With the obvious exception of Walt Disney, no cartoonist made it bigger than Charles M. Schulz.
Uncle Walt gave the world Mickey Mouse, but Schulz's greatest creation was Peanuts, the slightly subversive comic universe centred around Charlie Brown - your typical luckless but cheerily optimistic American, trapped in a kid's body. The newspaper strip made its debut in 1950 and lasted more than half a century. Along the way, Peanuts became part of pop culture and spawned a growth industry of TV specials, greeting cards and coffee cups. No one ever suspected that Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown were the same person.
Both Charlie and Charles led quiet lives of desperation, according to Good Ol' Charles Schulz (Thursday, PBS at 8:30 p.m.). The American Masters documentary depicts the late Peanuts creator as a troubled and profoundly lovelorn man who was forever uncomfortable with his success.
The fact that Schulz was a complicated guy, like Charlie Brown, has shocked no one except maybe his children. The unflinching profile's debut last month on some PBS stations riled members of the late cartoonist's clan - already chagrined over the release of the book Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, which paints the cartoonist's life in a similarly unflattering light. The TV profile was the last straw.
In an interview with The New York Times, Schulz's son, Monte, labelled the PBS film as "dreary and depressing. I was not happy with it at all. Our response to the book, and it's the same for the documentary, is they're kind of missing the point. They didn't really show enough of how fun Dad was."
While there are no facts put forth to suggest Schulz was belligerent or an unpleasant father to any of his five children, the documentary still paints a portrait of a man saddled by lifelong sadness.
Airing locally on the PBS affiliate WNED, the profile opens with the classic "Rosebud" sequence from Orson Welles's 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane - against a backdrop of swirling snow, a glass globe shatters on a stone step. The scene explains the entire movie: Protagonist Charles Foster Kane became rich and famous, but he never recovered from his lost childhood.
As reported in the book and film, Schulz became obsessed with Citizen Kane in his later years and watched the film from start to finish more than 40 times. The parallels were likely too glaring to ignore.
The film slowly unfolds the artist's biographical detail, interspersing commentary with Peanuts comics and photographs of Schulz's pastoral upbringing in Minneapolis-St. Paul in the 1920s. The pictures are mindful of scenery in the strips: A world of playgrounds, park benches and skating rinks. Known as "Sparky" to family and friends, Schulz was a serious-looking kid with thick spectacles and a passion for hockey. As with Charlie Brown, his father was a barber.
As a kid, the painfully shy Charles liked to draw and signed up for correspondence art school (he was too withdrawn to consider attending regular classes). His mother died of cancer while he was away at army boot camp. When Schulz came out of the service four years later, he became an instructor at a Minneapolis art school and began toying with the idea of creating a daily newspaper strip.
Schulz was directionless until he met his first wife, Joyce. Tough and organized, Joyce is credited with pushing his career to the next level. Not surprisingly, she was the role model for the Peanuts character of Lucy.
The film covers the heady mid-sixties era when Peanuts graduated from simple newspaper strip to pop phenomenon. While Peanuts was heavily merchandised, Schulz always held firm creative control of the brand: He famously fought with network executives who wanted to excise Linus's retelling of the nativity story from the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. The scene stayed in.
Peanuts was clever and sharp for a newspaper strip, and its minimalist take on the human condition came from cute little kid characters, which was something new. Filmmaker David Van Taylor talks to acquaintances of Schulz who found themselves portrayed as Peanuts characters. The real Linus was an art-school classmate named Linus Maurer, while Snoopy was modelled after a precocious Schulz family mutt called Spike.
But the layer of melancholy just beneath the surface of most Peanuts strips was often mirrored by the events of Schulz's own life. The unlikely romance between pushy Lucy and the classical piano prodigy named Schroeder, for example, was reputedly representative of Schulz's failed marriage with Joyce. In their first panel together, Lucy asks: "Do piano players make a lot of money?"
And without fail, the strip always came back to the everyman Charlie Brown, the dogged loser who never got to kick the football and was forever yearning for the girl who got away.
Incredibly, the film tracks down Schulz's inspiration for the little red-haired girl, the unattainable object of Charlie Brown's desire for more than 50 years of Peanuts strips. The real version, a woman named Donna Wold, now in her 70s, tells of ending her relationship with Schulz while both were still in their teens. A half-hour after their breakup, she recalls, Schulz meekly returned and said, "I thought maybe you had changed your mind."
Despite any perceived personal flaws, Schulz was a professional. He wrote, drew and lettered the daily Peanuts strip right up until his death in 2000 and never missed a deadline. As shown in the program, the artist comes closest to revealing his true self in his last on-camera interview. "I can't believe they think I'm that good," says Schulz, maintaining Charlie Brown's insecurity to the end. "I just did the best I could."