The dark side of Charlie Brown’s creator
By Michael Hill
Associated Press Writer
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. — Before “Peanuts,” Charles Schulz taught art with two guys named Charles Brown and Linus Maurer. He dated a little red-haired girl who crushed his heart. He felt loss, isolation and a burning passion to be a cartoonist.
It’s no secret that Charles Schulz drew heavily from his life and emotions in animating Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang. What gets glossed over sometimes amid the ubiquitous images of dancing beagles is that the strip routinely dealt head-on with emotional issues like angst and humiliation — think of Charlie Brown flat on his back after Lucy yanks the football away. Again.
Who would think of exploring such heavy themes in a cartoon about children?
An “American Masters” portrait airing on PBS at 8 p.m. Monday paints a nuanced picture of the artist who drew “Peanuts” for just under 50 years. Family and friends describe Schulz — known to all as Sparky — as a shy, driven man who was at turns distant and needy. One friend describes him as “always missing something.” Little wonder this cartoonist created a character who dispenses psychiatric advice for a nickel.
“If you look at `Peanuts’ ... it’s a lot more than fun, and that’s what made it great,” writer and director David Van Taylor said in a phone interview. “And it shouldn’t, in some ways, come as a surprise that the creator of Charlie Brown was a vulnerable, conflicted person.”
Peanuts debuted Oct. 2, 1950. A character calls him “Good ol’ Charlie Brown” in the first strip before adding the punch line: “How I hate him!” Taylor’s film points out how the strip stood out on the ’50s funny pages, with the children discussing existential issues between strips depicting Li’l Abner saying “Excoose Me!!” and Dick Tracy battling Pruneface.
The whole gang
Schulz is often likened to Charlie Brown. But Van Taylor sees aspects of the artist in the whole gang. He could be playful like Snoopy or insecure and ponderous like Linus. Like Schroeder at his toy piano, Schulz had the ability to lose himself in his art. And Schulz would refer to times that he was rude to autograph seekers as his “Lucy moments.”
Despite his massive success, Schulz just wanted to be an ordinary guy. He married a strong-willed woman — a likely model for Lucy — who persuaded him to leave snowy Minneapolis for California, where they raised a big family on a woodsy spread. Children and friends describe a sometimes emotionally guarded man who spent hours in his studio. “He lived in Snoopy’s doghouse more or less,” said friend Chuck Bartley.
Often wishy-washy in his personal relationships, Schulz could be unyielding with his work. When, at the height of his fame, he was tapped to create a 1965 “Peanuts” Christmas special for TV, he insisted that there be no laugh track, that children do the voice work and that Linus recite from the Bible to demonstrate the true meaning of Christmas.
Executives were uneasy with the mention of Christ in a Christmas special. They prepared for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to bomb.
The show, of course, was a huge hit and has since become a beloved Christmas staple.
The documentary, which premiered earlier this month at the Woodstock Film Festival, presents Schulz as being nagged by despair and haunted by his mother’s death when he was a young man shipping off to serve in World War II. As his first marriage disintegrates, the show tracks how the focus of the strip moves away from Charlie Brown’s travails to Snoopy’s fantasy world of walking on the moon and dogfighting the Red Baron.
“He was, in many ways, happy. He still had his underlying melancholy,” his second wife, Jeannie Schulz, said in a phone interview. “He still had that feeling when he woke up in the morning. And he used to say `You know, I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s blood sugar.’ ”
Schulz stressed that her late husband loved to laugh and joke and notes that his optimism is reflected in the strip. Charlie Brown always thinks he’ll get to win the ball game, kick the football or pull a Valentine out of his mailbox.
Schulz died of cancer at age 77 on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2000, the day before his last strip was published.
Enfeebled in the last months of his life, Schulz continued to draw in a quavering hand and even let his emotional defenses come down a bit. He made a valedictory appearance on the “Today” show toward the end and struggled to hold back tears as he talked about his lifetime with Charlie Brown.
“You know, that poor kid, he never even got to kick the football,” he said with a choked-up laugh. “What a dirty trick.”
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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