Lee Mendelson, a television producer who helped create dozens of “Peanuts” specials ― including the beloved “A Charlie Brown Christmas” ― died Wednesday at age 86 after battling lung cancer.
The timing was not lost on his family: “It wasn’t great for us, but to have him pass on Christmas really ties into his history and legacy,” Mendelson’s sons told The Palo Alto Daily Post.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which aired in 1965, went on to win an Emmy and was the first product of a long and fruitful partnership between Mendelson and “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz, along with animator Bill Melendez.
Mendelson also wrote the lyrics to “Christmastime Is Here,” the famous song that plays over the cartoon’s opening scene of Peanuts pirouetting on an ice rink. Mendelson, a fan of jazz, recruited pianist Vince Guaraldi to write music for the soundtrack, which was certified quadruple platinum in 2016.
In Mendelson’s telling, he and CBS executives thought the Charlie Brown Christmas special was terrible when they saw the finished product after hurrying it to completion in six months. A Time magazine writer’s glowing review and blockbuster ratings helped change their minds.
“I think we had half the United States tune in,” Mendelson recalled with half a smile in a 2010 interview. “And that Monday, the CBS fellow called up and said, ‘Well, we’re going to buy four more Charlie Brown specials, but I want you to know my aunt in New Jersey didn’t like it, either.’”
Mendelson had started his own production company in 1963 following a brief stint at San Francisco’s KPIX news station. He was working on a documentary about Schulz when Coca-Cola offered to sponsor a Christmas special, and Mendelson saw an opportunity. The special’s success led to “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” one year later, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” in 1973, and many others.
Later, Mendelson teamed up with cartoonist Jim Davis to bring another hit comic, “Garfield,” to small screens beginning in 1982.
According to his website, the producer had a hand in more than a dozen primetime “Garfield” specials and more than 50 primetime “Charlie Brown” specials, along with three primetime “Cathy” specials from cartoonist Cathy Guisewite.
Mendelson took home 12 Emmys in all. His collaborators over the years included musicians such as Wynton Marsalis and B.B. King. His documentary work chronicled the lives and careers of celebrities including Paul Newman, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby and Muhammad Ali.
But it was his work with Schulz that resonated the most.
“I’m going to be remembered for ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’” Mendelson once predicted. “And that’s a great thing to be remembered for.”