Bill Melendez, who died Tuesday at 91, had an extraordinarily long career as an animator, and helped draw life into Bambi, Bugs Bunny, and Babar. But his most famous creation was the animated version of "Peanuts," which Melendez drew for nearly 70 television specials, four films, and hundreds of commercials.
A Disney animator from the late 1930s who worked for several other studios before opening his own operation in 1964, Melendez created his first "Peanuts" animation in 1959 on behalf of the Ford Motor Co., which wanted to use the characters in TV ads. He showed his work to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, who was notoriously protective of his characters.
"The minute that he saw it, he couldn't believe it," Melendez told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. The two established a working relationship that lasted until Schulz's death, in 2000.
After producing several ads, Melendez in 1965 animated the first of the "Peanuts" television specials, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The show won Melendez the first of eight Emmy awards, for outstanding children's programming. The following year brought "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," still the highest-rated "Peanuts" special ever. (It tied "Bonanza" for the period.)
The franchise continued at the rate of approximately one new special annually. Melendez worked as closely with the prickly Schulz as anyone while Charlie Brown and the others fell in love, lost at baseball, and skated with Snoopy to Vince Guaraldi's piano jazz stylings.
"Schulz used to say to me, 'Bill, I'm a cartoon-strip artist and you're an animator. You do your thing and I'll do mine,'" Melendez said in the Los Angeles Times interview.
Born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez on November 15, 1916, in Sonora, Mexico, Melendez moved with his family to Arizona in 1928 and then to Los Angeles. Melendez studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), a training ground for many of the early Disney artists. In 1938, he was hired by Walt Disney and worked as an animator on "Fantasia," "Pinocchio," and several other Disney classics. In 1941, he moved to Leon Schlesinger Studios, where he helped animate Foghorn Leghorn, Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and the rest of what became the Warner Bros. stable.
In the 1950s, he worked as a commercial animator and garnered several industry awards. Among the better-known products of his independent studio are "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," which won an Emmy in 1974; "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," nominated for an Emmy in 1979, and "Cathy," from Cathy Guisewite's comic, which won an Emmy for outstanding animated program in 1987.
Sporting a bushy mustache fit for Yosemite Sam and proclaiming that he loved his work, Melendez was a bon vivant and was known to enjoy a martini.
Melendez's contributions to the "Peanuts" programs included voicing Snoopy — mostly sniggers — and also the canine's constant pal, the tweeting Woodstock.
Having spent decades bringing Schulz's deceptively sketchy style to life, he had a sharp retort for those who thought "Peanuts" was easy work.
"All my friends say, 'Oh, you lucky. Anybody can animate that roundheaded kid, he's just a round head,'" he told CNN in 1995. "Well, it isn't so. See, I always give them a pencil, say, 'All right, you draw him for me.' They seem very simply drawn, and that's what makes them so difficult."