Good Grief! 'Peanuts' Ends
Cartoon's Ailing Creator to Devote Energies to Recovery
By Richard Leiby and Sharon Waxman
The intensely dedicated cartoonist--who has brought the world the foibles of Charlie Brown and the droll musings of his dog, Snoopy, for almost 50 years--announced yesterday that he would stop drawing the "Peanuts" comic strip to focus on recovering from colon cancer.
Schulz, 77, is rare among cartoonists for his insistence on drawing every frame of his strip, seven days a week, since its inception in October 1950. But after undergoing a week of chemotherapy, he said he began thinking about giving himself a break.
"All of a sudden it occurred to me, if I survive all this and I feel good--do I want to start all over again? Why? I thought I should maybe start to live, enjoy life," he said from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. "You know, I can do some things for television and all that. I can do the stories and let the animators do the drawings, but to start with the strip again, to start all over--that would be crazy. So that's what I decided."
He confessed that "of course" the decision saddened him. "It occurred to me, that's the end of Charlie Brown."
Well, not really. The last original daily "Peanuts" will appear Jan. 3 and the final Sunday strip will run Feb. 13. But in many papers "Peanuts" will live on in reruns. United Feature Syndicate will redistribute strips from 1974 to fill the void, and said it plans to recycle old strips indefinitely. Editors at The Washington Post, which has published "Peanuts" since its debut, have not decided whether to run the old strips.
Schulz, a stubborn but warm-hearted artist given to bouts of depression, is the most successful cartoonist in the world. His beloved characters appear in 2,600 newspapers, reaching an estimated 355 million readers daily. Though wealthy, he is legendary among fellow cartoonists for his unflinching work ethic, and has always said he would not allow anyone to continue the cartoon in his place.
Yesterday he hadn't changed his mind. "Some are gonna say, 'Can't somebody else do it?' " he noted. "But who in the world's gonna do it?"
"He's not happy about it," his editor, Amy Lago, said of Schulz's decision to retire. "His daily deadlines are a point of honor with him and he realizes this is going to be an extended recuperation. He didn't want to leave his fans hanging indefinitely. He didn't know how long it would take for him to recover."
Doctors discovered the cancer when they operated on Schulz last month to clear a blocked artery. The cartoonist has been at home resting and exercising, and has made several visits to the public ice rink he built in Santa Rosa to see the annual ice show that he finances.
Among his peers, who know him by the nickname "Sparky," Schulz is considered a pioneer because of the abiding sense of humanity with which he infused his characters. And, like Charlie Brown, he always refused to give up, despite emotional ups and downs.
"It was always his effort to do the best he could possibly do, no matter what," said his friend Lynn Johnston, creator of "For Better or for Worse." "There are very few people who could sustain the work that Sparky's done, alone, for 50 years. I have to admit that I have help on the strip, with the art and coloring and lettering."
Other cartoonists routinely rely on hired hands and pay for gags. But Schulz--who has only taken one five-week hiatus in his career, when he turned 75--would be offended if anyone offered him a joke, said Johnston.
"As far as humor is concerned, you can't find anyone better than what he does," said Jack Elrod, who has worked on the "Mark Trail" strip since 1950. "He is a master at characters; his characters carry the strip."
Through the generations, Charlie Brown and the gang have engendered fierce loyalty. Schulz's first animated TV special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," has run for 34 consecutive years--and earlier this month won the highest ratings for its time slot. It is a gloomy yet inspiring work, with a direct reading from the Book of Matthew--by the winsome, insecure Linus--that can move viewers to tears.
Not only cartoonists cite Schulz's influence on their work. Young, hip filmmaker Wes Anderson has said that characters in his movie "Rushmore" were based on Linus and the Little Red-Haired Girl, the object of Charlie Brown's unrequited affection. In "Rushmore," the hero's father is a barber, as was Schulz's father.
"It's a bittersweet time now," said David Mruz, an art historian and researcher in Minneapolis, where Schulz was born. "The characters have been there my entire life. They're like cousins and relatives, and when you open up the paper you assume they'll always be there."
Asked to characterize the essence of Schulz's comedic touch, Mruz said: "He didn't draw funny cartoons. . . . I call it poetry--it was more the human experience with all its joys and sorrows. Like losing your blanket as a child."
Or when Snoopy visited the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm and discovered it was a parking lot. "You're parking on my memories," the dog moaned. Mruz says Schulz did this strip after learning in 1979 that the brownstone where he was born, behind his father's barbershop, had been torn down.
Schulz's legacy includes countless books and more than 60 animated specials. He recently completed a video, "It's the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown," which will go on sale next September. Officials at his syndication service said Schulz intends to continue working on animated specials.
Schulz verbally stumbled a couple of times during yesterday's interview, lamenting, "I can't talk, this thing did this to me"--but his morale seemed high.
"I've got a pretty good chance they're gonna cut this thing down," he said of the cancer. "I wouldn't doubt it."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company