(Header image courtesy of The New York Times.)
The media that shaped my formative years wasn’t the one that had a mouse at its helm. It wasn’t the adventures of mermaids, poisoned apples, and evil stepmothers that formed the backbone of my childhood.
Rather, it was the adventures of a boy and his beagle.
While my sister and I certainly enjoyed our fair share of cartoons from the House of Mouse growing up, Disney was not appointment television. That appointment TV was the world of Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy, and their friends. And this was the 1980s, where it seemed there was a Peanuts TV special for everything and anything, from Flashbeagle to Happy New Year, Charlie Brown to the heartbreaking Why, Charlie Brown, Why? The full-length feature films were regulars on broadcast television. The first thing I ever taped off of a VCR was Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. And I often joked that any man who could find me that movie or Snoopy Come Home on DVD, well, I would consider that gift akin to a marriage proposal, because that was a man that truly understood the depths of my soul. (Spoiler alert: it was me that bought those DVDs in the end.)
But before there was Flashbeagle, before there was Charlie Brown at summer camp, there was the simplicity of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the very first Peanuts TV special from over 65 years ago. And giving the round headed boy who just couldn’t kick that football and longed for the little red-haired girl his voice for the first time was the late child actor, Peter Robbins, who died by suicide in January.
Robbins (born Louis G. Nanasi) was certainly an established child actor at the time he debuted as Charlie Brown in 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, having already appeared on The Munsters, Rawhide, and The Donna Reed Show. Peanuts as a comic strip had been in publication for 15 years at this point, and was at the height of its popularity. But A Charlie Brown Christmas itself still broke new ground. It cast child actors like Robbins to voice the characters. It featured no laugh track, and that iconic Vince Guaraldi jazz score. There was Linus’s Scripture recitation from the Book of Luke that Schulz fought to have included in the special. And despite the fame Schulz had from the strip, the special itself was produced on a very modest budget.
Everything about A Charlie Brown Christmas set itself, and perhaps Robbins’s future career, up for failure.
But it proved to be a rousing success for its simplicity and innocence, paving the way for Robbins to voice Charlie Brown in that Halloween staple It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown and several other TV specials and films before outgrowing the role at age 14. No doubt your first animated exposure to Charlie Brown, whether you are 5 or 65, included the voice of Peter Robbins in some form. And the Robbins voice still lives on — you can hear him in Charlie Brown’s iconic “AAUGH!” in the film A Boy Named Charlie Brown and several other later specials. His voice transcended time and trend, reaching generations into the future, bonding parents, children, and grandchildren together through classic holidays, bringing families together even in our COVID times of not too long ago when we were all physically apart.
Like many child actors of the era, Robbins could not find a footing in the industry into adulthood. He dealt with troubles with the law and his own mental illness, the latter leading to his death. But he always kept Charlie Brown and Snoopy close to his heart. He had a tattoo of the characters he called his heroes on his arm. He was a staple at comic conventions in recent years, signing copies of the A Charlie Brown Christmas book. And he was working on his autobiography at the time of his death, appropriately titled Confessions of a Blockhead. He treasured the role that made him a household name, that lived on long after he stepped away from the microphone and now lives on as his legacy.
No doubt he would consider it a travesty (as I do) that his life’s work now lives behind a paywall of Apple TV+. And while Apple has made, and will probably continue to make, the most memorable of the holiday specials free to air for selected periods of time, there is something smaller and darker about the world when you don’t have regular and random viewings of A Charlie Brown Christmas over the air on your TV in the month of December — and even smaller and darker still when you know that the voice of the beleaguered Charlie Brown who finally learns what Christmas is all about is gone from this earth.Continued below
Well into my adulthood the final scene of A Charlie Brown Christmas, with the kids singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” over the closing credits, puts a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. And during this year’s annual viewing, there were most definitely a few more.
Farewell, Peter Robbins: August 10, 1956 – January 18, 2022. You captured this little red haired girl’s heart, and she will love you forever.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, or need support for mental health in the United States you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or dial 988. If you are in Britain, contact Samaritans at 116-123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in Australia, contact Lifeline for free, confidential support available 24/7 at 13-11-14. You can also visit International Association for Suicide Prevention for resources specific to your country. Remember: you are not alone.