Today I have lost another of my childhood heroes. Bill Melendez is dead.
Everyone knows Bill Melendez’s work, if you’re an American at least. I exaggerate but surely only by so much. He was omnipresent since the mid-sixties, impossible to miss. And he was simply stellar at what he did, which was bringing to life the work of another into a new field and arena.
That other was Charles Schulz, and when he died I penned this piece, still one of my favorites, and one of the saddest I ever had to write. His passing I felt very profoundly, on a level I can’t describe beyond that of the personal griefs I have had as family members have left this life. But I did Melendez a disservice there, by not talking about him more.
Melendez I initially knew by name at the most — but as time went on, by sight. He would appear in books celebrating the strip, and then on specials, looking back on the many marvels he had created. And it’s important to note that he did not simply have the animated Peanuts to his credit — in fact, one reason he got the job in the first place was the face that he had had such a stunning resume already, to quote the previously linked obituary:
Born in Sonora, Mexico, in 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 the Walt Disney Studio 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 characters for Warner Bros.
In 1948, Melendez joined UPA, whose innovative approach to animation delighted him. “The animation we were doing was not limited, but stylized,” he recalled in an interview in 1986. “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.
And from there to that most perfect of specials — A Charlie Brown Christmas. It is and remains one of the finest half-hours of television ever, a summation of the holiday and its spirit, a lovely embrace and understanding of the religious tradition that underpins it while at the same time acknowledging its secular nature, and of course a translation of much that was Schulz’s obsessions and themes — he wrote the scripts for this and all the shows that followed, after all — into a new format. The many specials that followed ranged in quality but at their best were a lovely series of works, from holidays to general themes, and helped to bring the strips to life in a series of adaptations that, as with so many similar adaptations, were not the strips straight up and yet were their own works of art in turn.
I would guess it was such a special that first awoke me to the possibility of Peanuts, though I am not positive. It could even have been Snoopy Come Home, the second of the four feature films the team of Schulz, Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson made together separately from the TV shows. Whatever it was, my obsession and knowledge of the strip was part and parcel with those shows and movies, and to extract one from the other would be a disservice, and so my earlier piece on Schultz’s passing, while accurate, is flawed for not giving greater prominence to them beyond a passing mention.
The lovely thing was how Melendez took the basic color schemes (given the Sunday strips) and simplicities of the strip as a whole and brought them to life just enough. By which I mean — sometimes he simply had the characters walking down a road, leaning against a brick wall, talking in a room — all familiar situations from the strips. But he also allowed for more detailed backgrounds, sometimes flights of fancy (literally, as with Snoopy’s dogfight in the second special the team did together, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown), even trips to other countries and settings such as England and France. The characters moved and looked a little differently to the strip, by default, and yet close enough — it was an approximation that honored Schulz’s wonderful clean lines but brought a sometimes frenetic energy to things that was not always possible in the strip.
And then of course there was Snoopy, who Melendez voiced for the Christmas special due to a last minute time crunch and who from then on was the only choice for the role. And what a job! While Snoopy of course thinks and thinks and thinks again in the strip, his thoughts covering everything from failed novels to thoughts on economics, in the specials and shows and movies he had to act without a legible voice or an internal one. By both animating and voicing the character, Melendez gave Snoopy his own wonderful spark, his not-very-doglike-but-damn-funny moans, howls and murmurs suiting the mad explosions of movement that he often exhibited on the screen. Melendez’s background with that more kinetic style of animation familiar from his Schlesinger/Warner Bros’ work reached its later apotheosis with Snoopy, and of the many moments I could name where look, voice and script all came together, consider his audition for the roles of all the animals in the Christmas pageant (scroll ahead to 3:30):
But just as great — and as representative of what Melendez could and did do — was a voiceless bit from the same show, where Snoopy’s enjoyment of Schroeder’s music gets a little too involved:
How he just crawls away never fails to get me to laugh — in recognition — every time.
Compared to the famously self-tortured Schulz, Melendez came across as vibrant, positive, aware of how to deftly suggest the darker shades of Peanuts without losing the easy-going, inviting feel of the strip, a perfect match. Imagining other possibilities — what if Hanna-Barbera had done it! — doesn’t bear thinking about. The right man for the right job, an artist in his own right who found a perfect partnership — and I can’t thank him enough.
Señor, Usted es magnificado — muchas gracias.
The obituary links to this interview on YouTube, where he talks of some of his many different animation experiences (you might need to turn up the volume), and other interviews can be found from there. A treasure trove of experience and stories that should not be overlooked. The family has indicated that donations in his memory can be made to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.