Mr. Mendelson, who worked on dozens of animated projects, also wrote the enduring lyrics to the song “Christmas Time Is Here.”
Lee Mendelson, who produced “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” in 2015. He died on Christmas morning.Jason Mendelson, via Associated Press
Lee Mendelson, an Emmy Award-winning producer who was instrumental in bringing the holiday staple “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to television in 1965 and who wrote the enduring lyrics to the song “Christmas Time Is Here,” died on Christmas morning at his home in Hillsborough, Calif., about 15 miles south of San Francisco He was 86.
His son Jason said the cause was congestive heart failure, and that Mr. Mendelson had had lung cancer. He said his father’s death on Christmas “was a pretty serendipitous thing.”
For more than 50 years “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has endured as a staple of holiday season programming, but the project would not have been created were it not for Mr. Mendelson’s persistence.
Mr. Mendelson was initially turned down when he approached Charles M. Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” about making a documentary about his life and the comic strip starring Charlie Brown and Snoopy, he told The Los Angeles Times in 2015.
But toward the end of their phone conversation, Mr. Mendelson mentioned that he had made a documentary about the baseball player Willie Mays, whom Mr. Schulz admired, and that sealed the deal.
“Well, if Willie Mays can trust you with his life, maybe I can trust you with mine,” Mr. Schulz said.
After they completed the documentary, an advertising agency that represented Coca-Cola looking for family-oriented television shows to sponsor called Mr. Mendelson and asked if a “Peanuts” Christmas special could be created. Mr. Mendelson agreed.
Mr. Schulz, who died in 2000, created a story line about Charlie Brown’s attempt to direct a school Christmas play that included a fragile Christmas tree. Mr. Schulz did not want a laugh track to be used and was committed to keeping a religious message in the show, despite opposition from Mr. Mendelson.
The animator Bill Melendez and the jazz pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi were added to the project.
However, the lyrics to “Christmas Time Is Here” came from Mr. Mendelson.
The music was “critical to its acceptance,” he said, adding that the show’s creators never thought the song would become a Christmas standard. “That just happened over the years,” he said.
Instead of adult actors, Mr. Mendelson chose children to voice the characters.
The show became a success, with more than 15 million household views the night it premiered in 1965. It remains a holiday television fixture.
“It became part of everybody’s Christmas holidays,” Mr. Mendelson told The Los Angeles Times. “It was just passed on from generation to generation.”
Lee Mendelson was born on March 24, 1933, in San Francisco to Palmer and Jeanette (Wise) Mendelson. His father owned a fruit and produce business and his mother was a homemaker. He earned a degree in English from Stanford University in 1954, and entered the Air Force that year.
In 1961, he landed a job at KPIX-TV in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he won a Peabody Award for “San Francisco Pageant,” a documentary series on the history of the city. Two year later, he started Lee Mendelson Film Productions.
After the success of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Mr. Mendelson produced television movies and shorts including “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966), “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” (1973) and “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!” (2015), for which he won his 12th Emmy Award. He also produced the 121-episode series “Garfield and Friends.”
Occasionally he recruited his own children to voice the characters in his animated projects.
In addition to his son Jason, Mr. Mendelson is survived by his wife, Ploenta; three more children, Glenn, Lynda, and Sean; a stepson, Ken; and eight grandchildren. Three previous marriages ended in divorce.
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