Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“Peanuts” interview: Todd Barbee (Charlie Brown in Thanksgiving)

Introduction to the Peanuts interview series (including the list of interviewees).

How old were you when you portrayed Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving?

I had just turned 10 years old.

Where were you living at the time?

Mill Valley and Sausalito, California—when those towns were just being discovered by the Summer of Love generation as the groovy place to migrate to from the city.

Were you a Peanuts fan?

Sure. Who wasn’t at that time at that age? Or any age, for that matter. In fact, I had auditioned for another
Peanuts special a couple of years earlier, but didn’t get the part, and had already been in You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown. That was a funny little special that aired during the famous election campaign cycle pitting Richard Nixon against George McGovern. I remember my dad had a campaign pin pinned to the visor in his VW camper bus that said “Lick Dick in ‘72.” That gives you an idea of my parents’ political and social leanings at the time.

How were you hired?

My father, Chuck Barbee, was Lee Mendelson’s director of photography. So Lee had mentioned to Dad that they were having auditions for
Peanuts character voices for upcoming specials. At the time, Lee and Dad were traveling all over the world shooting specials for network television.

What other shows had you appeared in?

I’m credited with playing the voice of Russell, a one-off character running against Lucy for class president, I think, in You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown (1972), Franklin in There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown (1973), Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973), Charlie Brown and Schroeder in It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (1974), and Charlie Brown in It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown (1974).

Any funny stories from the experience?

So many, both in the recording studio and in my personal life. One that I remember very clearly is working with Bill Melendez in the recording studio when we were voicing for the Thanksgiving special. Bill would always work with us kids in the sound room that had just a podium, a stool, a script, and a big boom mic. Bill would kind of walk us through each scene with his thick Spanish accent and then would leave the room and watch us through the glass with Lee and the sound engineers.

One time they wanted me to voice that “AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG” when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away. Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for…so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take.

Was anything hard about the process?

The above story was something that really stuck with me. In my personal life, I grew very tired of having adults and other kids in my school constantly ask me about being Charlie Brown. I learned some powerful, early lessons about the stranger side of people and fame at an early age.

Did you record in the same room at the same time as the other actors?

No, we all recorded separately. We also read the scripts blind—we didn’t study the scripts prior to going in to Coast Recording Studio in San Francisco.

If you got to meet Charles Schulz, how was that?

Since my father was working so much with Lee and Sparky, on network specials and other projects, I had the opportunity to meet him on many occasions. I remember him as a very kind and gentle man.

What did you think of the finished show?

Well, it was a very big deal! TV Guide had a corner on the market at that time, and seeing my name printed in
TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas—teachers, press, kids, adults…everybody…just thought I was some big movie star or something. But I remember feeling like it was not nearly as big a thing as everyone was making it out to be. I got to the point where I just wanted to be a normal kid without all the constant attention.

What did your parents think?

Dad and Mom were very much part of that Summer of Love counterculture generation. I was being raised as a long-haired hippie boy. They were proud of me, but they never really made a big deal out of it. They were more focused on their own counterculture activities. And Dad was working nonstop with Lee.

My grandmother, on the other hand—and just about every other adult in my life—made me out to be a superstar! In the final scene in the Thanksgiving special, all the
Peanuts gang is singing “Over the Woods and Through the Hill to Grandmother’s House We Go” and the very last line—and it really is funny—is Charlie Brown saying, “But wait, my grandmother lives in a condominium.” That slayed my Grandma and she had every TV Guide clipping and anything else she could get her hands on plastered all over the place.

One time she made me get up in front of her Christian Mega Church up in Santa Rosa (at what is now the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts) and speak to the congregation of like 1,000 people! To her, me being Charlie Brown was as big as it gets.

What did your friends think?

Big deal. I was like a movie star at school for a few years.

What were you paid?

They worked out a deal to pay us pretty well up front, in 1972 dollars, but it was a payout number and we had to give up any residuals or royalties forever after. I’ve always felt that wasn’t the fairest way to handle that. But at the time it was a significant amount of money.

Peanuts special you worked on is your favorite, and why?

Well, the Thanksgiving show is really one of the three big classics that everyone remembers, along with Christmas and the Great Pumpkin. I’m happy to have played Charlie Brown in such an iconic classic.

Did you or your family stay in touch with anyone else from the cast?

Robin Kohn, who played Lucy in the Thanksgiving show. We actually went to high school together. We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.

Have you had any fun
Peanuts moments since (a reaction when someone you meet discovers you had a role in it, Halloween costume, etc.)?

It’s never-ending. Since the show plays every year, the recognition continues to this day. When people first find out they are amazed!

Did you do any non-
Peanuts voice work/acting after this?

During that time, I had an agent named Ann Brebner. She is now 90 years old and still very active in the business, I believe. I did a dog food commercial voicing Charlie Brown talking to Snoopy, for Alpo or something, and had a potentially interesting career ahead of me. I had a good kid look and there were multiple opportunities on the horizon.

But not long after I voiced the last show I went to my parents and told them that I really wasn’t interested in pursuing that direction in my life. All the constant attention had made me feel uncomfortable, and mostly I wanted to ride my skateboard with my best friend Troy and build forts and get dirty. So I kind of bowed out of the business at about age 12.

What are you doing these days?

I’m a freelance creative director with a number of interesting clients in the Bay Area. I shoot video, write scripts, am involved in planning and development, and am raising my 8-year-old daughter Madeleine with her stepmom.

What has been your career highlight so far?

In terms of work, perhaps being a part of the team that helped design the staging and concept development for the Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon World Tour…although, and I mean this very sincerely, raising my beautiful daughter is by far the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

Where do you live?

We live in a beautiful little home in San Anslemo, California with spectacular views of Mount Tamalpais in central Marin. It’s kind of a sacred mountain to me as I spent my youth playing on it, so I feel very fortunate to live here.

If you’re married, what was your future wife’s reaction when she learned you were part of this cultural institution?

Divorced and now with my partner Jennifer for the past seven years. Both my former wife and Jennifer, like everyone, thinks that part of my life is very cool.

What does Madeleine think of your
Peanuts connection?

She loves to tell her school and classmates that Dad is Charlie Brown. Every Thanksgiving, her friends and their parents turn on the show and then it’s chattered about for days at school.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Cool, man!

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

There have been many interviews over the years. San Francisco Chronicle, Marin Independent Journal, etc. I also have a nice video interview in the special features of the special Warner Bros. (I think?) three-DVD set (Christmas, Halloween, and Thanksgiving specials) released several years ago. I gave that interview up at the
Peanuts museum in Santa Rosa. Jean Schulz still runs that place.


Do you still have any ongoing connection (professionally or personally) to Peanuts?

Well, like I said, since Dad and Lee worked together for so many years, they have a cool relationship to this day. I know the Mendelson family and recently went to Lee’s 80th birthday party at the Tonga Room at the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel. That was a great event and there was a big turnout of people involved with Lee over the years, including Jean. We really had a great time and Lee and Jean are very warm and fun to be around.

Have you appeared at any fan conventions to sign autographs? If not, would you?

I missed the big Comic-Con thing a few years back, which I was invited to attend. I helped open up Snoopyland at Knott’s Berry Farm about 20 years ago. Other than that, not so much. Sure, I’d consider going to a fan convention if it didn’t interfere with my work.

How do you look back on the experience?

A very cool part of my life. It’s nice to be 51 years old and still remembered for this iconic part of American history.

Next: Robin Kohn Glazer—Lucy (Thanksgiving).

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