Animator, director and producer Jose Cuautemoc “Bill” Melendez, whose television programs and theatrical films featuring Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” characters earned four Emmy Awards, an Oscar nomination and two Peabody Awards, died Tuesday at St. John’s hospital in Santa Monica, according to publicist Amy Goldsmith. He was 91.
Melendez’s career extended over nearly seven decades, including stints at Walt Disney Studios, Leon Schlesinger Cartoons (which later was sold to Warner Bros.), United Productions of America and Playhouse Pictures. In 1964, he established Bill Melendez Productions, where he created his best-known works, including the holiday classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965). Over the years, his films were honored with two additional prime-time Emmys, three National Cartoonist Society awards, a Clio Award and 150 awards for commercials.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which Melendez and his partner Lee Mendelson produced for CBS, established the format of the half-hour animated special -- and began one of the most popular franchises in animation history.
Animating Schulz’s simple drawings posed problems. “Charlie Brown has a big head, a little body and little feet,” Melendez said in a 2000 interview for The Times. “Normally, a human takes a step every 16 frames -- about two-thirds of a second. But Sparky’s [Schulz’s] characters would look like they were floating at that pace. After several experiments, I had them take a step every six frames -- one-fourth of a second. . . . It was the only way that worked.”
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” won an Emmy and a Peabody; CBS has rebroadcast it every holiday season since. Breaking with tradition, the filmmakers used an upbeat jazz score by Grammy-winning composer Vince Guaraldi and real children for the characters’ voices, rather than adult actors imitating children.
Melendez supplied Snoopy’s laughs, sobs and howls. Schulz insisted that as a dog, Snoopy couldn’t talk. Melendez experimented with making sounds that suggested a voice and speeding them up on tape -- assuming a professional actor would do a final recording. But time ran short, and Melendez ended up serving as Snoopy’s voice in 63 subsequent half-hour specials, five one-hour specials, the Saturday morning TV show and four feature films. In his later years, Melendez chuckled over the fact that he received residuals for his vocal performances.
Working with Mendelson and Schulz, Melendez brought the “Peanuts” characters to the big screen in 1969 with “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.” Time magazine reported that “when ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ sticks to a boy named Charlie Brown, it becomes a good deed in a naughty world, bright, nonviolent and equipped with an animated moral, the way Snoopy is equipped with a tail.”
Three sequels followed: “Snoopy, Come Home” (1972), “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown” (1977) and “Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)” (1980).
“Bill Melendez brought his special warmth, charm and directness to the Charles Schulz characters and brought them to life,” animation historian and Oscar-winning filmmaker John Canemaker said Wednesday.
Melendez also oversaw the first specials based on the comic strips “Garfield” (1982) and “Cathy” (1987), two adaptations of the “Babar” books, and an animated version of C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (1979). Through the London branch of his studio, he directed “Dick Deadeye, or Duty Done” (1975), rewritten fragments of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with designs by illustrator Ronald Searle.
Born in Sonora, Mexico, Nov. 15, 1916, Melendez moved with his family to Arizona in 1928, then to Los Angeles, where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute. He was one of the few Latinos working in animation when he began his career at Walt Disney Studios in 1939, contributing to the features “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Bambi” and “Dumbo,” as well as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts.
Melendez was an active participant in the bitterly fought strike that led to the unionization of the Disney artists in 1941, after which he moved to Schlesinger Cartoons, animating Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and other classic Warner Bros. characters.
In 1948, Melendez joined United Productions of America and was delighted by the company’s innovative approach to animation. “The animation we were doing was not limited, but stylized,” he recalled in a 1986 interview. “When you analyze Chaplin’s shorts, you realize people don’t move that way -- he stylized his movements. We were going to do the same thing for animation. We were going to animate the work of Cobean, Steinberg -- all the great cartoonists of the moment -- and move them as the designs dictated.”
After animating numerous UPA shorts, including the Oscar-winning “Gerald McBoing-Boing” (1951), Melendez served as a director and producer on more than 1,000 commercials for UPA, Playhouse Pictures and John Sutherland Productions. In 1959, he directed the first animation of the “Peanuts” characters for a series of commercials advertising the Ford Falcon.
“What made working in commercials fun then was the quick turnover of ideas,” Melendez said. “That speed was refreshing.”
Melendez is survived by his wife of 68 years, Helen; two sons, Steven Melendez and retired Navy Rear Adm. Rodrigo Melendez; six grandchildren; and 11 great grandchildren. Memorial services will be private. Donations can be made in Melendez’s name to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.