Cover Story

Schulz: The Good and The Grief

By Megan Voelkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Charlie Brown, in his characteristic unluckiness, only got a rock in his Halloween grab bag during the 1966 TV special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." Luckily for Peanuts fans, there's a much sweeter treat in store this week: the debut of the American Masters documentary "Good Ol' Charles Schulz" on PBS.

Responsible for some of the most iconic characters of the 20th century, Charles M. Schulz introduced the dynamic Peanuts gang to the world over the course of 50 years with his syndicated daily and Sunday comic strip. Yet as Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy and the rest of Schulz's two-dimensional personalities bared the complexity of their everyday trials, the life of the man who guided them remained largely out of the spotlight.

A desire to reconcile this disconnect led David Van Taylor to write and direct a documentary on the cartoonist's life.

"The goal and the challenge were really to use his life to understand his work as much as we could, and to use his work to illuminate his life," Van Taylor said. A Peanuts fan himself, Van Taylor began working on "Good Ol' Charles Schulz" in 2004; it's the first American Masters film he's directed and the first the award-winning PBS series has devoted to a cartoonist.

Instead of relying on a narrator, the documentary carefully weaves Peanuts comic strips between interviews with Schulz's family and friends to recount his life from his Minnesota childhood to his death in 2000.

"That's one of the overall surprises here," Van Taylor said. "How much the serious drama of a man's life can be reflected in a comic strip."

One of the on-screen interviewees is Linus Maurer, who worked with Schulz in the late 1940s. He said Peanuts was evocative not just of Schulz's life, but of life in general.

"He took all these big things that were going on in the world and brought them down in a narrow little vehicle, which were these kids in this neighborhood somewhere. The whole comic strip was based on relationships, as opposed to incidents. What he was doing was universal," Maurer said.

Though Van Taylor's film draws many parallels between Schulz's personal struggles and those of Charlie Brown, Maurer added that all the characters were "very, very real" to Schulz and in many ways he assumed all of their roles.

The film reveals that Schulz patterned many of his characters after people he knew -- including Maurer, who inspired the comic's blanket-toting, thumb-sucking savant, Linus; and the "little red-haired girl," who was inspired by one of Schulz's former girlfriends.

Schulz produced nearly 18,000 comic strips featuring the Peanuts gang, fostering a multi-billion-dollar phenomenon. After humble beginnings in only seven newspapers when it debuted Oct. 2, 1950, Peanuts grew to be a mainstay in more than 2,600 newspapers; developed into wildly popular televised specials such as "A Charlie Brown Christmas"; and inspired gobs of character paraphernalia.

Yet, in spite of this widespread success, "Good Ol' Charles Schulz" suggests finances and fame had a minimal effect on Schulz's deep commitment to his fundamental role as a cartoonist. The film highlights an archived interview of Schulz saying, "I would feel just terrible if I couldn't draw comic strips. I mean I would feel guilty; I would feel very empty if I were not allowed to do this sort of thing." Sometimes, he said, his hand would shake with excitement while he was drawing.

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