Book, TV bio celebrate 50 years of ‘Peanuts’

[17 October 2007]

By Michael Hibblen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI—The simple Peanuts comic strips expressed so much, as Charlie Brown laid awake in bed at night worrying about life. Or sought professional help for his sadness, paying a nickel per session at a psychiatric stand. Or was convinced he could kick that football, only to have Lucy once again pull it away at the last moment, with Charlie Brown landing flat on his back.

For half a century Charles Schulz poured himself into the daily strip that resonated with countless people. But even the biggest fans may not realize the extent of how much his own life, experiences and insecurities played into Peanuts, which became the most successful comic strip of all time.

This month, more than seven years after Schulz’s death, two deeply personal looks at his life may change that.

On Tuesday, a hefty biography went on sale in bookstores, written with the cooperation of his family, which allowed full access to his studio and papers.

On Oct. 29, the PBS series “American Masters” will premiere Good Ol’ Charles Schulz, an intimate 90-minute look at his life.

Both weave a portrait of Schulz that at times is painful, revealing new details about his life. They’re also extremely insightful, especially for anyone who has regularly followed the comic strip.

“Schulz was in many ways guarded and this book and this film probably could not have happened while he was alive,” said David Van Taylor, who wrote and directed the film.

“In some ways, I found the family and particularly his widow Jean to be themselves kind of searching to make sense of his life and legacy.”

The two projects are coming out independent of each other, although “Schulz And Peanuts: A Biography” author David Michaelis served as a consultant and was interviewed for the documentary.

As an only child growing up in St. Paul, Minn., Sparky, as Schulz was called, was a smart, though extremely quiet boy, who set a goal of becoming a syndicated newspaper cartoonist at age 6.

Like Charlie Brown, Schulz’s father was a barber and his mother was a housewife. And of course, as a kid he had a beloved dog named Spike who became the basis for Snoopy.

Schulz was very close to his mother, who is described as being loving, while not very self-assured. But as a teenager, his life got darker when his mother became sick. The young man did not know at that point that it was cervical cancer, only that she was in a lot of pain.

“For those very tender years of high school he struggled with his mother’s illness not really knowing much about it or it being given a name,” Michaelis said in an interview.

At nearly the same time as her death, Schulz was drafted into the Army in World War II and put on a troop train heading out of town. The book quotes the man sitting in the seat beside him as saying Schulz seemed “deep in his own misery.”

After leading a machinegun squad through Europe, he returned to Minnesota and pressed ahead with his cartooning, relentlessly sending out submissions.

Schulz found a job as an instructor at an art correspondence school, where he met many of the people who would become the core characters of Peanuts. Featured in old home movies shown in the documentary is a fellow instructor named Charlie Brown, who indeed had quite a round head. Another colleague there, who was interviewed for the documentary, was named Linus; even as an older man, there is still quite a resemblance to the security blanket-carrying child who became the philosophical one in the strip. Many others in Schulz’s life, including his own children, inspired additional characters.

But while names and physical attributes came from those around him, most of the characters in Peanuts embodied different parts of Schulz’s own personality.

One of the most intriguing segments of the film is seeing the woman who broke Schulz’s heart and was the inspiration for the Little Red-Haired Girl. The character, unseen in the strip, came to epitomize unrequited love as Charlie Brown watched her longingly, often from the other side of the playground, trying to get up the nerve to go talk to her.

In real life, her name was Donna Johnson, and she and Schulz had dated. He asked her to marry him, but in the documentary, she explains in painful detail that he didn’t realize she was torn between him and another man. Sitting on the back steps of her parents’ home, she broke off their relationship.

“He left and he was crushed and I went in the house and cried,” she said. “A half-hour later he came back, knocked on the door and said, `I thought maybe you had changed your mind.’ She hadn’t.”

Within a few years he married a woman named Joyce, who would become the inspiration for one particularly dominating member of the strip.

“You can find the birth of Lucy very strongly in his first marriage,” said author Michaelis. “His first wife in many ways resembled Lucy and on whom the character was patterned and where the dynamics of his marriage came into play between Lucy and Charlie Brown.”

Other aspects of their relationship were revealed in the strip through the interactions of Lucy and Schroeder. The film suggests that when Schulz’s wife became overbearing, he would disappear into his studio for long periods of time, losing himself in his art in much the same way Schroeder would lose himself in Beethoven, despite Lucy’s leaning against his piano.

With the strip’s success, Schulz and his wife moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., had kids and built a large estate for the family. But the popularity of Peanuts and the money that came with it didn’t necessarily bring Schulz happiness.

“He defined success as a cartoonist far above what had ever been before, both artistically and financially, and yet he maintained the insecurities and doubts and sadness,” said filmmaker Van Taylor.

The marriage didn’t last. Schultz’s daughter Meredith Hodges says in the documentary that her father was hesitant to get counseling, because he was “afraid it would ruin the comic strip.”

Schulz remarried a couple of years later and continued with the strip for nearly three more decades, until a stroke in November 1999 led to the discovery that he was in the later stages of colon cancer. Chemotherapy left him unable to see clearly, and he reluctantly announced that Peanuts would end the following February, in its 50th year.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the film is to see an emotionally choked up Schulz in one of his final interviews. He said that as he wrote his name on the final strip, he realized it was the end of Charlie Brown.

“All of a sudden I thought, you know that poor kid, he never even got to kick the football. What a dirty trick.”

Schulz died in his sleep Feb. 12, 2000.

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