A sensitive portrait of Charles Schulz

  • Charles Schulz and the comic strip that made him famous:

    Charles Schulz and the comic strip that made him famous: "Peanuts." It turned "the funny papers" into great art.

Published: 10/25/2007 2:10 PM

Now in its 21st season, PBS' "American Masters" had to come of age before it was finally able to get back to some serious kid stuff.

Yet the maturity shows and serves its subject well in "Good Ol' Charles Schulz," a profile of the "Peanuts" creator airing at 9 p.m. Monday on WTTW Channel 11.

Although commonly pooh-poohed under the dismissive label "the funny papers," newspaper cartoons are a uniquely American art form, and I've been clamoring for years for "American Masters" to acknowledge artists such as Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo in Slumberland") and George Herriman ("Krazy Kat"), Walt Kelly ("Pogo") and Al Capp ("Li'l Abner"). Instead, the program makes Schulz the first cartoonist to enter the so-called "American Masters" library, and while it's a popular choice, it's also a good one.

In fact, it leads to one of the program's best and most profound episodes meditating on the connection between artistic genius and everyday living, creativity and insecurity, joy and despair.

Happiness, it turns out, might be a warm puppy, but like many a puppy it can also be elusive.

"Peanuts," of course, turned out to be the most popular comic strip of all time, published in 2,500 newspapers at its peak, with spinoffs in movies and other forms of marketing that made Schulz a millionaire many times over. More than that, it made him as beloved as his creations: Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Snoopy.

Yet behind that popularity lay a deep darkness. Schulz was born into a chilly, distant family in the Twin Cities and nurtured a shy insecurity through his entire life. His mother died of cancer while he was in the service during World War II. Their final parting was matter-of-fact, and when he returned home to his father's barbershop he wasn't even greeted with so much as a hug.

Even so, he turned that material into art, beginning with "Peanuts" in 1950. From the start, it displayed a cruel humor alert to both the wonder and the sadism of childhood. The punch line of the first strip said it all: "Good ol' Charlie Brown -- how I hate him!"

What Schulz tapped into was the insecurity we all feel, and it fueled his art -- and, yes, he is absolutely one of the great artists of the 20th century. Yet, like any artist, he worried about that fuel running out, nursed grudges and slights (for instance, after going to New York only to lose a prestigious cartoonist award). And he was distant with his own family, just as his family had been distant with him.

"He was in his own world," says one friend. "Close the door, and he lived in Snoopy's doghouse."

In real life, he actually married the red-haired girl he had a crush on, and they had an apparently idyllic life in northern California, but the marriage eventually failed. ("They just weren't close," says one witness.) Schulz rejected efforts at therapy and psychiatric counseling, because he thought it might ruin the comic strip; wellness might be poisonous to his art.

It's an old artistic story, but to have it told about someone who brought such joy to millions of readers -- someone who was a part of daily life to anyone who read a newspaper between 1950 and 2000 -- makes it more poignant and immediate.

"American Masters" benefits most from the testimony of Schulz's peers, Jules Feiffer and Lynn Johnston. Also essential is David Michaelis, whose new book, "Schulz and Peanuts," is basically the biographical text for this documentary.

Understand, "Good Ol' Charles Schulz" doesn't wallow in despair. It doesn't make Schulz out to be a hidden ogre. Yet it doesn't flinch from showing his flaws, either; in fact, it shows how Schulz mined those flaws for his own art, how he turned the most depressing subjects into good humor, day after day, for almost 18,000 strips.

Schulz is a great artist -- greater, in my opinion, than Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns or any number of acknowledged fine-art masters. Now that he's broken through on "American Masters," may he someday be followed by McCay, Herriman, Kelly and Capp, and all those artists who use deceptively simple means to touch the deepest, darkest subjects of the soul.

Remotely interesting: "Wheel of Fortune" is coming to town to seek local contestants for its March shows when it tapes here in Chicago. The Wheelmobile will be at the Rosemont Theater, 5400 N. River Road, from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday. "Wheel" airs at 6:30 p.m. weekdays on WLS Channel 7.

Director Peter Bogdanovich presents the four-hour documentary "Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers" at 6 p.m. Monday on the Sundance Channel. … Starz looks at vampire movies through the ages in "Bloodsucking Cinema" at 7 p.m. today.

End of the dial: With the Cubs lifting Steve Cochran's time slot to No. 1 in afternoon drive, WGN 720-AM swept first place in all day parts in summer Arbitrons released last week. Spike O'Dell remained tops in mornings, as did

Judy Markey


Kathy O'Malley, Bob Sirott


John Williams

in middays.

Adult-urban WVAZ 102.7-FM led all local stations in the 25-54 age demographic.

Waste Watcher's choice

The weekend before Halloween calls on cable to dig deep for surprises -- and does Turner Classic Movies ever deliver with a Roger Corman marathon starting with "A Bucket of Blood" at 7 p.m. today. Dick Miller is a beret-sporting killer bohemian in this campy classic, followed by three more Corman masterpieces, including "The Pit and the Pendulum" at 9:30 p.m.