Animator Bill Melendez, best known for the animated Peanuts specials, passed Tuesday at the age of 91.
Bill Melendez was born Jose Cuauhtemoc Melendez on November 15, 1916 in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. In 1928 his family moved to Arizona and later to Los Angeles. Melendez attended the Chouinard Art Institute. He started his career at Walt Disney Studios in 1939. While there he worked on such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. He was one of the leaders in the animators' strike at Disney in 1941 which resulted in the unionisation of that studio.
Melendez never returned to Disney. That same year he took a job with Leon Schlesinger Productions (the studio that provided Warner Brothers with its cartoons from 1936 to 1944, where upon it was bought by the studio). He would work on such shorts as "Wabbit Twouble," "Kitty Kornered," "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," "Bowery Bugs." and "What's Up, Doc." In 1948 he moved to United Productions of America (better known as UPA). There he worked on such shorts as "Gerald McBoing-Boing," "Madeline (based on Ludwig Bemelmans' series of children's books)," "Little Boy with a Big Horn," and "Gerald McBoing-Boing's Symphony." He would move to Playhouse Pictures (a commercial studio which has produced such things as adverts for the Ford Falcon, Lanvin Arpege Perfume, and Falstaff Beer, as well as the opening to The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show) and John Sutherland Productions (who produced primarily industrial films) later in the Fifties.
It would be in 1960 that Bill Melendez would first cross paths with the Peanuts gang. He animated commercials featuring the characters advertising the 1960 Ford Falcon (the campaign would actually run for several years) and openings featuring the characters on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (Ford Motor Company was the sponsor on the show). This was the very first time the Peanuts characters had ever been animated. Melendez soon became the only animator that Charles M. Schulz would allow to animate his characters. Melendez would later animate the Peanuts characters for a series of short segments for a never finished documentary on Schulz and his characters in 1963. It was that same year that Melendez proposed a television special based on the Peanuts characters to Schulz. The result was A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired in 1965 on CBS. The special won the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program.
Melendez and Schulz followed A Charlie Brown Christmas with Charlie Brown's All Stars and the highly successful It's the Great Pumpkin in 1966. In the end Melendez produced a total of 64 Peanuts specials. He also produced Peanuts feature films starting with A Boy Named Charlie Brown in 1971, and followed by Snoopy Come Home, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back). He also produced the Saturday morning TV series The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, which ran from 1983 to 1985. Melendez also provided the voices for both Snoopy and Woodstock.
Melendez also produced specials based on Babar the Elephant, Garfield, the comic strip character Cathy, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
It is difficult imagining anyone else animating Charles M. Schulz's characters besides Bill Melendez. From the Ford Falcon commercials which he produced to the last of the specials (He's a Bully, Charlie Brown in 2006), Melendez always captured the Peanuts characters perfectly. It was not simply a matter of Melendez being a superior animator (though that he was), but that he captured the essence of Peanuts better than anyone else possibly could have. I have no doubt that Melendez and Schulz's Peanuts specials will air on television for years.