Interview with RANDY MARTIN

Conducted by Derrick Bang

"BIOGRAPHY is like sitting around the fire," explains Randy Martin, "and telling the story of somebody's life."

Writer/director/producer Martin is describing his involvement with the nightly Arts & Entertainment Channel series which has kept him off the streets for the last several years.

It's a gig which has granted exposure to the rich, famous, and powerful: from Christopher Reeve (cablecast in autumn 1995) to Bob Dole (February 1996).

More critical to our readers, however, is the fact that one of Martin's assignments was profiling none other than Charles "Sparky" Schulz.

CHARLES SCHULZ: A CHARLIE BROWN LIFE had its world premiere December 25, 1995. The plum holiday evening timeslot came as a welcome surprise to Martin. "I'm very pleased it was on Christmas night. That got families watching, and I think that's very important."

A&E's unspoken hope, of course, is that public response will be great enough to turn Sparky's BIOGRAPHY episode into a hardy perennial, much like CBS' "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Given the quality of Martin's work, that seems a reasonable outcome.

Although honest enough to admit that he was not a devoted PEANUTS fan prior to this assignment, Martin quickly became a convert, and he owes his new-found interest to Sparky. "He's an amazing guy...intensely proud, very complex."

Such complexities notwithstanding, Martin very quickly learned what is always uppermost on the cartoonist's mind. "The things important to Sparky are his art, his art, his art, and his art...and, secondarily, the public perception of his art. He has very strong opinions about what's good, what's not, what's acceptable, and what's not acceptable. He's very proud of the fact that he has hewed an inoffensive line, appealing broadly to everybody, without politicizing or proselytizing.

"And I use the term 'art' in the most complimentary sense, because I believe all artists are craftspeople. It's like striking notes on a piano: you have to know what notes to hit, and how they might lead to another series of notes, and then a chord. The resulting harmonic becomes art. In that context, Sparky certainly qualifies as an artist."

Martin spent considerable time prepping for his seven-hour face-to-face with Sparky, which took place June 30, 1995 in the artist's Santa Rosa studio.

First order of business, of course, was securing permission to spend time with one of the most notoriously publicity-shy individuals in the known universe. "I have to give a lot of credit to Cress Darwin, the show's producer," Martin admits. "Cress made the project possible by courting Sparky, and winning his confidence."

Of course, it didn't hurt that the cable series is recognized as an oasis of quality amid a mind-numbing sea of network dreck.

"That's true, BIOGRAPHY has a reputation for taking the high ground," Martin acknowledges. "We're not HARD COPY, so our subjects trust us...they've seen our other shows, so they know we're not interested in doing a hatchet-job."

After Darwin had paved the way, Martin began the critical first step: 2-3 weeks of tireless research. "People who watch BIOGRAPHY would be pleased to know that we start each show by reading everything we can get our hands on," Martin explains, after admitting that he has always been a voracious reader. "I read Rheta Grimsely Johnson's book [GOOD GRIEF!], and hundreds and hundreds of pages of other interviews."

This was followed by no fewer than 13 phone calls to Santa Rosa, and Martin earned the ultimate commendation -- Schulz's insistence that he be called "Sparky" -- during the second call.

Meeting with Sparky confirmed the mental picture Martin had acquired during his weeks of investigation. "Sparky is very concerned about how other people view him, but not from the point of ego or vanity." Martin pauses briefly, wanting to properly clarify this point. "It comes from an honest insecurity, or shyness within, rather than a concern that everybody think he's cool."

Shyness notwithstanding, Martin found his subject equally prepared. "Sparky is a very skilled interview; he has his personal history quite organized. Although he related many of the same stories -- and some of the exact words -- that I had encountered during my preparation, I feel we got a few that people have never heard before. That's all I could have hoped for."

When asked if perhaps some of these recollections might have grown apocryphal through repetition -- like film director Alfred Hitchcock's insistence that his father had once asked a policeman to lock him into a cell as a lad, while explaining "This is what we do to naughty boys" -- Martin thinks for a moment, and then comes up with an intriguing response.

"I can't imagine Sparky has always been so insecure about his me, he seems very secure about his abilities. I think he knows exactly how good he is, and I think he cares very much that people see him as a truly great cartoonist.

"Sparky was very, very, very interested in talking about his art. It was important to him -- and to me -- that we relate his position that his work has improved immeasurably, to this day. He addressed this fact several times: that his drawing has gotten better, when compared to his earlier work."

Like much of the talent lurking behind the television camera, Martin is hardly an industry newcomer. His over two decades in "the biz" began with a 1972 acting stint at San Francisco's A.C.T. ("I adore San Francisco"), which led to several prominent Broadway roles. "I was Peter in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, I did MAME with Angela Lansbury, and appeared with Bette Davis in one of New York's most infamous flops: MISS MOFFAT, a musical based on THE CORN IS GREEN."

Television work followed a jump back to the West Coast, at which point Martin answered the call of another muse. In 1978 he co-wrote the book and lyrics to a musical called FESTIVAL, which played San Francisco's A.C.T. and points beyond; that led to more stage and television writing. Martin's bi-coastal existence became chronic: he produced New York theater in the 1980s, and founded an independent film company in Los Angeles (Martin/Thurman Productions).

Martin now produces, writes, directs, and edits roughly seven BIOGRAPHY episodes per year. "I love it," he says, with honest affection. "It's very humbling. As I start every show, I have a moment of fear that I'm not going to live up to that person's life...that I'll let down their friends and many followers.

"And I had great trepidation doing Sparky, because he has a huge worldwide following. He is so much more than people perceive: he's an American icon, a real voice for this century...a voice for the child in all of us, and the grown-up in all of us."

Martin's varied theater background explains the great care with which he orchestrates every facet of each production, and Sparky's profile is no exception. Whether a clever visual image -- such as a slow dissolve from Charlie Brown's bald round head to a photo of the infant Sparky -- or the meticulous marriage of sound and picture, Martin composes each scene for maximum impact.

And, as fans of television's PEANUTS adaptations can attest, music is a very important part of Charlie Brown's life. "Because of my theater background, I'm very particular about the music in my shows. George Small and I worked very carefully together; it was important that the music -- the mix of Beethoven and Guaraldi -- be acoustic, and not electronic."

Martin stops, then analyzes his own efforts in a manner George Gershwin would have approved: "I felt this show needed to be an e-minor tone-poem...that's how I heard it in my mind."

Lyrical intentions notwithstanding, Martin was not above peppering his script with asides as delightful as they are unexpected...which explains the observation that Sparky's father -- a barber making 11 cents profit on a 50-cent haircut -- supported his family through "sheer perseverance."

Although haunted by the artistic desire for perfection which makes it hard to close the books on any specific project -- "If it had been up to me, this would have been a four-part, four-hour series" -- Martin has already been vindicated by the Court of Highest Authority: "Sparky saw the show in rough-cut, and he had no complaints."

It's an opinion shared by Martin himself. "This is my favorite BIOGRAPHY to date: the show I'm the most proud of. I credit that to Sparky, and the generous support I had."

As if concerned by the immodesty of this admission, Martin retreats a bit: "I don't believe that it's a deep or definitive profile of the man, but I do feel that it advances a bit of the flavor of his personality, and of his life.

"And the greatest compliment I ever get," Martin concludes, "is when somebody watches one of my shows, and calls me up, and says, `Hey...I learned something I didn't know.'

"I then feel that we have fulfilled BIOGRAPHY's basic mandate."

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