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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Before Scott Simon left town to accept his honorary degree at Lake Forest College, he dropped off this installment of NPR's In Character series, good old Charlie Brown.

SCOTT SIMON: Charlie Brown is the kid who always misses the football because Lucy snatches it away just before he can kick it. The kid who's left out on the pitcher's mound in the rain, the kid whose kite gets snarled in a tree, the kid who leaps into a pile of leaves and hits a rock. He has a hopeless crush.

(Soundbite of Charlie Brown cartoon)

Unidentified Actor (as Charlie Brown): Dear little red-haired girl, how I've longed to meet you.

Unidentified Actor (as Lucy Van Pelt): Aaughhh!

SIMON: Which, like some embarrassing bruise, he mistakenly reveals to his friends. Judith Viorst, who writes books for adults and children and studies psychoanalysis, says of Charlie Brown...

Ms. JUDITH VIORST (Author, Psychoanalysis): I like him enormously and I think the whole world likes him.

(Soundbite of Charlie Brown cartoon)

Cartoon Characters: Good grief, Charlie Brown, you're ridiculous. Boy, were you dumb in school today. It's your fault because you're so wishy-washy. You're hopeless, Charlie Brown, completely hopeless.

Ms. VIORST: Just nobody in his comic strip likes him.

(Soundbite of "Peanuts" theme song)

SIMON: Charlie Brown, whom his own dog calls that round-headed kid, came into the world in October of 1950 drawn by Charles Schultz who named him after one of his art instructors in Minneapolis. By the time Charles Schultz died in 2000, Charlie Brown and his friends in the comic strip Peanuts appeared in almost 3,000 newspapers in 75 different countries. They starred in top-rated television specials, books, and a musical. Their images may have appeared on more things - t-shirts, greeting cards, partyware, calendars, and balloons in the last half of the 20th century - than Mao Tse-tung's. Lynn Johnston who draws the strip For Better or For Worse, says of Charlie's image...

Ms. LYNN JOHNSTON (Cartoonist): It's like an emblem or a - as memorable as the Coke sign or the Nike swipe or anything else. You see that Charlie Brown and that just says it all. It really does. That expression. That simple line and just that wonderful look.

SIMON: The Apollo 10 astronauts even named their command module Charlie Brown and the lunar rover Snoopy. It may be telling that Charlie got to orbit the moon, but Snoopy landed there while Charlie just circled in darkness. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While it's true that the modules were named Charlie Brown and Snoopy, neither landed on the moon. It's also incorrect to describe Snoopy as a "lunar rover." The correct term is " lunar module."]

(Soundbite of Charlie Brown cartoon)

Unidentified Actor (as Charlie Brown): Oh good grief.

SIMON: Anthony Rapp, who played Charlie in the 1999 revival of the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," observes...

Mr. ANTHONY RAPP (Voice of Charlie Brown): You think of him as sort of a sad sack. But he's also incredibly resilient. And that's a think that I discovered in playing him.

(Soundbite of Charlie Brown cartoon)

Unidentified Actor (as Charlie Brown): "I like you, Charlie Brown," signed, "Little Red-Haired Girl." Boy, just wait till September boy, just wait!

SIMON: I moved around a lot of a child, saying goodbye to old friends, trying to fit in with new ones, but Charlie Brown and his friends could always be found along the wall, on the ball field, or in front of Snoopy's doghouse. He seemed to be the soul of can-do Kennedy-era optimism, but nagged by anxieties that would bring him to Lucy's backyard therapy stand. Did his dog really like him or just the food he brought? Would the stars stay up in the sky and what made him just a little different?

(Soundbite of cartoon)

Unidentified Actor (as Lucy Van Pelt): Maybe you have pantaphobia. Do you think you have pantaphobia?

Unidentified Actor (as Charlie Brown): What's pantaphobia?

Unidentified Actor (as Lucy Van Pelt): The fear of everything.

Unidentified Actor (as Charlie Brown): That's it!

SIMON: Lynn Johnston became a friend of Charles Schultz's, but she grew up knowing Charlie Brown in northern Ontario.

Ms. JOHNSTON: When you're young, you have incredibly strong emotions and really profound thoughts, but you just don't have the vocabulary or the experience to know how to voice those opinions and so when somebody in such a wonderful medium as a comic strip could give us a voice, that was impressive.

SIMON: Over the years, Charles Schultz occasionally estimated that Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Schroeder all seemed to be suspended at about eight years of age. Judith Viorst reminds us, that's an unkind age for children.

Ms. VIORST: They seem to have these cruel measures of success, which poor Charlie is not very good at. I think they would admire him if he - if his team ever won a ballgame, if he ever succeeded in flying a kite. I think basically he is perceived by these otherwise decent kids, but pretty harsh in their judgment of him - he's perceived as a loser, as a failure in the world of kid-dom.

SIMON: So we asked three residents of kid-dom, Ian Green, Andrew Simmons, and Marabel Allen(ph), all from Los Angeles, and all 11 years of age to talk about the Charlie Brown that they've grown up with. Mr. Green goes first.

Mr. IAN GREEN (11 years old): He's cool in his own way. He's not one of those kids that thinks, well you know what, I'm going to wear these awesome sunglasses, my awesome gangster leather jacket, you know. I'm so cool. He's his own person. He's his own character in his own mind and he's very creative.

Mr. ANDREW SIMMONS (11 years old): Yeah, he's in his own box if you could picture that.

SIMON: You know, I think political consultants would call that authenticity.

Ms. MARABEL ALLEN (11 years old): Charlie Brown does things different.

SIMON: Yet it's an old childhood story; the nicer Charlie Brown is, the more it seems to irritate people who mock him as wishy-washy. When Anthony Rapp played Charlie Brown on Broadway, he got to sing along with what amounts to Charlie's credo.

(Soundbite of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown")

Unidentified Singer #1: Happiness is two kinds of ice cream,

Unidentified Singer #2: Knowing a secret,

Unidentified Singer #3: Climbing a tree.

Unidentified Singer #1: Happiness is five different crayons,

Unidentified Singer #4: Catching a firefly, setting him free.

SIMON: A lot of critics found the song a little wishy-washy. Ten years later, Mr. Rapp still ruminates about the boy he played.

Mr. RAPP: I don't know that he'll ever really be able to fully find happiness because - well, it would be interesting to see as he grows up whether he'd be able to continue to weather those storms over and over and over again, or if they would in fact make all the sort of hope leak out of him.

(Soundbite of Charlie Brown cartoon)

Unidentified Actor (as Charlie Brown): This time I'm going to kick that football clear to the moon. Aaughh!

SIMON: But what use is hope if there's never any reward? For 50 years Lucy held out the football. For 50 years he ran at it, only to have her snatch it away and make him fall on his back. In a world that says fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me, what do you say after being fooled for 50 years? Is Charlie Brown a good man who trusts others or a fool who deceives himself? Lynn Johnston says she didn't find Charlie's unflagging faith in Lucy to be endearing.

Ms. JOHNSTON: I always kind of thought that he should probably tell her off.

SIMON: But Judith Viorst and Anthony Rapp think that would be a false note for Charlie Brown.

Ms. VIORST: You're asking him to be a far more cynical person than he will ever be in his life. I mean he is your absolute model of hope springs eternal. Lucy always assures him that it's going to be different this year, and he figures why not believe her?

Mr. RAPP: Now you could argue that that's just foolishness, but I argue that it's actually optimism, and a certain kind of optimism like continuing to give somebody the benefit of the doubt, believing in the better nature of people.

SIMON: We asked our panel of childhood experts on Charlie Brown. Is there something that you'd like to tell him, I mean if you could reach into that cartoon panel?

Mr. SIMMONS: I would say, you ought to know that you're in a comic book for the past 50 years. And I would also say don't listen to other people, be yourself.

Ms. ALLEN: I would say don't always be so angry at yourself. You know, if you do one thing wrong, doesn't mean that you have to get all mad and say why didn't I do this? Why didn't I do that?

SIMON: Charlie Brown can't leap tall buildings in a single bound. He can't even get his kite out of a tree. He isn't a cartoon character who bristles with superpowers. But he may be something more extraordinary among children, not to mention adults. As we all grow up and struggle to get noticed, be pretty, funny, or popular and win candy, stars, ribbons, grades, friends, lovers, money, or toys, Ian Green says...

Mr. GREEN: Charlie Brown is like, you know, oh Captain America, he saved the people from the burning building, Charlie Brown became this famous and this special from just being himself. He doesn't have to be a superhero. That's what makes him a famous comic book character.

SIMON: Despite all temptation and frustration, his bruised heart and backside, Charlie Brown is nice. And do we tell ourselves often enough, do we tell our children how important that really is?

(Soundbite of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown")

Mr. RAPP: (Singing) For happiness is anyone and anything at all that's loved by you.

Unidentified Singer: You're a good man, Charlie Brown.

SIMON: Scott Simon, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Peanuts" theme song)

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