PASADENA, Calif. -- Mario Van Peebles has a simple theory about playing a real person: "You want to know as much as possible, I think, then forget it and be it."
He's had plenty of experience lately. He portrayed 19th century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in the play "Oak and Ivy" at the Vineyard Playhouse in Martha's Vineyard last summer. He appears as Malcolm X in the current movie "Ali." And now, in Showtime's "10,000 Black Men Named George," he plays Ashley Totten, one of the founding members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Airing Feb. 24 (8 p.m. EST) as part of the cable network's programming for Black History Month, the original drama depicts the struggle from 1925 to 1937 of the nation's railway porters to found a union, despite forceful opposition from the Pullman Co.
The men were underpaid, overworked and demeaned by the nickname "George" given to them all - a reference to George Pullman, who had created these jobs for black men, many of them ex-slaves.
Andre Braugher stars as Asa Philip Randolph, a socialist writer and labor organizer who was approached by Totten to lead their cause. Co-starring are Charles S. Dutton as tough, flamboyant Chicago porter Milton Webster, and Brock Peters as an ex-slave whose loyalty falters in the midst of the fight.
Braugher, one of the executive producers, believes the movie punctures a myth that the civil rights movement just happened as a "spontaneous swelling of emotion." In fact, he says, it was the result of a long "well developed, well planned, well executed program of social change."
Totten was originally from the Caribbean island of St. Croix, born into a culture where blacks were a free majority.
"I was playing a guy who had seen black empowerment way early, so I think that made him different," says Van Peebles, whose career also has included directing, producing and writing.
He cites Totten's taste in clothes: white gabardine suit, Panama hat, red floral tie and white shoes. "That's not a guy who's not proud of being a Caribbean."
Van Peebles says that pioneer black stars with Caribbean heritage such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were an inspiration to him as he approached the role of an upright, confident man ahead of his time.
"It can be difficult to voluntarily step back in time," Van Peebles says, noting that he felt a certain unease a couple years ago in CBS' slavery-era miniseries "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," in which he played Hemings' brother, a "standing-there-with-a-platter-in-the-hand" role.
"If I play a character who gets sick, I get sick," the actor says. "Our body is our instrument and you access your body's chemistry."
But he laughs at viewers' misleading tendency to confuse actor and role.
"I was doing a film with a young woman and she was most marvelously attractive when her lines were written for her, but when they went 'cut' and she lit a cigarette and called her agent, oh man."
On camera or off, Van Peebles himself is still considered by many to be marvelously attractive, a decade after he was chosen as one of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People."
He's 45 now and a father of five. His conversation leans to the philosophical, but is injected with roguish humor - a trait seemingly inherited from his father, the innovative, idiosyncratic filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles.
"Still alive and still an embarrassment - he's great," the son says, in response to a "How's your dad?" query.
Although his father gave him a small role in his 1971 movie "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song," he encouraged Mario not to go into show business. After earning a bachelor's degree in economics at Columbia University, the young Van Peebles worked as a budget analyst in the New York mayor's office.
But the lure of the movies was too strong, thanks to his "pretty hip mom," Maria, who had always taken him to plays and concerts.
"Someone said, 'Maybe it's the mother who shows you the mountain and, if you are lucky, your dad may teach you to climb it!"'
In the 1990s, Mario Van Peebles himself directed such well-received films as the urban crime drama "New Jack City" and the Western "Posse." Now there are more roles for black actors and more movies tackling black subject matter, so he doesn't feel as much need to direct.
"Part of my motivation as a director was my response to lack of diversity ... but now I feel, 'gee, I can go off and act,"' he says.
He's happy to leave directing to Michael Mann ("Ali") or Robert Townsend ("10,000 Black Men Named George") because they "will probably do a much better job than I could."
"I worn that T-shirt," he says.
But he is writing a couple of projects - one on the '70s blaxploitation cinema, another on Martin Luther King Jr.
When not working, he likes traveling with his family, and is adamant about the importance of his children experiencing other cultures. On a recent trip to Nepal, they visited "the lowest fleabag dive all the way up to the lake palace."
Van Peebles sees a successful life splitting two ways:
"One side is having what you want, the other side is doing what you want. The more you want in the 'have' column, the more you are going to spend time making money and protecting the have, the material part. The more you have in the 'do' column, the less you are going to be around to make the money. I tend to like to have more in the 'do' column."
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