Friday, January 28, 2022

Charlie Brown Down

by G. Jack Urso 

In late January 2022, Peter Robbins, the original voice of Charlie Brown in the first two Peanuts TV specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), and four other films, committed suicide. He died after a lifelong battle with mental illness, having not married or any children.
In a world of Frostys, Grinches, and Rudolphs, A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as one of the very few Christmas specials that include scripture in its dialog directly related to the birth of Christ. We see this in Linus’ recitation of the annunciation to the shepherds from Luke, chapter 2. The overall plot, a critique of the commercialization of the holiday, tapped into mid-century Western angst in the period of post-war prosperity. Together, these two themes intertwine to elevate the animated special into an almost spiritual experience.

I was born in late 1964, so A Charlie Brown Christmas was one of the first animated Christmas specials I can remember watching, being planted down in front of the TV at the age of one with my siblings to start what has been an annual tradition for me ever since. Young viewers could imagine being part of the Peanuts gang. In fact, the entire concept is from the child’s point-of-view with nary an adult in sight.

Robbins performed the role not just in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but also in the animated TV specials, You're in Love, Charlie Brown (1967), He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown (1968), It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown (1969) and A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). In the 1960s, Robbins essentially was Charlie Brown and the unique quality of his voice virtually defined the role and became the standard by which all later performances were compared.

Given Robbins’ mental health issues, there is perhaps some irony in a scene early in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Charlie sits down to discuss his ambivalent feelings about the holiday to Lucy’s 5-cent psychiatrist. How often, I've thought, did Robbins meet with a court-ordered or prison psychiatrist and wonder if he could get his five cents back.

Downtown Charlie Brown

There is a certain melancholy to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie Brown is somewhat of an outcast, alternatively rejected and pitied by the rest of the gang. Even his dog, Snoopy, doesn’t respect him. 

The equally classic soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi has an overall melancholy feeling to it as well. Despite the bouncy “Linus and Lucy,” which became the Peanuts theme, and the ebullient "Christmas is Coming," it is largely a reflective work in tone. The other key original composition for the soundtrack, “Christmastime is Here,” is wistful, almost somber. Though singing of Christmas Present, it seems more like a vision of Christmas Past, or a Christmas one wished for, but never happened.

At the heart of the storyline in A Charlie Brown Christmas is the Christmas tree. Tasked with buying a Christmas tree for the play, Charlie Brown finds what is essentially a sickly and rejected overgrown twig and immediately identifies with it. The tree is not only a stand-in for Charlie Brown, but also for the Christ-child, who entered the world poor, born in a manger, and befriended by shepherds and magi who brought his family gifts.

A young Peter Robbins (middle), director Bill Melendez (far right),
and other voice actors. recording for a Charlie Brown special in 1968.

In short order, A Charlie Brown Christmas quickly became recognized as the apex of children’s animated Christmas specials. Its message has transcended not only generations, but also religions as people of all creeds, even atheists, have come to appreciate its timeless message.

One can also not ignore Robbins’ contribution to its success. Though only nine years old, he successfully manages to convey the range of emotions from concern, disappointment, depression, and despair to empathy. It is a remarkable, underrated performance. Because A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, are among the most popular of such TV specials, Robbins’ performances will likely endure as part of the holidays for as long as they are celebrated. 

The Low-Down on Brown

The Peanuts characters are archetypes of children one encountered in their own neighborhoods. Most people know someone like or can identify with one of the gang; however, it is the put-upon Everyman, Charlie Brown, that centers the strip — the ever hopeful, lonesome loser who always comes in last. The guy who has the football taken away from him at the last moment when he goes to kick it, and then gets up to try again and again.

I sometimes think we enshrine Charlie Brown’s and similar downtrodden characters “keep trying” attitude to alleviate our guilt over the zero-sum calculus of society. For everyone who succeeds, someone fails. Someone gets a bag filled with candy, another gets rocks. We need Charlie Browns to keep trying because while we believe in the inherent inevitability of our success due to persistence, we fear life is still pretty much a crap shoot.

For anyone, the burden of that legacy would be heavy. For Robbins, born with a bipolar disorder, it was overwhelming. Yet, where does one go after peaking at the age of nine? This is the terrible inheritance for child stars who were part of iconic film and TV shows, like Anissa Jones (Buffy on Family Affair) discussed in my post “Family Affairs and Pieces of Our Childhood.”

Robbins at a 2013 court appearance (credit John Gibbins U-T San Diego AP).

For Robbins, that burden and his bipolar condition led to alcohol, drug, and sex addictions as well as obsessive behavior, stalking, threats of violence, and manic episodes. He did two stints in prison totaling more than five years where he suffered beatings from other inmates and put in isolation. When I worked in prisons, I once visited the secure holding units (SHU) at a maximum-security facility. It was a circle of hell. The thought of Robbins there, battling his own mental illness, fills me with a deep and profound sense of sorrow and tragedy.

When once parents struggled with how to tell their children there is no Santa Claus, they can now add to the list when to tell them Charlie Brown committed suicide.

Somewhere, I imagine Robbins is with all the other tragic former child actors, becoming something of a celluloid version of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys — eternally young, at least on film. Robbins, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, through his final act, is fated to return every year as a slightly bitter aftertaste to A Charlie Brown Christmas, reminding us of loss and tragedy every December.

And perhaps it can also teach us to better appreciate the forgotten Christmas trees in the world that can still grow and thrive with just a little bit of love. 

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