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Interview: Lee Mendelson talks Peanuts

We talked to legendary producer Lee Mendelson about his partnership with the late Charles Schulz, the enduring appeal of Peanuts and which character he most identifies with and why. Mendelson met Schulz when he contacted him to make the 1969 documentary Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz. The result was a 38 year partnership that brought the Peanuts cartoon strip to the screen with such classics as A Charlie Brown Christmas and Race for Your Life Charlie Brown.

You worked with Charles Schulz for 38 years. How did this partnership come about? What was your very first meeting like?

My first meeting with Charles Schulz was in November of 1963. I had done my first network documentary (about Willie Mays for NBC TV) and now we were starting to do a documentary on Mr. Schulz and Charlie Brown. It included 2 minutes of animation by animator Bill Melendez and music by Vince Guaraldi, including a song called “Linus and Lucy”. Two years later the same team got together to produce A Charlie Brown Christmas, which lead to 50 more network specials.

What are some of the differences in producing an animated film as opposed to a live action film?

A live action movie can be produced in three months. Our animated half hour specials took anywhere from 6 to 9 months, and the four Feature Films each took close to two years, including Race for Your Life Charlie Brown. Music is crucial to both live and animation but especially in animation. From Snow White to the Pixar and Dreamworks animated movies of recent times, music has always been a key to the success of these G Rated films. Of course the actors in animation are only heard and not seen, but that means they have to be even more dramatic than in live situations.

On February 10, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown will be released on DVD. 38 years later what do you think has given this film and Peanuts in general its lasting appeal?

The lasting appeal of the Peanuts characters goes back basically to the genius of Charles Schulz. He was at once an artist, a philosopher and a comedy writer. We all identify with Charlie Brown. His daily struggles are our daily struggles. He is constantly dealing with failure and surviving and coming back to “fight another day” whether it’s failing in baseball, or licking the football, or unrequited love with the little red haired girl, or facing the bullies of the world. As Mr. Schulz said “Charlie Brown is the kind of kid you’d like to have as your next door neighbor.” Race for Your Life Charlie Brown brings forth the whole idea of bulliness and how to contend with it. Mr. Schulz and his family and I and my family spent three days going down the rapids of the Rogue River in Oregon to do research for Race for Your Life Charlie Brown.

And then of course we have the marvelous counter point in Snoopy who has become a favorite around the world and is so great in animation.

Yourself, Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez created over 40 animated Peanuts specials what was the key to working together so successfully?

I think our team of Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez and myself worked so well together for nearly 40 years because we were close friends first and creative partners second. We were so fortunate to have Vince Guaraldi do the music for our first 15 specials (before his untimely death) followed by Ed Bogas who did the music for Race for Your Life Charlie Brown and some of our TV specials and then David Benoit for the past 20 years.

Unlike the Beatles and other creative groups – who were with each other constantly – we three lived in different cities – Bill in Los Angeles, myself in San Francisco, and Mr. Schulz in Sebastopol/Santa Rosa – so we only got together maybe once a month – so it was always like an enjoyable family get-together. We also respected each other’s contribution to the creative process – in the writing, animating, directing, music development, etc. We also had the wonderful luxury of the networks and the movie companies leaving us alone to create whatever shows we wanted to create.

Which Peanuts character do you most identify with and why?

I identify mostly with Linus. He made sucking your thumb and holding a blanket okay to do. He has a great mix of innocence and wisdom. I think he’s one of the great fictional characters ever. Of all the characters – if they ever few up – he would be the most stable.

Especially if he could keep avoiding the advances of Lucy. His voice on the Christmas show was epic.