Friday, June 27, 2014

“Peanuts” interview: Stephen Shea (Linus in Thanksgiving)

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



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

Think we made it in 1972 so I was 10.


circa 1966

circa 1970

Where were you living at the time?

In the San Fernando Valley in Sherman Oaks. We’d moved from Hollywood.

Were you a Peanuts fan? Had you seen any of the previous animated
Peanuts specials?

Yeah, because my brother Chris was the original Linus. When he started in ‘65, we didn’t have a TV so we would go to our grandmother’s house to watch. I looked forward to it as I guess most people our age did! It was kind of an event.

Did you read the comic strips?

I did but my brothers were more the readers, more sophisticated. But we’d get
Peanuts books, compendiums. I even still have some of those old ones.

When did Chris pass away?

In August it’s four years—2010.

We’ll go back to Chris. How were you hired?

The original voices were cast so well—Charlie Brown’s and Linus’s voices were perfect. Because my brother had done it and because we similar tonal quality, that’s how. I won’t call it nepotism—I’ll call it lineage. (laughs)

What other shows had you appeared in?

Both my older brothers had done a lot of stuff. I was more nervous going into the interviews. I was shyer than they were. I went on interviews, including Disney, but didn’t get a lot of stuff. I did get what I think was the first Welch’s grape jelly commercial ever. It ran for a long, long time—years. I’d done an Adam-12. The nervousness would prevent me from getting parts. With child actors, they’d look at your fingernails. If you bit them, they’d look down on that.

Any funny stories from the recording experience?

There was a particular special and Linus had to scream loudly. I just wasn’t getting it right. The director, Bill Melendez, would say “Do it like this” and it still wouldn’t work. He eventually did a fake choke on me to get me to do it, and I finally did. But it took 25 takes. And then once home, I kept doing the scream, practicing, and did it sufficiently well that my whole family came running to my room to see what was wrong.

Was anything else hard about the recording process?

No. They were super nice and very good with kids. The only hard thing was feeling I let them down at times. But it was fun.

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

No. There are some pictures in books where they’re standing around microphones but generally we’d sit in a recording studio and Bill Melendez would feed us the lines how he wanted. We’d echo it. His studio was in an area called Larchmont, south of Hollywood, and years after as a teenager I would go visit him there.

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

I did and he actually directed me in Snoopy, Come Home—he fed me my lines like what Bill Melendez did. As a kid, you didn’t have a sense of it being iconic or important to other people, and certainly not something that would still be important all these years later. I don’t go around telling people “I was the voice of Linus” but occasionally my wife will mention it in the context of something.

Do you remember anything about his character?

He was gentle, soft-spoken, supportive, interested—especially in those days when the adult attitude was often “You’re just a kid.”

What did you think of the finished show?

(laughs) We all had to individually sing “Over the River and Through the Woods,” which I had learned in school. We had to do it a cappella. I could pick out my voice and said “oof.” But the sentiment of the show was good and I liked it.

What did your parents think?

My mom and dad had been split up for some time. My mom was always very proud of her kids doing this. She complimented us and considered it a good story in a good medium with values that she shared. My dad didn’t talk about it that much—I don’t remember him talking specifically about it.

What did your friends think?

A lot of them didn’t know—they never said anything. I went to a small private school—50 people in any given class. You knew people up or down two or three grades.

Given that your brothers had voiced
Peanuts, and given that the school was small, how is that other kids didn’t know?

They didn’t read credits. My brother was four years older. And it was a school with quite a few children of celebrities and even some child actors as well [so maybe it would not stand out].

What were you paid?

Very little by today’s standards. I think I’ve seen social security stuff come through—maybe in 1972 I made $12,000.

Not bad for age 10 and for 1972!

Yeah, but I remember talking to a lifeguard who made $1,000 a month! But being in
Peanuts specials have made money years later, like greeting cards that I get royalties for. When they sell the specials to HBO or something like that, we’ll get a small check. If a $350 check comes in, that’s okay.

A Canadian company has licensed the specials for apps. They gave us the option of using our original voice and paying some small amount or you can say no and they’ll find someone else. And they’ve additionally asked me to narrate two of them—one was the Thanksgiving one!

How do companies like that find you?

They called Mendelson Productions and they know where I am. They found me through the Screen Actors Guild, which still had my mom’s address.

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

I thought I did five but a filmography says I did six. Elected, Thanksgiving, Easter, Valentine’s, It’s a Mystery, and the movie Snoopy, Come Home. But there’s another one online and I don’t remember doing that one. My favorite is probably Thanksgiving. It’s a major holiday.

And you had that moving speech.

I had the speech, which was good.

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

I didn’t. I have reconnected a little bit with Peter Robbins, who got into a bit of a mess a couple of years back. Do you know?

I do and I haven’t reached out because of that.

I think it’s passed. He and my brother would talk occasionally before my brother passed away.

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

(laughs) Nothing like that. But it shocks people all the time. My wife Sheila grew up in upstate New York with three channels and the specials were kind of a to-do. She tells more people than I do.

How did you and your wife meet and how did she find out about this?

We lived in the same duplex in Malibu. She with her husband and daughter upstairs and me downstairs; I helped manage the building. At some point along the way she found out about
Peanuts and thought it was pretty cool. In the ensuing years she and her husband split up and I split up with my girlfriend. We were both going to have a BBQ at the same time and we combined them. My dad kind of played Cupid. This was in 1999.

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

No.

I do have an interesting
Peanuts story but it doesn’t involve me. My brother was born in 1958 and he did the Christmas special. Around 1969, he went to a camp called Gold Arrow or something like that. There, he ended up meeting another camper who was about three years older, Danny Sugarman. Turns out Danny was the president of the Doors Fan Club.

He was ahead of his time, in not good ways, and had a fair amount of personal interaction with Jim Morrison. He told Jim of this kid he had met who was the voice of Linus. Jim thought that was really cool—Linus was his favorite character and he said he wanted to meet this guy. Danny called my brother, and through my dad they actually met and went to a Doors concert in Long Beach. My dad got a photography pass and shot all these photos. I have all these unseen photographs. All the people in that bizarre “Jim Morrison meets Linus” have since passed away. I love this connection between
Peanuts and the Doors. I haven’t told that story on record before.

What are you doing these days?

I am a landscape contractor and general contractor, a graduate of UC Berkeley with a degree in Latin American history. After getting out of school, I realized I didn’t want to work inside. I slowly built a business. I design and build landscapes—stone, koi ponds, waterfalls, bridges, park-like areas.

A few years ago, around 2004, I’d advertised in the phone book and HGTV asked me to do two shows. One was called Landscaper’s Challenge.



Why did they pick you out of the phone book?

Where I am, it’s rarer and rarer to find a landscaper like myself who will do the work himself. Also, I speak English and fewer people in the business do, so it allows me to develop a pretty good rapport. They found me in the phone book but they picked me because I was able to convey this.

What has been your career highlight so far?

That’s a great question. I haven’t had my best landscape yet because it’ll probably never happen! But I have lots of jobs where I was happy with how an area was transformed. I’ve always been drawn to the physical aspect of the earth. There are pictures of me at age three covered in mud.

Where do you live?

Thousand Oaks, CA. If you live here, it’s all L.A.

Kids? If so, what do they think of your
Peanuts connection?

My daughter Sage is 22 and is going to be and is very driven to be a schoolteacher. My son Jack is 12. My daughter Shelby is 10 and we home-schooled up till this year. I don’t think Sage really expressed much about it. For my kids, it’s what they know so it’s not overwhelmingly special...but it’s still pretty neat.

My daughter Shelby did some recordings in case the person who voiced Marcie in Thanksgiving (Jim Ahrens, who declined to participate in this series) did not allow use of her voice in the app for the $500 or whatever it was they offered. Shelby knocked it out of the park, so much so that the director thought I’d been working with her on it. She has the same tonal quality as Uncle Chris. But in the end, the Marcie actor did agree so Shelby didn’t get to do it.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Just figured there was someone out there who wanted a take on an iconic, cultural series. I may be hard to get ahold of at times but am always interested because I feel fortunate to have been involved in it.

How often have you been interviewed about this?

Probably four or five times in the past five years, when someone’s doing a book. Also when Charles Schulz passed away [in 2000].

Do you have any
Peanuts memorabilia?

When I went to Bill Melendez’s office once, he gave me some cels from the Christmas show—Linus and Charlie Brown walking toward the Christmas tree lot—and one from a movie when Snoopy has a mask on.



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

I’ve never been. My brother Eric was in a lot of things—Batman, Brady Bunch. He was in the original Poseidon Adventure—the kid who led people through the ship. When he grew up, he would not sign autographs, but not because he was being a snob…rather because anyone who was famous as a kid could run the risk of becoming pitiful doing that. I think he didn’t want to gravy-train off something he did so long ago. For a while he wouldn’t do conventions, but he’s since done some.

How do you look back on the experience?

Great. I stand on the shoulder of the original voices. I don’t think anyone had the sound my brother Chris did, especially in the Christmas show. That show [with its religious aspect] wouldn’t be made today, probably. It’s great to have been part of something in American culture that is known as something good.

Tell me about your brother Chris.

I know he felt great fortune to have been doing that, in particular the Christmas show, and in particular the Christmas story [Linus tells]. Charles Schulz was told he couldn’t quote the Bible in a cartoon special and he said “If not us, who?” As my brother grew older and became a husband and a father, I think the religious context of it became even more important to him. Everyone knows Linus’s speech and that meant a lot to him. I hope I’ve done right by him in expressing this.

Anything you’d like to add?

Simple, heartfelt, not corny stories sell. It’s not flashy but people still want to watch them. They’re still relevant if shown to kids who are not already jaded. It is a type of story that has staying power.


Next: Hilary Momberger—Sally (Thanksgiving).

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