Lee Mendelson, the producer behind more than 50 animated TV specials featuring Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts” gang, died on Christmas Day at his home in Hillsborough, Calif., after a long battle with cancer. He was 86.
Mendelson also wrote the lyrics to “Christmas Time Is Here,” a song featured in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the 1965 special that turned “Peanuts” into a TV staple. “Charlie Brown Christmas” brought Mendelson the first of his 12 Emmys. The last came in 2015 for “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown.” Mendelson’s work with animator Lee Melendez also brought him four Peabody Awards, an Oscar nomination and two Grammy noms.
A lifelong fan of jazz, Mendelson had the inspiration to hire musician Vince Guaraldi to create original music for “Charlie Brown Christmas,” a touch that helped make the specials stand out with viewers young and old. Over the years Mendelson worked with other notable musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, B.B. King, David Benoit, George Winston, Ed Bogas and Desiree Goyette.
A fourth-generation native of San Francisco, Mendelson attended San Mateo High School and graduated from Stanford University in 1954 with a degree in English. He became involved in radio and TV while serving in the Air Force after college.
He worked for a while for his father’s produce company before moving into local TV as a producer for San Francisco’s KPIX-TV in 1961. He earned his first Peabody for “San Francisco Pageant,” described as “a series of historic documentaries framed with style and imagination, which enriched a great city’s affection of its colorful past.”
Lee Mendelson Film Productions opened its doors in 1963. Among its first productions was a highly regarded documentary for NBC about San Francisco Giants slugger Willie Mays.
Mendelson had the idea to produce his next documentary about the world’s worst baseball player — the woebegone Charlie Brown from Charles Schulz’s beloved daily comic strip. Schulz, who also lived in Northern California, had seen the Willie Mays special and agreed to cooperate.
But while the two were working on that project, Mendelson was enlisted to produce “Charlie Brown Christmas.” The success of that special begat 1966’s “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and 1973’s “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” among many others. The “Peanuts” animated programs aired on CBS for years until ABC scooped up the rights in 2001.
In 1970 Mendelson co-created the live-action children’s program “Hot Dog” for NBC that was billed as a kid-friendly version of “Laugh-In.” Cast members included Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters, Joanne Worley and Tom Smothers.
Mendelson teamed with “Garfield” creator Jim Davis to produce the first animated short featuring the grumpy cat in 1982. Mendelson also shepherded the “Garfield and Friends” animated series from 1991-1994. He also worked with “Cathy” cartoonist Cathy Guisewite on three primetime “Cathy” animated specials that aired between 1987 and 1989.
Outside of children’s programming, Mendelson produced documentaries and network specials featuring such notables as Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, Joanne Woodward, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Flip Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, Muhammad Ali and Carl Reiner. He worked with two 20th Century giants — John Steinbeck and Henry Fonda — on specials based on Steinbeck’s work: “Travels With Charley” and “America and Americans.”
Mendelson’s survivors include his wife, Ploenta; children Glenn, Lynda, Jason and Sean; stepson Ken; and eight grandchildren.