Lee Mendelson, Prolific Producer of 'Peanuts' TV Specials, Dies at 86

Producer Lee Mendelson - Getty - H 2019
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The six-time Emmy winner, who wrote the lyrics to “Christmastime Is Here,” died Christmas Day.

Lee Mendelson, the six-time Emmy winner who produced more than 60 TV specials, films and other projects featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the Peanuts gang, has died. He was 86.

Mendelson died on Christmas Day of congestive heart failure at his home in Hillsborough, California, after a long battle with cancer, his son Jason Mendelson told The Hollywood Reporter.

Working often with the late Bill Melendez (the only animator permitted by Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz to work with the iconic characters), Mendelson collected his first Emmy in 1966 for A Charlie Brown Christmas — he wrote the lyrics to "Christmastime Is Here" for that one — and his last in 2016 for It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown. (His son Jason shared the final Emmy with him).

Mendelson also wrote and directed for the franchise and amassed 29 Emmy noms during his career — 26 for his work with Peanuts characters — while earning a pair of Grammy noms as well.

His landmark résumé included 1966's It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 1967's You're in Love, Charlie Brown, the Oscar-nominated A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1971), 1973's A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 1975's You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown, 1976's It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown and 1980's She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown.

Mendelson also brought to air 12 primetime Garfield specials and a 121-episode series Garfield and Friends with Garfield creator Jim Davis and Mark Evanier; a series of Mother Goose and Grimm animated shows with cartoonist Mike Peters; three primetime Cathy specials with cartoonist Cathy Guisewite; and the first two Barbar the Elephant specials.

He won two other Emmys, in 1984 and 1987, for producing Garfield and Cathy programs.

Born in San Francisco on March 24, 1933, Mendelson attended San Mateo High School and then Stanford University, graduating in 1954 with a degree in English. After a stint in U.S. Air Force, he went to work for his father's produce business.

He always wanted to work in television, and he joined the Bay Area affiliate KPIX-TV in 1961 and won a Peabody Award for the best locally produced documentary in the country. He then followed San Francisco Giants star Willie Mays through the 1963 baseball season for a documentary titled A Man Named Mays.

While reading the Peanuts comic strip in the newspaper, Mendelson had a thought: "You've just done the world's greatest baseball player, now you should do the world's worst baseball player, Charlie Brown," he told Stanford Magazine in 1997. 

Mendelson first teamed with Schulz on the documentary A Boy Named Charlie Brown. The special never aired, but it began a nearly 40-year collaboration among Lee, Schulz and Melendez.

For A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mendelson hired San Francisco composer Vince Guaraldi to write the music. He later came up with the lyrics to the songs "Oh Good Grief, Poor Charlie Brown" and "Just Like Me."

Mendelson also co-created with Frank Buxton the 1970 NBC Saturday morning kids series Hot Dog, featuring Woody Allen and Jonathan Winters, and worked with John Steinbeck and Henry Fonda on two specials based on Steinbeck's work: Travels With Charley and America and Americans.

Survivors include his wife, Ploenta; children Glenn, Lynda, Jason and Sean; stepson Ken; and grandchildren Palmer, Lena, Kyler, Logan, Jillian, Talyn, Ronan and Zander.

Donations in his memory can be made to Second Harvest Food Bank, SF-Marin Food Bank and the Television Academy Foundation.