“Boss” an important show for director Van Peebles

“Boss” Chicago actor Doug James and director Mario Van Peebles

Say this for Mario Van Peebles: Despite the dark themes of Startz “Boss,” the director presides over a festive set.  Before filming ended on the second season July 10, Van Peebles shot a final scene at in a private suite at Arlington Park racetrack.

Despite the chandeliers and gratuitous Doric columns, Van Peebles wore lime green shorts and boat shoes. The rest of the largely Chicago crew wore hats – fedoras, panamas, newsboy – in honor of their day at the races, darting off to make bets in between scenes. 

Not all of the details in “Boss” are true to life; Gil Bellows, for instance, the smoldering heartthrob from “Ally McBeal,” who is playing the owner of the track, is a far cry from the aging Dick Duchossois.

But Van Peebles has Chicago cred to spare. His father, legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, was born on the South Side of Chicago; his father was a tailor.

“Black political power started in Chicago,” says Van Peebles. He remembers his dad telling him about smashing up loaves of Wonder Bread so the company would hire more minorities.

Two degrees of Chicago for Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peeples and son Mario Melvin Van Peebles went on to make the revolutionary “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” in 1971, with a 13-year-old Mario making his film debut. It happened to be a movie that held a special place in the heart of director (and Chicagoan) Michael Mann: It was the film he saw on his first date with his wife. Mann later cast Mario as Malcolm X in 2001’s “Ali” (filmed in Chicago).

“Baadasssss!’” – which Mario co-wrote, produced and directed — was his 2003 homage to the making of his father’s masterpiece. “Roger Ebert got behind the movie,” says Mario. (Ebert called it “one of the best movies I’ve seen about the making of a movie.”) “So I guess it’s all two degrees of Chicago.”

Van Peebles, who was blessed with actorly good looks, started out as a soap star in “One Life to Live.” He went on to star in movies like “New Jack City,” and now spends most of his time directing episodes of acclaimed series such as “Sons of Anarchy,” “Lost” and “Damages” — even taking a role in the latter as FBI special agent Randall Harrison.

He directed three episodes of “Boss” in the first season, and signed up for more in the second, which premieres on Starz August 17.

He is involved with “Boss” because he’s a fan. “It’s not a money issue for me,” he says. “I’m dedicated to doing good work. What we’re able to do on TV today is what indie films were doing before.”

He thinks of “Boss” as an important show. “A lot of things are done to stay in power that are not always beneficial to citizens,” the director says. “It’s better that the populace be informed.”

Show employs more than 100 local crew

Mario Van Peebles and the Local 600 “Boss” camera crew, at Arlington Park. Front row (from left) Hunter Whalen, Chris Dame, Zach Gannoway;  Back row (from left): Yusuke Sato, Tom Zimmerman, Chris Rejano, Richard Rutkowski, Mario Van Peebles, Joe "Jody" Williams, Charles Anderson and Dereck Ashbaugh.   Photo: Chuck Hodes,  Local 600 Still photographer.At least 3 million viewers are better informed – the average viewers for each episode last season. Local 476 business manager Mark Hogan says that the show employed over 100 local crew. “Very few L.A. people were flown in,” says Hogan.

The crew included Local 476 members key gaffer Mark Castelaz, key grip Jason Storandt, head makeup Susie Ostos, head hairdresser Dominic Mango, construction coordinator John Sloove, set designer Desi Wolff and prop master Aaron Holder.

All the camera operators were local, Hogan notes, including A camera operator Chris Rejano, who is a member of both Local 476 and Local 600. 

Working on the show from L.A. were producer Peter Giuliano, first AD Traci Lewis and DP Richard Rutkowski.

But Van Peebles settled right in to Chicago. “My daughter Morgana is 14,” he says. “She studied in the Second City’s intensive program and danced at Hubbard Street [dance company].”

Van Peebles went to the South Side for his hair cuts, and was a regular at Gibson’s and the Green Mill.

“It’s a great theater town, a great walking city,” he says. “And it’s got historical roots.” 

There’s been no word on whether there will be a third season of “Boss” – but the show’s sets remain standing.

Paige Wiser is a freelance writer. She contributes frequently to Michigan Avenue magazine and reviews movies each Friday on ABC-7’s “Windy City Live.” You can reach her at paigewiser@me.com.