Mario Van Peebles describes his parents in the book Panther: A Pictorial History of the Black Panthers and the Story behind the Film ( 1995): "two non- conformist, nonmaterialistic, interracial, avant-garde, crazy-ass parents who made an in-your-face art of kicking down almost any racist or sexist barriers placed before them." Mario traveled the world as a young child, from Mexico (where he was born) to Morocco, Amsterdam and Paris.
Mario grew up in Europe, but his family eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Young Mario was acting by age 8, making his debut in a local production of A Thousand Clowns. As a young teen he made his screen debut in his father's ground-breaking film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song** ( 1971). His German-born mother taught him her avocation, photography. Taking his photography skills, and using self-portraits and his natural good looks and personality, Mario worked as a model for the famous Ford Agency. His father instilled in him early the need to know the business side of show business. An economics degree led him for a time to work in the office of New York City mayor Edward Koch as a budget analyst. After studying acting with Stella Adler, the pull of show business eventually saw him take to the boards off-Broadway. His turns in theater led to film roles as actor; later, working with his father on a variety of projects in theater, film and television, he eventually landed in the director's chair for both film and television.