Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer of the animated Christmas classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, has died. Mendelson passed away at his California home on December 25th of congestive heart failure following a long battle with lung cancer, his son Jason Mendelson confirmed to The Associated Press.
Mendelson was the executive producer of more than 50 animated specials alongside Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz and animator Bill Melendez. A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted in 1965, was the first of the trio’s many TV specials. Mendelson even penned the lyrics to the 1965 classic’s signature song, “Christmas Time Is Here” when he couldn’t find a lyricist for Vince Guaraldi’s instrumentals in time.
Not only did Mendelson pen the lyrics to the Emmy and Peabody-winning Charlie Brown Christmas theme song, but he set the Peanuts specials apart by insisting on using real children to voice the iconic kid characters instead of adult voice actors.
Mendelson also gave the green light for the famous scenes in A Charlie Brown Christmas that feature Linus (Christopher Shea) reciting scripture from the New Testament as he explains the meaning of Christmas. Mendelson told The Washington Post that Peanuts creator Schulz insisted on including the biblical text in the script and he agreed. Mendelson called Linus’s reading from the Gospel of Luke “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation.”
Surprisingly, Mendelson said when A Charlie Brown Christmas was screened for CBS executives, the reaction was negative.
“They didn’t get the voices. They didn’t get the music. They didn’t get the pacing,” Mendelson told the Post. Executives warned the creators it would likely be the last Peanuts special ever, but instead, it turned out to be a massive hit. The animated special has aired every Christmas season, on rotating networks, for more than 50 years.
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The @schulzmuseum would like to recognize the passing of Lee Mendelson who died this past Wednesday, December 25, at the age of 86. Lee Mendelson, Charles M. Schulz, and Bill Melendez (L-R) partnered together for over thirty-eight years, producing fifty television specials and four animated feature films. It all began with A Charlie Brown Christmas which aired nationally on December 9, 1965, and despite initial doubt for success, it was awarded an Emmy and a Peabody Award and has aired every year since. The infamous call from Coca-Cola came on a Thursday, and by Monday Lee, Sparky, ans Bill had written the entire outline for A Charlie Brown Christmas. “I hung up the phone and stared at it for a few minutes. Then I called Sparky. ‘I think I may have just sold a Charlie Brown Christmas show,’ I said. ‘And what show might that be?’ Sparky asked. ‘The one you need to make an outline for tomorrow,’ I replied. Without missing a beat, he calmly said, ‘Okay. Come on up.’” [????: A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez] [????: R. Smith Kiliper, c.1980s] #LeeMendelson #ACharlieBrownChristmas #SchulzMuseum #CharlesMSchulzMuseum #CharlesMSchulz #CharleSchulz #Schulz #Peanuts #CharlieBrown #SantaRosa
Mendelson began his career in television in the early 1960s, working at KPIX-TV in San Francisco. He formed his own production company in 1963 and produced an NBC documentary about baseball legend Willie Mays, titled A Man Named Mays.
Mendelson also produced a dozen animated Garfield television specials and the 121-episode TV series Garfield and Friends with Garfield creator Jim Davis. Mendelson brought more comic strips to life with two primetime Cathy specials with cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, and several Barbar the Elephant specials. In addition to A Charlie Brown Christmas, his Peanuts resume included It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973) and dozens more.
While they were an Emmy-winning team, Mendelson revealed that he got into a “rare, minor dispute” with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz during the creation of the special A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving in the early 1970s.
In an essay for the Huffington Post, Mendelson revealed that Schulz wanted Snoopy’s bird sidekick Woodstock to carve and eat a turkey during the gang’s holiday feast, but he had a problem with the scene.
“For some reason, I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey,” Mendelson wrote. “I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”
Mendelson later edited out the scene when CBS cut the special’s airtime from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes.
Mendelson is survived by his wife, Ploenta, children, and eight grandchildren.