Bill Melendez: Animator who worked on Disney classics and adaptations of the 'Peanuts' cartoons

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:01

Animator, producer and director, Bill Melendez had a distinguished career in animation that spanned more than 60 years, from the early Disney classics through the vintage era of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to a long, highly successful spell as producer of television shows and movies based on the long-running comic strip "Peanuts", about Charlie Brown and his friends. Melendez was the only animator authorised by Charles M. Schultz, the creator of "Peanuts", to bring his legendary characters to life.

"The characters look really simple," said Melendez, "but because they are so simple, the thickness of a line can make a big difference. It's difficult to control these characters and difficult to draw them. When you start to move them around, there are a million and one chances to change them." The first "Peanuts" television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), was described by the cartoonist Robert Smigel as "the greatest half-hour American TV has ever produced". It won both Emmy and Peabody awards, and Melendez was to animate more than 70 further Charlie Brown specials.

Though known as Bill, he was born José Cuauhtemoc Meléndez in the Mexican city of Hermosillo, in the state of Sonora, in 1916. He went to school in Douglas, Arizona prior to studying drawing at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (later to become the California Institute of the Arts). Walt Disney hired him in 1938 to work on shorts and such feature-length classics as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo, but in 1941 Melendez was one of the most active participants in a strike that compelled Disney to recognise unions.

Shortly afterwards, Melendez left Disney to take up an offer from Warner Bros, where, billed as "J.C. Melendez", he worked in the unit led by Bob Clampett, though he found the conditions there sparse compared to those at Disney. "They had never painted the place, the windows had never been washed, the partitions were just cheap wallboard; the guys could punch holes in it with their fists." The room below housed the Chuck Jones unit, which Melendez described as "very snobbish. They were the 'A' unit".

In 1948 he joined UPA (United Productions of America), where he worked on hundreds of commercials, and helped to develop the revolutionary cartoon short Gerald McBoing-Boing (1951), which won an Academy Award and showcased a new style of spare, angular artwork. In 1959, while creating for the Ford motor company a series of commercials featuring "Peanuts" characters, he met Charles M. Schultz and the two became good friends.

In 1964 he formed his own production company, Bill Melendez Productions, and the following year he co-produced A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was to be a perennial Christmas attraction on television, though the network CBS was initially concerned about its offbeat style – it had a jazz score, lacked a laugh-track and used real children's voices. Even Melendez thought that its religious message, with Linus reciting from the New Testament, might be too overt, but Schultz recalled saying to him, "Bill, if we don't do it, then who will?" Melendez himself dubbed the voice of Snoopy, the dog, whose combination of expressive sounds and sighs, rather than intelligible words, had a unique flavour.

He also produced four feature-length films, and the 1988/89 television mini-series This is America, Charlie Brown. In all these ventures he was partnered by the producer Lee Mendelson, who said: "We had a wonderful relationship, the three of us, Schultz, Bill and I. 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."

Melendez also produced the first animated cartoon of Jim Davis's Garfield the cat, Here Comes Garfield, shown on television in 1982, and he won two Emmys for his transcription of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in 1979. But it is for his work on Peanuts that he will be best remembered. He said of Shultz in 2002, "We were such good friends and we understood each other. Sparky [Shultz's nickname] used to say to me, 'Bill, I'm a strip-cartoon artist and you couldn't do what I do. You're 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."

Tom Vallance

José Cuauhtemoc Meléndez (Bill Melendez), animator: born Hermosillo, Mexico 15 November 1916; married 1940 Helen Huhn (two sons); died Santa Monica, California 2 September 2008.

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