More than 50 years since its premiere on CBS on December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of the most beloved holiday specials of all time. Like Charlie Brown himself, the flaws—scratchy voice recordings, rushed animation—have proven endearing. Take a look at some facts behind the show that killed aluminum trees, the struggles to animate Chuck’s round noggin, and why Willie Mays is the unsung hero of Peanuts.
1. CHARLES SCHULZ WASN’T REALLY INTERESTED IN GETTING INTO ANIMATION.
Since the debut of Peanuts in 1955, Charles Schulz and United Press Syndicate (which distributed the comic strip) had gotten a steady stream of offers to adapt the characters for film and television; the artist was also directly petitioned by young readers, who would write Schulz asking when Snoopy would come to some kind of animated life. His stock reply: “There are some greater things in the world than TV animated cartoons.”
He relented for Ford Motors—he had only ever driven a Ford—and allowed Charlie Brown to appear in a series of commercials for the Ford Falcon in the early 1960s. The spots were animated by Bill Melendez, who earned Schulz’s favor by keeping the art simple and not using the exaggerated movements of the Disney films—Bambi, Dumbo—Melendez had worked on previously.
2. WILLIE MAYS PLAYED A PART IN GETTING IT MADE.
Schulz capitulated to a full-length special based on the professional reputations of his two collaborators. The cartoonist had seen and enjoyed executive producer Lee Mendelson’s documentary on baseball player Willie Mays, A Man Named Mays; when Mendelson proposed a similar project on Schulz and his strip, he agreed—but only if they enlisted Melendez of the Ford commercials. The finished documentary and its brief snippet of animation cemented Schulz's working relationship with the two and led Schulz to agree when Mendelson called him about a Christmas special.
3. CBS AND COCA-COLA ONLY GAVE THEM $76,000 TO PRODUCE IT.
When Coke executives got a look at the Schulz documentary and caught Charlie Brown on the April 1965 cover of Time, they inquired about the possibility of sponsoring an hour-long animated holiday special. Melendez felt the short lead time—only six months—made that impossible. Instead, he proposed a half-hour, but had no idea how much the show should be budgeted for; when he called colleague Bill Hanna (of Hanna-Barbera fame) for advice, Hanna refused to give out any trade secrets. Melendez wound up getting a paltry $76,000 to cover production costs. (It evened out: Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez wound up earning roughly $5 million total for the special through 2000.)
4. IT WAS GOING TO HAVE A LAUGH TRACK.
In the ‘60s, it was standard procedure to lay a laugh track over virtually any half-hour comedy, even if the performers were drawn in: The Flintstones was among the series that used a canned “studio audience” to help cue viewers for jokes. When Mendelson told Schulz he didn’t see the Peanuts special being any different, the artist got up and left the room for several minutes before coming in and continuing as if nothing had happened. Mendelson got the hint.
5. SNOOPY’S VOICE IS JUST SPED-UP NONSENSE.
The early Peanuts specials made use of both untrained kids and professional actors: Peter Robbins (Charlie Brown) and Christopher Shea (Linus) were working child performers, while the rest of the cast consisted of "regular" kids coached by Melendez in the studio. When Schulz told Melendez that Snoopy couldn’t have any lines in the show—he’s a dog, and Schulz’s dogs didn’t talk—the animator decided to bark and chuff into a microphone himself, then speed up the recording to give it a more emotive quality.
6. SCHULZ HATED JAZZ.
The breezy instrumental score by composer Vince Guaraldi would go on to become synonymous with Peanuts animation—but it wasn’t up to Schulz. He left the music decisions to Mendelson, telling a reporter shortly after the special aired that he thought jazz was “awful.”
7. CHARLIE BROWN’S HEAD WAS A NIGHTMARE TO ANIMATE.
Because Melendez was unwilling to stray from Schulz’s distinctive character designs—which were never intended to be animated—he found himself in a contentious battle with Charlie Brown’s noggin. Its round shape made it difficult to depict Charlie turning around; as with most of the characters, his arms were too tiny to scratch his head. Snoopy, in contrast, was free of a ball-shaped cranium and became the show’s easiest figure to animate.
8. SCHULZ WAS EMBARRASSED BY ONE SCENE.
Careful (or repeated) viewings of the special reveal a continuity error: in scenes where Charlie Brown is standing near his tree, the branches appear to grow from moment to moment. The goof annoyed Schulz, who blamed the mistake on two animators who didn’t know what the other was doing.
9. IT ALMOST GOT SCRAPPED BY COKE.
Mendelson recently toldUSA Today that an executive from McCann-Erikson—the ad agency behind Coke—paid him an impromptu visit while he was midway through production. Without hearing the music or seeing the finished animation, the ad man thought it looked disastrous and cautioned that if he shared his thoughts with Coca-Cola, they’d pull the plug. Mendelson argued that the charm of Schulz’s characters would come through; the exec kept his opinion to himself.
10. CBS HATED IT, TOO.
After toiling on the special for six months, Melendez and Mendelson screened it for CBS executives just three weeks before it was set to air. The mood in the room was less than enthusiastic: the network found it slow and lacking in energy, telling Melendez they weren’t interested in any more specials. To add insult, someone had misspelled Schulz in the credits, adding a “T” to his last name. (Schulz himself thought the whole project was a “disaster” due to the crude animation.)
11. GOOD THING HALF THE COUNTRY WATCHED IT.
Viewers weren’t nearly as cynical about Charlie Brown’s holiday woes as his corporate benefactors. Preempting a 7:30 p.m. EST episode of The Munsters, A Charlie Brown Christmas pulled a 50 share, meaning half of all households with a television turned on were watching it. (That amounted to roughly 15 million people, behind only Bonanza.) CBS finally acknowledged it was a winner, but not without one of the executives getting in one last dig and telling Mendelson that his “aunt in New Jersey didn’t like it.”
12. IT KILLED ALUMINUM TREE SALES.
Aluminum Christmas trees were marketed beginning in 1958 and enjoyed fairly strong sales by eliminating pesky needles and tree sap. But the annual airings of A Charlie Brown Christmasswayed public thinking: In the special, Charlie Brown refuses to get a fake tree. Viewers began to do the same, and the product was virtually phased out by 1969. The leftovers are now collector’s items.
13. THERE’S A LIVE-ACTION PLAY.
Up until 2013, anyone staging a live-action rendition of A Charlie Brown Christmas for their local school or theater had one thing in common: they were copyright infringers. The official rights to the story and characters weren’t offered until recently. Tams-Witmark fields licensing requests for the play, which includes permission to perform original songs and advertise with the Peanuts characters—Snoopy costume not included.
14. THE VOICE OF CHARLIE BROWN WAS ARRESTED.
Peter Robbins continued voicing Charlie Brown until he turned 13 years old, at which point puberty prohibited him from continuing. In November 2015, the 59-year-old Robbins pleaded guilty to making criminal threats against a mobile home park manager and a sheriff. According to CBS News, the troubled former actor claimed that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder led him to make the threats. He was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison.
The emotional toll that Game of Thrones's twists and turns takes on its fans has been well-documented. Between the TV show's massive body count and its never-ending series of other shocking moments, the show has left viewers shaken to theirs core for the past eight years (which is part of its massive appeal). But one of Game of Thrones's most heartbreaking moments—the death of Jon Snow at the hands of Alliser Thorne and other members of the Night's Watch in the fifth season—didn't leave just fans crushed. It nearly cost showrunner David Benioff his marriage.
While being interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2015, The Romanoffs star Amanda Peet, who has been married to Benioff since 2006, told Kimmel that she was close to divorcing Benioff for killing off Jon Snow.
"I made him promise me, I begged him … I said, 'I've heard all this stuff … [Kit Harington] got a haircut, I don't want to divorce you, what's happening?'" Peet recalled. Benioff assured his wife that Jon wasn't going to die, but obviously that wasn't true—or at least not at the time. "I don't love you anymore," Peet (jokingly) told her husband. "I said, 'If you kill him, that's it.'"
As we all know, the sixth season saw Jon brought back to life, but Peet likely had no idea it was going to happen due to the intense secrecy of the show. "It's a little like being married to someone in the CIA or something," the actress stated. "He's in bed and he has his earphones and we angle the computer so that I can't see the dailies."
Though Jon's resurrection may have saved their marriage, who knows how Peet will feel about how it all ends when Game of Thrones's eighth and final season premieres on April 14, 2019.
If Benedict Cumberbatch isn't careful, he might just run out of dream roles to play. Since the earliest days of his career, the 42-year-old actor has made no secret that there were two roles at the top of his character bucket list: Hamlet and Patrick Melrose, the protagonist at the center of Edward St Aubyn's critically acclaimed series of novels.
In 2015, Cumberbatch took the stage in London to do the whole "to be or not to be" thing. (More on that later.) In 2018, he starred in Patrick Melrose, Showtime's television adaptation of the book series, and earned both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for the role. Now, Cumberbatch is back on the small screen—and bald—for the HBO movie Brexit, which premieres on January 19th.
1. He made his stage debut playing a "very bossy" Joseph in a Nativity play.
In a 2010 interview with London Theatre, Cumberbatch shared that his first stage performance found him playing “a very bossy Joseph in the Nativity play at primary school. Apparently I pushed Mary offstage because she was taking too long. Actresses eh!”
2. He thinks his name sounds like "a fart in a bath."
There’s something very regal-sounding about a name like Benedict Cumberbatch, but it’s not one that necessarily rolls right off the tongue. The Washington Post once identified the actor as “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” (though later clarified that it was a joke). But there have been plenty of other mix-ups—like the time a television show ID'ed him as “Benedict Cumberpatch” (which sort of has a nice ring to it).
Cumberbatch had a feeling that his name might cause problems in his career, which is why he began his career as Benedict Carlton (which is his middle name). Ultimately, it was his agent who convinced him to use Cumberbatch, even though the actor said the surname sounds like “a fart in a bath.”
3. He toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer.
Though he grew up in a family of actors, Cumberbatch wasn’t always planning to live his life out in front of a camera. In fact, it was because of his parents’ chosen profession that they encouraged him to pursue a more stable calling, which led him to want to become a criminal lawyer.
“[Acting is] a very odd, peripatetic, crazed, out of your control work and social schedule,” Cumberbatch toldThe Mirror in 2015. “It's very hard to plan a family life, let alone know where the next paycheck is coming from so they worked very, very hard as my parents, and actors, to afford me an education whereby I had the opportunity and the privilege to try and channel myself towards other goals.
“For a while, I wanted to be a barrister because there's definitely a crossover with criminal law—with trying to persuade an audience and a jury and a judge of the case and your client's story so I did go down that route for a little bit. I think they would have been very happy if I ended up there."
He spoke with Vulture about his legal leanings, too, and noted that, “I would've loved the performance of court, the idea of persuading people, storytelling and all that. It parallels beautifully with acting, lots of frustrated, amateur dramatics going on in court all the time. I think lots of barristers literally perform in amateur dramatic societies and are very good actors. It's a massive crossover."
4. His parents on Sherlock are also his parents in real life.
Speaking of Cumberbatch’s parents: While both Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham are familiar faces as actors in their own right, fans of Sherlock might also be quick to recognize them as Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’s parents.
In 2014, Cumberbatch told the Press Association that he was a little nervous about working with his parents, as “They’re Equity card carrying members but you know it was nerve-wracking because they are actors as well and yet they were brilliant and they were fantastic.”
5. He spent a year teaching in India.
During a gap year, Cumberbatch decided to volunteer his time and teach English at a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling, India. “I’d always been fascinated by the idea of meditation and what it meant,” he told Lion’s Roar. “In India, I went on a retreat with a lama—several days of incantation to clear and purify the mind—along with a dozen other people. It was incredible, and I kind of floated out of there after two weeks."
Though teaching and acting may seem unrelated, many of the skills and practices Cumberbatch learned during that time eventually helped him in his acting career. “Stillness is an essential part of acting,” he said, “so I already had a certain amount of focus in that beforehand. A still point is a very, very hard place to find, especially among the usual kind of pulped sheep pushed around by the blinking flashing world of modern technology.”
6. He was kidnapped in South Africa.
While filming the 2005 miniseries To the Ends of the Earth, Cumberbatch experienced another kind of epiphany when he nearly lost his life. The actor and two of his co-stars took a day off to learn how to scuba dive near Mozambique. On their way back from the outing, the actor explained, “The three of us were trying to change the tire. These six men appeared suddenly from the eucalyptus. They said: 'Put your hands on your head, don't look at us,' and were frisking us for drugs, money, weapons. Then they bundled us into the car. They dragged me up and put me in the boot of the car.”
Like so many of the quick-thinking characters he has played, Cumberbatch realized his only option was to try and argue his way out of the situation:
“I said: ‘If you leave me in here, it’s not the lack of air, it’s the small space. There’s a problem with my heart and my brain.’
“I just tried to explain to them: ‘I will die, possibly have a fit, and it will be a problem for you. I will be a dead Englishman in your car. Not good.’
“They shut the boot and had an argument, and then pulled me out. So I kind of thank God I had the presence of mind to give them the idea that it would be better to keep me alive. And the other two hadn’t been harmed.”
In a way, the incident became the impetus for Cumberbatch to pursue his dreams even more aggressively. “It taught me that you come into this world as you leave it, on your own,” he said. “It’s made me want to live a life slightly less ordinary.”
7. Julian Assange tried to talk him out of starring in The Fifth Estate.
In 2013, a very white-haired Cumberbatch played the role of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate. In preparing for the role, Cumberbatch—ever the dutiful actor—reached out to Assange about arranging a meeting. Assange’s response, which went viral, was rather epic. Though he assured Cumberbatch that he would very much enjoy meeting him, and that he believed they would get along, he spent the bulk of his word count telling the actor why making the film was a terrible idea:
“You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. To present me as someone morally compromised and to place me in a falsified history. To create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.
“Not because you want to, of course you don't, but because, in the end, you are a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.
“Your skills play into the hands of people who are out to remove me and WikiLeaks from the world.
“I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise.”
The film went forward as planned, with Cumberbatch in the lead (though it was a critical and box office failure, which likely pleased Assange).
8. He is easily starstruck.
When asked during a Reddit AMA whether he’s ever been starstruck while meeting or working with a fellow actor, Cumberbatch admitted that it happens all the time: “Uhhhhhhhh. Every time I've met someone famous who I've been in the audience of,” he said. “I have the same butterflies and inability to be cool. I approach them as a fellow member of the human race as the next person in their audience does. I've been doing this for 10 odd years, and so to meet people who thrilled me with their work for my entire life in such a concentrated manner as has happened over the last few years has been mind-blowing.”
9. Ted Danson was really, really excited to meet him.
While Cumberbatch may get nervous every time he meets an acting hero, one well-known actor who was pretty excited to meet Cumberbatch was Cheers star Ted Danson. When asked during a Reddit AMA to share the “weirdest encounter you've had with a fan,” Cumberbatch answered: “Ted Danson at a pre-Oscar party screaming across a floor of people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ray Liotta, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, et al while pushing past them and knocking their drinks. ‘OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! IT'S F***ING SHERLOCK HOLMES!’”
10. He wasn't immediately sold on playing Sherlock Holmes.
Though playing the titular “consulting detective” in Sherlock is the role that brought Cumberbatch global recognition, saying yes to the part wasn’t exactly a no-brainer for the actor. While speaking at a BAFTA event in 2014, Cumberbatch admitted that he was actually a little hesitant to sign on for the project. “I heard about it and thought that sounds like an idea to [re-franchise] something to make money,” he said. “It could be a bit cheap and cheesy. Then I found out who was involved and realized it wouldn’t be cheap and cheesy.
“My mum had done a few episodes of Coupling with Steven [Moffat] and Mark Gatiss was a huge hero of mine when I was a student in League Of Gentleman,” Cumberbatch continued, “so I knew the stable was good. I thought I would read it and then I fell in love with it.”
11. The BBC wasn't sure Cumberbatch was "sexy" enough to pull off Sherlock.
It’s funny to think about now, considering Cumberatch’s massive worldwide fanbase, but just as the actor wasn’t immediately sold on playing Sherlock Holmes, the BBC wasn’t sure the actor was a great match for the role—because they wanted someone with sex appeal. While speaking at the Hay Festival in 2014, Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat talked about the BBC’s track record in determining which actors might connect with audiences—Cumberbatch being one of them.
“They said of casting David Tennant as Casanova, ‘Damn, you should have cast someone sexier,’” Moffat said. “With Benedict Cumberbatch, we were told the same thing. ‘You promised us a sexy Sherlock, not him.’”
Sue Vertue, a fellow producer on Sherlock (and Moffat's wife), relayed a similar tale to Entertainment Weekly just a few months prior to Moffat’s comments, telling the magazine: “When we first cast [Cumberbatch], people were saying, ‘You promised us a sexy one!’ People weren’t thinking of Benedict in that light at all.” His name, apparently, posed another problem: “When people said, ‘Who’s playing Sherlock Holmes?’ and we’d say, ‘Benedict Cumberbatch,’ everyone looked very vague,” Vertue said. “Then we’d always have to spell his name.”
12. He is (distantly) related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It turns out that Sherlock Holmes may have been the role Cumberbatch was born to play. In 2017, researchers at Ancestry.com made the rather fascinating discovery that Cumberbatch and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are sixteenth cousins, twice removed. The ancestral link between the two is former Duke of Lancaster John of Gaunt, who was Doyle’s 15th great-grandfather and Cumberbatch’s 17th great-grandfather.
13. He also has a family link to Alan Turing.
Amazingly, the Conan Doyle connection wasn’t the first time Cumberbatch’s ancestry was linked to one of his characters. In 2014, the same team of researchers determined that Cumberbatch was the 17th cousin of Alan Turing, the computer scientist/codebreaker he played in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (2014)—a role that earned Cumberbatch an Oscar nomination in 2015.
14. He has been rendered in chocolate on more than one occasion.
In a somewhat bizarre promotional campaign by Britain’s UKTV in 2015, Cumberbatch narrowly beat out David Tennant by a margin of just one percent to be named “TV Dishiest Drama Actor.” The prize? Having a life-sized statue, made entirely of Belgian chocolate, created in the actor’s likeness.
It took a team of eight people more than 250 man-hours to construct the delicious doppelgänger, dubbed “Benedict Chocobatch." In 2016, he was recreated in the sweet stuff again, though this time as an edible chocolate bunny/Benedict hybrid that fans could actually purchase … and eat.
15. He turned Hamlet into "the most in-demand show of all time."
In 2015, Cumberbatch achieved one of his lifetime dreams when it was announced that he would play Hamlet in a 12-week run at London’s Barbican theater. Tickets ended up selling out almost as fast as one could say “To be or not to be.” As The Telegraphreported in 2014:
"The curtain does not go up on the production for another year, but Cumberbatch's Hamlet is nevertheless outselling the next most popular show, the current run of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, by four to one. The show has even registered 214 per cent more ticket searches in the hours after tickets were released than Beyoncé and Jay Z’s global On the Run tour.
“Hamlet tickets went on sale at 10am on August 11 and within minutes fans were expressing frustration at finding themselves more than 20,000 places back in the queue."
16. He's the leading man in a lot of fan fiction.
In addition to being a leading man on the stage and both the small and big screens, Cumberbatch plays a starring role in a lot of fan fiction. A lot of fan fiction! In 2013, The Mirrorestimated that approximately 100 million words of fan fiction had been written about the Sherlock star. Considering that was six years ago, the word count has certainly only grown.
17. Simon Pegg convinced him that he might have radiation poisoning.
While filming Star Trek: Into Darkness, Simon Pegg decided to have a little fun with Cumberbatch by convincing him that he was at risk for radiation exposure. According to Pegg, it worked. He recounted the story to The Sun in 2013:
"I don't like seeing people get embarrassed. But we were filming in a nuclear facility and one day I said that Chris [Pine] needed neutron cream—otherwise he'd get sunburn. He said, 'What?' And I said, 'Yeah, you'll get a rash from ambient radiation in the air.' From there the trick spread to other cast members. Finally, we got Benedict. He had this speech and he kept f***ing it up. Afterwards he said, 'Guys, I'm ever so sorry —I've got a real headache. I think the ions were getting to me.' He was so convinced."
18. He has a rare genetic mutation.
If Cumberbatch’s eyes seem to regularly change color, you’re not imagining things: The actor was born with both central heterochromia and sectoral heterochromia—two rare-but-harmless genetic mutations that affect his eyes. Each of his eyes has multiple colors (a mix of blue, green, and gold) because of the central heterochromia, and the sectoral heterochromia is the reason why he has a brown “freckle” on his right eye.
But ask the actor what his favorite part of his body is, and the eyes have got it. “I guess as an actor your eyes are vital in conveying any internal thought process or feeling, and for that I have my mum to thank,” he said.
19. He's not cool with "Cumberbitches."
When Cumberbatch’s massive contingency of female fans dubbed themselves “Cumberbitches,” the actor took issue with the pejorative moniker. “It’s not even politeness,” he said of his distaste for the term. “I won’t allow you to be my bitches. I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are ... Cumberpeople."
20. He has been a vocal proponent of closing the gender pay gap.
Equal pay in Hollywood is a hot-button topic, and Cumberbatch has made his stance on the issue very clear by stating that he won’t work on a project if his female co-stars aren’t being paid the same. "Equal pay and a place at the table are the central tenets of feminism," Cumberbatch toldRadio Times. "Look at your quotas. Ask what women are being paid, and say: 'If she’s not paid the same as the men, I’m not doing it.'"