LEE MENDELSON might be best known for working with Charlie Brown and his dog, but the Emmy-winning producer also had great success working with a same-named camera hound (Charley) — as well as that canine’s far more camera-shy owner.
“I had the great honor of working with my favorite American writer, John Steinbeck, on two network specials both hosted by [narrator] Henry Fonda,” Mendelson tells The Post on Thursday — the 112th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth.
The first was “America and the Americas,” which picked up a pair of Emmy Awards, including best documentary. Mendelson followed that up with the Emmy-nominated “Travels With Charley,” a road documentary that tracked the great author and his titular pooch across the country.
“I am thrilled that both shows are presented daily at the Steinbeck library in Salinas,” says the Bay Area-based Mendelson, who also produced classic “Peanuts” TV specials for nearly four decades. “Although it’s nearly 50 years since we produced it, ‘America and the Americans’ — with all the best and worst [of the nation] presented — would be just as effective today as it was a half-century ago.”
As a fellow native Californian, Mendelson felt a kinship and camaraderie with the Nobel Prize-winning author who is so identified with the downtrodden and disenfranchised, especially with stories set in that state.
“He was wonderful to work with,” Mendelson tells Comic Riffs. “We both had common roots in the Bay Area and in the Salinas area, and both went to Stanford — and even had a few of the same teachers.
“He had such a passion about everything, from migrant workers’ rights to free choice, to name just a few,” Mendelsohn continues. “He was decades ahead in many of his causes.”
Thanks to Mendelson — who has also featured the legend of Willie Mays and the building of the Golden Gate in his documentaries — we have more film footage of Steinbeck in history’s archives than we would have if the executive producer weren’t so persuasive.
“When doing ‘America and Americans,’ we wanted to film Steinbeck on his 12-foot motorboat in Sag Harbor,” Mendelson tells us. “His wife said he would not agree to it, because he simply hated to be photographed. But since Henry Fonda was reading Steinbeck’s words, and there were practically no … movies about him, viewers would not have a sense of who this man was.
“I convinced him this movie of him would be important to the film, and he reluctantly agreed. When he passed away two years later later [in 1968], ironically, this was one of the few films of him that was available.”
Mendelson says the writer insisted that Fonda be the narrator. The actor had been so identified with Steinbeck’s work since appearing in his first Oscar-nominated role, as Depression-era Okie Tom Joad, in the film adaptation of perhaps Steinbeck’s greatest work: 1939′s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Grapes of Wrath.” Because Steinbeck liked Fonda’s portrayals — “He’s the only actor who understands what I am about,” Steinbeck told Mendelson — the actor and the author had become good friends.
Today on its home page, another Bay Area-based icon — Google — celebrates Steinbeck’s birthday with a beautiful motion Doodle that depicts not only “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Travels With Charley,” but also his great works “Cannery Row” and “Of Mice and Men” (both set in California) and “The Pearl” (set in Baja California). In those stories, Steinbeck paints vividly rendered characters, often set against a hardscrabble existence.
“I thought he had the best ‘ear’ of any American writer,” Mendelson says, “an ability to capture how people spoke.”