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Lee Mendelson, Producer of This is America, Charlie Brown and all of the other Peanuts primetime specials
With the buzz of the approaching Comic-Con in the air and Paramount Home Entertainment releasing This is America, Charlie Brown on DVD this month, we thought it would be a great time to catch up with Peanuts producer extraordinaire Lee Mendelson and talk shop about his experiences with the Charlie Brown cartoon crew. An accomplished animation and documentary producer, Mendelson opened up his own production company in 1963. Over the past 40 years he has delivered more than 45 primetime Peanuts specials with animator Bill Melendez (who’s still working and celebrates his 90th birthday this year!) and the late strip creator Charles M. Schulz. The specials racked up five Emmys, two Peabodys and 15 Emmy nominations. Mendelson also served as the exec producer on four Peanuts features and has worked on Emmy-winning animated specials for such comic strip all-stars as Cathy and Garfield. He recently wrapped up production on He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown, which will air on ABC in November.
Animation Magazine Online: How did you get your start in the industry?
Lee Mendelson: I was a producer at KPIX, that’s the local CBS affiliate in San Francisco, and we did a whole flock of documentaries, including a series of four historical documentaries on things like the earthquake and San Simeon. It won a Peabody Award for best local series so we decided to go out on our own.
And how did you end up crossing paths with Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz?
So we formed a company in 1963 up in Burlingame, Calif. where I still am and did a documentary on Willie Mays, which we sold to NBC and it turned out to be a big hit. And for some reason it popped into my mind that we had done the world’s greatest baseball player and we should now do a documentary on the world’s worst player, Charlie Brown. I called Charles Schulz, and he had seen the show and liked it and invited me to come up.
We did a documentary in 1963 with him drawing the characters and talking about them and we did a couple of minutes of animation. But then, ironically, we couldn’t sell it to anybody. Everybody liked it, but there was just no place for it. Two years went by and then Coca-Cola called us. They had seen the documentary and saw the animation and asked us if we’d ever considered doing a Charlie Brown Christmas show because they were looking for one. And I said ‘Oh, absolutely,’ and then I hung up. ‘Oh and they said, ‘We need an outline by Monday,’ and this was a Wednesday. I called Mr. Schulz and I said ‘I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and he said ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘Something you’re gonna write tomorrow.’ So the animator [Bill Melendez] flew up and we drove up to Sebastopol, Calif., and sat down together and worked out an outline, which we then sent to Atlanta. Then a couple of weeks later they bought the show. This was around May of 1965.
So A Charlie Brown Christmas ended up getting aired before the documentary?
The documentary never got aired, but we updated it four or five years later and it won an Emmy. I often have wondered how many good ideas don’t get on, ever. They either don’t get produced or don’t get on the air. You’re very lucky when lightning strikes.
A Charlie Brown Christmas has such a distinct feel compared to other prime time Christmas specials. Why do you think that is?
Schulz and Melendez, had worked on the first [Charlie Brown] animation ever done in 1961. They had done a commercial for Ford, and they had animated the characters, so when we all got together on this show, we made some key decisions. One was that we would use real kids voices, which they had done on this Ford commercial and it seemed to work, not using adults. Because up till then, it was always adults doing kids voices. And we decided to use the jazz music from Vince Guaraldi again, which had been on the documentary. The show just evolved from those original notes.
What was it like working with Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez?
We all worked as partners for almost 40 years and we did 50 specials. The first one was just like all of the 49 to follow, which was like good friends getting together, picking up an idea for a show and doing it. It was a lot of fun working with Charles because he respected everybody’s turf. Bill and I would be directing the kids, Bill would be doing the animation and he [Schulz] would be doing the story. You know, we each respected each other’s strengths if you will. And we weren’t together under the same Hollywood roof where there might have been a lot of pressure. We were in three different cities, so we would just get together, like I say, three friends working on a fun project with no pressure from the outside. I think one of the greatest things over the 40 years is that we never had any interference from the networks. We could do as we wished. Pick the subjects, and then do them as we wanted, which is probably unprecedented.
Did the ideas for the different specials come directly from the strips or did you use the comics more as a launching pad?
Well you know they could come from anywhere. For the Christmas show, he had done some Christmas strips so there was a basis for that. He had done a ton of baseball strips so the second show was about baseball because that was a main subject. And then of course the other big hit, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, came right out of the comic strips. So in the beginning I would say probably the first dozen shows came out of the comic strip, but then ideas would come from all over. After the movie Flashdance, I thought it might be kind of fun to do Snoopy doing that kind of dance and he came up with the idea of Flash Beagle. We started thinking of doing a movie called This is America, Charlie Brown, but it was kind of unwieldy. We went to the network and said there’s never been an animated mini-series so we’d like to do eight shows on different aspects of American history. CBS said ‘Let’s do it.’ And that’s where that idea came from. And a lot of that series came out of my own documentary experience. I had done one on the transcontinental railroad, I had done one on the Constitution, the Depression and so forth, so that probably evolved from my documentary background.
What does This is America Charlie Brown bring to the table for Peanuts fans?
Up to that time we had never done anything on the history stuff or had adults even in there. The reason we use that waa-waa-waa sound for the teacher is because we never wanted to show adults up until that time because they had not been in the strip. We thought that the Mayflower and the Constitution and the building of the railroad and things like that would work. We tried to pick out something that would be educational of course, but mainly entertaining. We always felt through out this whole series that our main job was to entertain people and if we could throw some history in there and educate at the same time that would be a nice thing to be able to do. So they’re dressed like Pilgrims and then they’re dressed like Revolutionary War times, and so on.
What is it about Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang that makes them appeal to people so much and what gives them their staying power?
Of course it all goes back to the comic strip. He drew 18,000 comic strips and it was read by 100 million people every day and that’s a pretty good fan base. That’s like an American Idol fan base when you start out, even before you do television.
The success over the years probably comes from Schulz’s Midwest values and his sense of humor. The characters talk like adults a lot of the time, and that would appeal to the comic strip readers who are mostly adults. I think everybody identifies with Charlie Brown because we all have our ups and downs, we all have our struggles. What we like about him is he keeps coming back and keeps trying no matter what happens to him. Lucy also had a huge following in the beginning. And so did Peppermint Patty when she came out during the women’s lib movement and wore sandals to school. Comic strips reflect the changing American scene. I think because Peanuts evolved from decade to decade, it didn’t get stale.
On the TV show I think the music had a huge impact because jazz appealed to both the kids and adults. I think too, the transition from comic strip to animation was seamless in that Bill Melendez, the animator, just moved the characters. He kept the simplicity of the characters and of the backgrounds. And so it looked like the comic strip moving instead of something over-animated or over-done. So it’s the artistry of Bill Melendez and all of his associates that’s kept the animation going for 40 years.
How has the production process been on the more recent Charlie Brown properties without Charles Schulz around?
Much of the more recent shows that we produced without him came right out of the comic strips, so we literally used his material, just like if he were still writing them. More importantly, the last two shows, including the one we’re just finishing, we had all written and worked on together before his passing. We did a show a couple of years ago called I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown, and we just finished one called He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown, and both of those were his creations and stuff we’ve worked on years before his passing. So this new one that comes out in November was his original script.
Do you have plans set for Charlie Brown down the road?
No, we just take it one year at a time. We just finished He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown and we’ll see how that goes. I really don’t know at this point what the future holds after that.
Do you think that in future Charlie Brown projects you would consider using CG animation or would you stick with traditional animation?
Again, that would be a decision by the Schulz family, but there’s no plans to do a movie and that’s the only time we would go with that. We haven’t discussed it because we’re not going to do a movie. I don’t know, we might stay in the traditional, we might not, but since there are no plans to do a movie, it hasn’t come up.
Do you have a favorite Peanuts character or one that reminds you most of yourself?
Well, I know in regard to Schulz, he used to say that he thought he was like Charlie Brown in real life and Snoopy was his fantasy life. I’ve always identified with Linus more than anything, and I can’t even tell you why. It’s just that I think that if the characters ever grew up he’d probably be the most fun. There’s a certain innocence about him. He’s very smart and very bright, but then he can end up sucking his thumb and the reliance on the blanket and all, I just think that he was the most fun character. And it was always fun to animate him, particularly with the blanket. So I think that would probably be mine.