Bill Melendez, 91; Award-Winning 'Peanuts' Animator

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bill Melendez, 91, an Emmy Award-winning animator who transformed the two-dimensional drawings of the "Peanuts" comic strip into some of the most beloved cartoon characters on television and film, died Sept. 2 at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. The cause of death was not reported.

Mr. Melendez, who began his career at the Hollywood animation studios of Walt Disney and Warner Bros., found his greatest renown as the animator of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "The Great Pumpkin" and dozens of other Peanuts presentations.

With producer Lee Mendelson, Mr. Melendez formed a 43-year partnership that has generated more than 70 "Peanuts" productions, including four feature films. He also animated more than 370 commercials using "Peanuts" characters and remains the only animator Charles M. Schulz trusted to bring his famous comic strip figures to life.

"We had a wonderful relationship, the three of us, Schulz, Bill and I," Mendelson said yesterday in an interview. "Bill moved the characters off the page. He didn't do anything too elaborate. By keeping that simplicity, that caused a seamless transition. I think that was the key to our success."

Success was hardly assured when the first Peanuts special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," was broadcast by CBS in 1965. Network executives feared it would be a colossal flop, with no laugh track, a jazz musical score by pianist Vince Guaraldi and a religious message that Mr. Melendez thought at first was too overt.

Schulz later told him, according to the Los Angeles Times, "Bill, if we don't do it, then who will?"

Much to everyone's surprise, the show was a huge hit and garnered Emmy and Peabody awards. Cartoonist Robert Smigel called it "the greatest half-hour American TV has ever produced."

In addition to animating every "Peanuts" film and TV special, Mr. Melendez provided the wordless voice of Snoopy, Charlie Brown's irrepressible beagle. Mr. Melendez spoke gibberish into a tape recorder, then played the tape at high speed. (He used the same method to record the chirping voice of the bird Woodstock.)

Before his work on "Peanuts," Mr. Melendez drew many of the famous Disney and Warner Bros. animated figures of the 1930s and '40s, including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. The "Peanuts" characters, with their sophisticated personalities contained in round, childlike figures, proved unexpectedly challenging.

"The characters look really simple but because they are so simple, the thickness of a line can make a big difference," Mr. Melendez told the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1998. "It's difficult to control these characters and difficult to draw them. When you start moving them around, there are a million and one chances to change them."

Since 1964, Mr. Melendez had run his own animation studio in Los Angeles, employing as many as 40 artists. He had a bushy Yosemite Sam-style mustache that accentuated his jovial nature. In addition to his work on "Peanuts," for which he received five Emmy Awards, Mr. Melendez created the first animated cartoons of Jim Davis's Garfield the cat and Cathy Guisewite's character Cathy, winning Emmys for both. He also received two Emmys in 1979 for animating the C.S. Lewis story "The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe."

Regardless of the project or the complexity of the drawing, Mr. Melendez said one consideration remained paramount: "I belong to the old, old school that believes in story first and last."

Jose Cuauhtemoc Melendez was born Nov. 15, 1916, in Hermosillo, Mexico, and moved to Douglas, Ariz., in 1928, and later to Los Angeles, and began drawing as a child. He studied at what is now the California Institute of the Arts and joined the Disney studio in 1938.

He worked on the film classics "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Bambi" and "Dumbo," but left the studio in 1941 after helping organize a five-week strike that led Disney to admit unions in its studios.

Mr. Melendez -- who was briefly known as J.C. Melendez before settling on Bill -- then spent seven years at Warner Bros. before branching out into commercials, industrial films and TV production in the 1950s.

His commercials became so popular that they were shown at international film festivals. In 1960, he won 18 of the top 20 awards at a showing of TV commercials in New York. It was while making a commercial in the late 1950s that he met Schulz, who had licensed Snoopy for use by the Ford Motor Co.

"We were such good friends and we understood each other," Mr. Melendez told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2002. "Sparky [Schulz's nickname] used to say to me, 'Bill, I'm a cartoon strip artist and you couldn't do what I do. You are an animation artist and I can't do what you do.' . . . So he never tried to crowd me, and I would never dare question what he did as a strip artist."

Survivors include his wife of 68 years, Helen Melendez of Los Angeles; two sons, Steven Melendez of London and retired Navy Rear Adm. Rodrigo Melendez of San Diego; six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company