clips of his film "Sweetback" in my film "Baadasssss!" And he said, great, great. Just tell me the scenes you want, and I'll put them up, and you could pay for them. I couldn't believe it. I was like, this is product placement.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: People will see "Baadasssss!" and want to see "Sweetback." What are you talking about? This is product placement. He goes, no, no, you got to pay for them, just like anybody else. So sure enough, I wound up writing him a check. I think it was for $2,500 and giving it to him, which he promptly cashed. And then he turned around and said, by the way, I want to take you and all your "Baadasssss!" kids on vacation. And he wound up spending about $5,000 to take us on this lovely vacation, an island in Guana and take my sister and her kids as well. So he's a funny dude 'cause in one - on one hand, he's doing the business deal with his son and he's, you know, taking the money, and in the other pocket, he's putting twice as much back. But that's Melvin Van movies.

BIANCULLI: Mario Van Peebles speaking to Terry Gross in 2004 - his father, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, died last week at the age of 89. We'll hear more from Mario after a break. Plus, we'll remember John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal bishop who pushed the church to accept LGBTQ and women clergy. And we'll hear my review of the new Netflix series "Maid." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) They bled your mama. They bled your papa.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: (Singing) Won't bleed me.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Won’t bleed you.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: (Singing) Won't bleed me.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) They bled your sista.


MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah - popcorn - yeah, yeah yeah - popcorn - yeah - popcorn - ow - uh - yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah - popcorn - ha - (yelling) - popcorn - uh - yeah, yeah, yeah.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to Terry's 2004 interview with Mario Van Peebles, the son of filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who died last week at age 89. Mario Van Peebles directed the film "Baadasssss!", which is about the making of his father's 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." Mario also starred in the film, playing his father.

GROSS: I think the way you play your father in your movie "Baadasssss!" kind of walks the line between obsessively adhering to his artistic vision and being selfish, and walks the line between being confident and arrogant. And I thought that seemed - not knowing him, that seemed to have a ring of truth to it. How did you see him when you were 12, when he was making the movie? Did you see him as confident or arrogant? Did you see him as selfish?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: You know, I don't know that at 12 I analyzed it as much.

GROSS: And when I say selfish, I mean because he was putting a lot of family kind of interests on the back burner to make this movie. He was losing money...

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Oh, totally obsessed. Yes.

GROSS: He was totally obsessed. He was losing money.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Single vision. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: You know, he's a driven cat. And, you know, there's that scene in "Baadasssss!" where he says to Big T - Big T is - the crew has spent two-days - a weekend in jail. And Big T, who's the big, you know, muscled sound man, is really pissed by this. And my dad has that scene where he says, look; you know, this is bigger than you. I got all my stuff on the line and all my family's stuff. This is a war. It's our war to take back our imagery. We'll not be butlers. We won't be shuffling. It's bigger than you. It's bigger than me. And if you don't know that, then quit, you know? And if you're going to say you're going to kick my ass, do it. And if I was afraid of you, I wouldn't be the kind of brother to get this thing done. And that's very much my pop. And he's still that way to this day. What he believes in, he stands for. And I respect that.

And he made changes. Like, I wouldn't have been able to get "Baadasssss!" done the same way. I mean, now, 30 years later, I could get a union crew that was multiracial, where there were women on the crew. There were Asians on the crew. My DP was a 63-year-young Jewish brother. And my Asian set decorator and designer and the young sister with the fro who did the wardrobe I could get because my dad had broken the unions and made sure that these people could work. I directed a film called "New Jack City" in 1991 - '90. And the guy that came to me who was my producer, Preston Holmes, said, you know how I got my job? I said, how? He said, because your dad was willing to get fired so that all of us could come on as crew. And he did get fired. And he insisted we stay. And that's how I got my job. And so I look at the changes he made, and I'm like, wow. I don't know if I'd have the freedom I do now as a filmmaker had I not had, you know, this dad who was willing to pay the cost to be the godfather of soul cinema.

GROSS: I know actors often feel that when they put on the costumes, you know, or the wardrobe for a movie, that they are transformed by those clothes. Now, in your case, you were wearing what I imagine were clothes very similar to what you remembered your father wearing when your father made "Sweet Sweetback." So how did you feel in those clothes, saying the things you remembered your father saying...

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: ...And doing your best to become him? Could you just, like, talk about what that felt like?

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Oh. To play your father making a film that you remember him making, and you were on that set - I had some of the very same clothes that he wore, that sort of pimp-y, crushed velvet gold, obnoxious outfit, for example.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: I don't know where he got that outfit that thing was terrible. Anyway, I had them get me another outfit, make me an outfit like that. And we were shooting a scene in LA in the hood. And I - since it was an independent film and I only had 18 days to make the movie, I used my own truck, see? That was my camera vehicle. So I had my truck. And I had the DP stick the camera out the window. And he hadn't been to the hood. So he was like - he's a little nervous. He's sticking the camera out the window. I said, OK, here's the deal. We don't have permits for any of this. I'm going to walk on the other side street. And when I signal you, I'm going to run through the ghetto. And you photograph me. But we'll only get one shot at it because the second time I run through, they're going to recognize me. So I got on the mack, pimp daddy suit. I got the mustache just like dad. And I signaled him. He starts driving the truck. They're shooting out the window. And I run past these old cats in the hood. And one brother looked up. He's been drinking Ripple on that same quarter for, like, 90 years. And the guy looks up. And he sees me running. And he goes, Sweetback's back.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: He came back. The brother came back just like he said he came back. It was surreal. We went to the very same places my dad went in the ghetto because he was avoiding the unions, and in the desert because the unions couldn't find him. And they couldn't - they were scared to go in the hood. And we went to the same locations and did the same stuff, I mean, 33 years later. In fact, we even shot on the very street he lived on, his office was on.

GROSS: You know how no matter how much you love somebody, they often have, like, a certain gesture that really gets on your nerves? I'm wondering if your father had something like that that you had to recreate when you were playing him.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, I did. There are many things. One is he eats with his fingers.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: And what he does is he says he doesn't want to eat anything. He likes to stay nice and slim. He's got a great stomach. He's, you know - he can still outrun me. He's 71 years old. He's a bad brother. But how he does that is, psychologically, he's understood that what he doesn't order won't make him fat. So he encourages you to order something. He gets some of your salad or whatever.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: And then he'll reach over and put his fingers right into your food and sort of smack it up. The second thing is, growing up with my dad was like growing up - if you're a woman and you grow up with Margaret Thatcher as your mother.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Whether you agree with mommy's politics or not - whether you agree with her politics, it would be very hard for men to convince you that a woman could have no place in the old-boy network of politics. Growing up with my dad, who did speak French, who did speak Dutch, who was one of the first Black officers in the Air Force, was never on drugs, was never in jail, didn't play basketball and didn't rap, was liberating because I thought, it's possible. And that was the biggest gift was that I saw the possibilities of what one could do.

GROSS: Well, Mario Van Peebles, thank you so much for talking with us.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: I love talking with you and would, you know, do it any time. "Green Eggs And Ham" - anywhere, on a boat, on a moat...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: ...In Philly, wherever.

BIANCULLI: Mario Van Peebles speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. His father, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, died last week at age 89. After a break, we remember Bishop John Shelby Spong, who championed the acceptance of women and LGBTQ people in the clergy. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BROWN SONG, "CAN'T GIT ENUF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.