Another one of the great of animation, Bill Melendez, passed away this Tuesday, September 2. He was 91 years old. According to his doctors at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, he passed away “peacefully.”
Born José Cuauhtemoc "Bill" Meléndez on November 15, 1916 in Mexico City, Mexico, he was educated in U.S. public schools in Douglas, Arizona, and later in Los Angeles at the Chouinard Art Institute (which would later become California Institute of the Arts). He broke into animation in 1938 at Disney, where the MouseWorks was knee deep in innovations, like the shortly upcoming first American feature film, Snow White. In 1941, he would jump ship to join the Looney Tunes crew, where he worked under such legends as Bob Clampett. Then move on again to another groundbreaking studio, UPA, in 1948, where he worked on shorts like Gerald McBoing Boing and Madeline. He would then move into the rapidly growing area of TV, where his touch would be seen on a number of commercials.
Still, it was in 1959 that Melendez would have a fateful meeting. He was a producer for one of the biggest ad agencies in the world, J. Walter Thompson, and assigned to do a series of ads for Ford Motors based on the then gigantic Peanuts comic strip. During production he met up with the strip’s creator, Charles M. Schultz. Apparently, the two hit it off immediately. Later one, when Schultz signed a deal to do a series of specials based on Charlie Brown and the gang, he decided that Melendez would be the perfect man to direct them. Animation history was made.
Since that time, Melendez had his hands in 63 unique Peanuts TV specials, four feature-length movies and 372 commercials featuring the Peanuts gang. Along the way he picked up just about every award one could possibly imagine, including eight Emmys and even an Oscar for A Boy Named Charlie Brown. His work wasn’t limited to just Schultz, either. In his time he produced directed films and TV specials featuring such characters as Garfield (in fact, the first two), Babar and an early incarnation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
“I don't know anyone who didn't love Bill, both as a person and as a maker of cartoons,.” noted animator and historian Mark Evanier wrote on his ever-insightful site News from ME (www.newsfromme.com). “He was delightful, funny and very much dedicated to producing the best possible work. Once again, too damn many of the good guys are dying on us.”
What set Melendez apart from many others of his day was he never was afraid to be quiet. He mastered the ability to tone it down in such a way that he made you listen to what his characters had to say. From there, if you were listening, it wasn’t long before you were watching. Then he had you.
After all, who can forget that incredible scene from the first Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, when after disparaging the tree Brown brought for the Christmas play, the Gang then turn around and decorate it to the point it glowed? How many times did kids thrill at the site of Snoopy on top of his doghouse, in World War I flying goggles no less, cursing his latest defeat by the Red Baron? How about Linus telling us again about the Great Pumpkin or the many scenes at Lucy’s psychiatry booth? Melendez directed them all, proving just what a master he was of the limited animation techniques he learned at UPA in the process.
Bill Melendez is survived by Helen, his wife of 68 years; sons Steven Melendez and (Ret.) Navy Rear Admiral Rodrigo Melendez; and six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. A memorial service will take place for family only.
According to the L.A. Times, his business, Bill Melendez Productions, Inc., Melendez Films in London and Sopwith Productions (Melendez's art distribution unit) will continue under the leadership of his son (they didn’t specify which) and other trusted executives. They will continue to animate, direct and produce features and commercials. As it should be.
Donations can be made in Bill Melendez's name to Children's Hospital Los Angeles.