March 2, 2000
By Franklin Harris
A strange thing happened last week.
"Peanuts: A Golden Celebration," a huge, coffee-table book reprinting strips from throughout the nearly 50-year-long run of "Peanuts," entered the bestseller lists. It placed on the Publishers Weekly nonfiction list at No. 11. Not bad for a book that retails for $45 and had been nowhere near the bestseller lists weeks before.
Watching the "60 Minutes" interview with Charles Schulz that aired the night after he died, it struck me what a remarkable man he was. For all his talent and success and fame and fortune, he was still as insecure as his pen-and-ink alter ego, Charlie Brown. Maybe more so.
The newspaper and magazine headlines in the days after Schulz's death at 77 from cancer mostly said the same thing: "You were a good man, Charles Schulz." And that was an understatement.
Schulz was beloved because he, more than anyone else in our popular culture, had a grasp on the human spirit.
In that "60 Minutes" piece, Schulz said that Charlie Brown could never kick that elusive football because his kicking it wouldn't be funny. But, as usual, Schulz underestimated himself.
"Peanuts" was more than a simple gag strip. The real reason Charlie Brown couldn't kick the football was because kicking it wasn't important. What was important was that he'd never stop trying to kick it.
In the end, there is no football.
Unlike the folks who often wrote him asking that he let Charlie Brown win just once, Schulz understood. Charlie Brown was already a winner.
And so was a man named Charles Schulz.
Reaper strikes often
But Schulz isn't the only loss we've suffered in this young century (popularly observed). The Grim Reaper has struck early and often.
Another cartoonist taken from us is Gil Kane.
Kane, also suffering from cancer, died in January at 74.
While nowhere near as well known as Schulz, Kane was a major influence on his own segment of the cartooning world: superhero comics. He is perhaps remembered most for his part in creating the Silver Age versions of the Green Lantern and the Atom, two of the first superheroes to abandon the flamboyant, cape-sporting costumes of the Superman and Batman school for the sleek, futuristic look of 1960s science fiction.
When the comic book industry is long gone, and historians are writing about its giants, Kane's name will be there, along with those of legendary artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
But still the Reaper wasn't finished.
Roger Vadim, best known among genre-film fans for directing "Barbarella," the vampire flick "Blood and Roses," and one-third of the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired "Spirits of the Dead," died Feb. 11 at 72. He was another victim of a long bout with cancer.
And then there was the big surprise.
Jim Varney, better known as his signature character, Ernest P. Worrell, died Feb 10 of lung cancer. He was only 50.
Varney's series of "Ernest" films gained a reputation as the worst Hollywood could offer: tacky, juvenile, low-budget films geared toward an audience of lowest common denominators. And I won't deny that what little I've seen of them was, well, silly.
But Varney was often capable of comic genius. His all-but-forgotten children's program, "Hey, Verne, It's Ernest!" is, by any measure, one of the best live-action programs ever to grace Saturday mornings. Even though it ran for only one season (1989), it was a showcase for Varney, who played five characters in addition to Ernest, including the ill-tempered Auntie Nelda. (But you'd probably be in a foul mood, too, if you were always wearing a neck brace.)
Hopefully, after all that activity, Death will take a holiday.
These obituary columns are becoming a real drag to write. To say the least.