Lee Mendelson, the prolific producer behind over 50 Peanuts TV specials—including Christmastime mainstay A Charlie Brown Christmas—has died after a long battle with lung cancer. Per the Palo Alto Daily Post, the family confirmed that Mendelson died in his Hillsborough home on Christmas Day. “It wasn’t great for us, but to have him pass on Christmas really ties into his history and legacy,” son Jason Mendelson said. He was 86.
Mendelson’s television career began in 1961 at a local CBS affiliate in San Francisco, where he made public service announcements. After stumbling upon footage of the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair he produced his first documentary, which led to Peabody Award-winning series on the history of the city. After only two years, he parted ways with the station to form his own production company. His first work as an independent creative was a documentary about baseball legend Willie Mays. A Man Named Mays would end up doubling as an unlikely bridge to the world of Peanuts as the documentary caught the attention and respect of creator Charles Schultz. When Mendelson approached Schultz about a potential documentary on the Peanuts comic strip, Schultz agreed on the strength of Mendelson’s work with the Mays program. This would mark the beginning of a 30-year collaborative relationship.
While attempting to drum up interest for the Peanuts documentary, The Coca-Cola Company tapped Mendelson for an animated Christmas special for TV. The accomplished producer accepted the project and contacted Schultz for permission to use the Peanuts characters. Schultz not only consented, but also recommended director Bill Meléndez. As an ardent fan of jazz music, Mendelson hired composer Vince Guaraldi to assist with the original score. The fated collaboration culminated in the iconic special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which aired December 9, 1965 and featured the song “Christmas Time Is Here” with lyrics by Mendelson. The special won an Emmy and a Peabody award, and led to over 40 collaborations by Mendelson, Schultz, Guaraldi, and Meléndez.
Before long, Mendelson became the go-to producer for famed comic strip-to-television specials. He produced programming for both Garfield and Cathy TV adaptations and worked on follow-up animated series Garfield And Friends in the ‘90s. Though he kept himself busy with children’s programming, he continued making documentaries and network specials. In all, he produced over 100 TV and film productions, won 12 Emmys and 4 Peabodys, earned Grammy and Oscar recognition, and secured a legacy that will undoubtedly continue to influence generations to come.