Bill Watterson, creator of arguably the last great comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, wrote the following about perhaps the greatest comic strip ever. “Peanuts pretty much defines the modern comic strip, so even now it's hard to see it with fresh eyes. The clean, minimalist drawings, the sarcastic humor, the unflinching emotional honesty….” Charles Schulz, the artistic force behind Peanuts, funneled a lifetime of loneliness and emotional pain into these spare little drawings, creating a strip that was bleakly funny, philosophical and real. Characters like the socially inept Charlie Brown or the bossy though oddly tragic Lucy connected with audiences in a way that few ever did.
The one way that Watterson and Schulz differed, and differed greatly, was in the area of merchandising. While Watterson famously refused to license any of his characters (those praying/peeing Calvin car decals, it might surprise you to learn, are not officially sanctioned), Schulz licensed his creations far and wide. For those who grew up in the ‘70s, a Snoopy plush toy was simply de rigueur. The Peanuts characters hawked Dolly Madison snack cakes, MetLife insurance, and Wendy’s kids meals. And those sponsorship deals paid spectacularly well. By the time that Schulz died in February 2000 -- the night before the final Peanuts strip was to go to print -- he had reportedly earned over the course of his life $1.1 billion dollars.
The first instance of Charlie, Snoopy and the gang being corporate spokescharacters happened to be also the first time they were animated. The Ford Motor Company licensed them in 1959 to do TV commercials along with intros to the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. You can watch them above. Probably the most striking thing about the commercials is that the adults are intelligible, not the incomprehensible muted trumpet bleats of the Peanuts movies.
The spots proved to be such a success that Schulz and animator Bill Meléndez were soon producing half-hour long TV specials, including the Emmy-winning A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. In a 1984 interview, Meléndez talked about working with Schulz, who went by the nickname of “Sparky,” for those first Ford spots.
Well, I was doing Ford commercials at J. Walter Thompson when it was decided that Charlie Brown would be the spokesman for the Ford Falcon. I was told Charles Schulz was very shy and reticent about commercializing his strip. So I went to San Francisco and met Sparky and we hit it off. I told him what we did, and he nodded and said, “All right, we’ll try it.” He was very leery of getting involved with “Hollywood types” as he used to call us.
Of course he understands that his drawings are flat, two-dimensional designs, and that, for example, the front view is very different from the side view. They are not three-dimensional characters. You can’t turn them around the way we used to turn the Walt Disney characters, who were designed to be round and three-dimensional. To animate Peanuts characters we have to be more inventive, because we tend not to be realistic. We don’t try to ape real live action as we did in animating Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.
I imagine Sparky must have been curious about how we were going to do it, but he never gave us any kind of a hint or anything at all about what he wanted. So we showed him how we thought it should move, how we thought they should turn, how we thought they should walk and he accepted everything. From then on we hit it off pretty well.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.