Charles Schulz profile short on ‘happiness’

After a half century in the “funny papers” and more than seven years since his death, cartoonist Charles Schulz continues to inspire passion and scrutiny. “American Masters” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) profiles the artist in the film “Good Ol’ Charles Schulz.”

From “Dora the Explorer” to “South Park,” today’s cartoon characters speak to specific market niches. “Peanuts” truly appealed to everybody: kids just learning to read, teens wrestling with self-doubt and parents who saw their own children in the four-paneled universe.

Clearly, even the greats read Peanuts. In the mid-1960s, Johnny Carson penned a best-selling joke book called “Happiness Is a Dry Martini.” John Lennon appropriated the same allusion in the 1968 song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” In 1969, even NASA got into the act when astronauts named their Apollo 10 spacecrafts Charlie Brown and Snoopy and sent them to the moon.

With all of this adulation, you’d think Schulz would be on top of the world, but he remained an insecure and insular soul, an emotionally reticent Scandinavian from the Midwest, driven to excel but haunted by a small voice asking, “Just who do you think you are?”

According to his stepdaughter, Schulz refused therapy out of fear it would affect the strip. And as we’re shown here, Schulz’s bittersweet inner life was poured onto the comic pages for roughly half a century. The film introduces us to the real people who inspired Charlie Brown, Linus and the Little Red-Haired Girl. But we’re continually reminded that Schulz’s own fears were the real father to the haunted Charlie Brown and the thumb-sucking Linus.

Tales of the cartoonist’s first marriage and of his strong-willed wife’s efforts to control his surroundings and to cajole some affection from the cartoonist are painfully juxtaposed with strips of the overbearing Lucy trying to do the same with Schroeder, the withdrawn, Beethoven-obsessed artist.

When Schulz remarried and reasserted himself, the fantasy-driven Snoopy began to dominate the comic panels.

The simple but profound notion that Schulz’s strip was his life and that his life was his strip became sadly apparent in 1999 when an ailing Schulz retired from cartooning. He died in February 2000, the day before his very last “Peanuts” appeared in the Sunday “funny papers.”

Schulz appears here in his last television interview, a man at the end of his life but still very much the insecure boy from St. Paul, Minn., choking back tears while telling Al Roker, “I just did the best I could.”

Tonight’s other highlights

¢ Director Peter Bogdanovich takes a four-hour look at a rock band with a three-decade history in the documentary “Runnin’ Down the Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” (6 p.m., Sundance).

¢ Chuck runs into a fellow geek in a predicament similar to his own on “Chuck” (7 p.m., NBC).

¢ Halle Berry appears on “Inside the Actors Studio” (7 p.m., Bravo).

¢ A car for outer space on “Top Gear” (7 p.m., BBC America).

¢ Quarantine provides Chris with a golden opportunity on “Everybody Hates Chris” (7 p.m., CW).

¢ Cheerleading lessons on “Heroes” (8 p.m., NBC).

¢ Evidence of abuse surfaces on a trip to the past on “Journeyman” (9 p.m., NBC).

Cult Choice

¢ Kevin Spacey channels doomed singer Bobby Darin in the strange and uneven musical misfire “Beyond the Sea” (6 p.m., IFC).