Lee Mendelson, Prolific Producer of ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Garfield’ TV Specials, Dies at 86

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.

The family requests that donations be made in Mendelson’s name to Second Harvest Food Bank, San Francisco-Marin Food Bank or the Television Academy Foundation.

Related:

More TV

  • U.K. Broadcaster Channel 5 Readies Thomas

    U.K. Broadcaster Channel 5 Readies Thomas Markle Documentary

    ViacomCBS-backed U.K. broadcaster Channel 5 will air a 90-minute documentary on Meghan Markle’s father Thomas Markle. Markle and her husband Prince Harry sparked a global media frenzy earlier this month with their decision not to continue as senior members of the British Royal Family. Buckingham Palace announced that the couple are to lose their royal [...]

  • Tony Hall BBC Director General

    BBC Boss Tony Hall Lands at U.K.'s National Gallery

    BBC director general Tony Hall has been appointed chair of the board of trustees of the National Gallery. The executive, who has served on the Gallery’s board since November, takes over as chair from Sir John Kingman, who has been interim chair since Hannah Rothschild stood down from the role in September. Hall said: “The [...]

  • Fox TV Stations Greenlight 'Central Ave'

    Fox TV Stations Greenlight 'Central Ave' From Will Packer, Debmar-Mercury

    Fox Television Stations has ordered the weekly entertainment news magazine “Central Ave,” which hails from prolific film and TV producer Will Packer and Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury. Debmar-Mercury and Will Packer Media will produce two half-hour shows per week of “Central Ave,” which tackles pop culture and other topics from a “socially conscious and diverse lens,” per [...]

  • Tony Hall, Director General of the

    Frontrunners Emerge as BBC Boss Tony Hall Set to Leave Broadcasting Behind

    As the U.K. industry reacts to news of Tony Hall’s intention to depart the BBC this July, top-level executives including Charlotte Moore and Tim Davie as well as external contenders such as Channel 4’s Alex Mahon are beginning to emerge. Variety understands that Lord Hall, who has headed the BBC for seven years as director [...]

  • Gustavo Mello and Ran Tellem

    Boutique Filmes, The Mediapro Studio Team for ‘To Kill a Queen’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    MADRID — Gustavo and Tiago Mello’s São Paulo-based Boutique Filmes, producers of early Netflix Original overseas breakout “3%,” is teaming with high-end drama powerhouse The Mediapro Studio (“The New Pope,” “The Head”) to produce “To Kill a Queen.” International sales rights on the series will be handled by The Mediapro Studio Distribution. From an original [...]

  • Donald Trump Hollywood Racism

    Impeachment Trial Adds to TV's Breaking-News Juggle

    As if TV news needed more headlines… The usual suspects are gearing up to cover the U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, the latest swirl in what seems to be a never-ending news cycle centered on the White House. But the impeachment proceedings, which kick off in earnest Tuesday, take place as many [...]

  • Blood Oath

    MBC Studios to Launch Arabic TV Series 'Blood Oath,' Written by Britain's Tony Jordan

    MBC Studios, the Saudi-owned production unit of top Middle Eastern free-to-air satellite network MBC Group is set to launch “Blood Oath,” an Arabic crime series written by Britain’s Tony Jordan (“EastEnders,” “Life on Mars”). The announcement comes as Dubai-based MBC Studios, set up in 2018 and headed by former president of NBCUniversal International Peter Smith, is [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content