Life After Snoopy
As a producer, Lee Mendelson brought the Peanuts gang and a host of documentaries to television. As a teacher, he's sharing his know-how with a class of Stanford filmmakers.
Photo: Ed Caldwell
By Marc Greilsamer
It's early 1997, and the Star Wars juggernaut grips a new generation of moviegoers. Too young to have seen it during its initial run, the students in Communication 154 engage in an animated discussion about the re-released trilogy: the newly added special effects, the endless queues in front of countless theaters. The professor listens to the comments and eventually delivers his assessment.
"It's like printing money," he exclaims, marveling at the success of a 20-year-old movie. "I'm going to re-release Charlie Brown . . . in 3D!" When the laughter dies down, he proposes a second project: "A Charlie Brown Hanukkah."
Lee Mendelson is only half joking. After all, the producer-director himself earned his reputation by reworking trusted themes. As a central force behind 48 animated Charlie Brown TV specials, Mendelson, '54, has helped create a piece of contemporary popular culture. In all, he's produced more than 300 television shows--ranging from an adaptation of John Steinbeck's America and Americans to a series of Bob Hope Christmas specials--and won a dozen Emmy awards. Now, at age 64, Mendelson is eager to reinvent his career by shifting from television to feature films.
"I'm moving into a period now where I'm trying to be more hard-edged," he says. "It's also a time when I want to start doing movies. I feel like I've served an apprenticeship [in television] for 30 years."
As part of that transition, Mendelson returned to campus to teach a yearlong course on TV and film producing. In class, Mendelson focuses on the finer points of his craft but also discusses politics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and history. He's quick to talk to students about the virtues he considers important to this country, including idealism and patriotism. The students, a remarkably diverse lot, have in turn inspired Mendelson with their unique perspectives and frequent script suggestions.
A native of San Francisco, Mendelson says that his most profound childhood memory is of the time his parents took him down to Los Angeles. "I got to see all those radio shows in person," he recalls, reminiscing at a table in a shady spot behind the Coffee House. "It just blew me away--Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen. Then we went onto a set at Warner Bros. where they were making a picture--I think it was Desert Song (the 1944 war picture) with Dennis Morgan--and as young as I was, I knew that this was what I wanted to do."
In 1950, Mendelson enrolled at Stanford, where he took creative writing from Wallace Stegner and Shakespeare from Marge Bailey. "With teachers like Stegner and Bailey, if you couldn't get passionate about writing, then you never would."
After Stanford, he spent three years in the Air Force as a navigator and later worked for his father, who was a vegetable grower and shipper. In 1961, at the age of 28, Mendelson got his first job in television, producing 5- and 10-second public-service announcements for KPIX in San Francisco.
Then one day, strolling through the village of Tiburon, across the bay from San Francisco, he stumbled across an antique shop and discovered a box of nitrate film with footage of the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair. That auspicious discovery became the core of his first documentary, The Innocent Fair . Before his tenure at KPIX was up, Mendelson had earned a Peabody Award for his historical documentary series titled San Francisco Pageant.
Mendelson formed his own production company in the spring of 1963, and his first project followed Willie Mays through the 1963 baseball campaign. That documentary, A Man Named Mays , aired on NBC that fall.
A week or so later, Mendelson picked up the San Francisco Chronicle and saw the Peanuts strip was about baseball. "What came into my mind," he says, "was 'You've just done the world's greatest baseball player, now you should do the world's worst baseball player, Charlie Brown.' "
Fortunately for Mendelson, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and his son had tuned in to the Mays documentary. "My son, Monty, and I were fanatics about baseball," Schulz recalls. "Monty was playing Little League, and his favorite player was Orlando Cepeda, but I always thought that Willie Mays was the greatest player who ever lived."
When Mendelson called Schulz to propose producing and directing a documentary about his creation of the Peanuts gang, Schulz complimented him on the Mays project and signed on. From the 1965 documentary Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz , viewers learned that "Sparky" Schulz had grown up a scholastically struggling loner whose sketches were deleted from the high school yearbook at the last minute, a symbolic climax to a childhood filled with disappointment. The show was well-received, and it launched a collaboration between Mendelson and Schulz that would last for 30 years.
Mendelson still hadn't sold the documentary when the advertising agency representing Coca-Cola called and asked if he had ever thought of doing an animated Christmas show. "I said, 'Absolutely!' " Mendelson recalls. "It was a Thursday, and they asked if I could send the outline to them by Monday. Well, I phoned Schulz and told him that I had just sold a Charlie Brown Christmas show. He asked which show and I told him, 'The one we're going to make an outline for tomorrow.' And we literally did the outline on that day."
For the Christmas special, Mendelson turned to two men whose work he had admired in Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz. Animator Bill Melendez had also worked with Schulz on a series of Peanuts ads for the Ford Motor Co.'s first compact car, the Falcon. Composer Vince Guaraldi had come to Mendelson's attention when he heard Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on his car radio while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Christmas show debuted on CBS on December 9, 1965. It went on to earn an Emmy and a Peabody and paved the way for more than 40 animated Charlie Brown specials.
According to Schulz, the Mendelson-Melendez-Schulz triumvirate was "the perfect working relationship. We all contributed something and we never trod on each other's territory." Mendelson handled the production, Melendez coordinated the animation, and Schulz did all of the writing.
"It was Lee's honesty, friendship and loyalty that kept us all together," Schulz says. "He kept all of his promises, and so I trusted him. He's not a Hollywood-producer type."
In fact, he is not a Hollywood producer, period. Lee Mendelson Productions set up shop in Burlingame, Calif. "It wasn't so much an aversion to Hollywood," he says, "as it was an enormous pull to stay here." It is a decision that the third-generation San Franciscan has never regretted. "When I brought my first show to NBC, nobody asked me if I was from Hollywood; they just looked at the show."
Through the years, certain values have permeated Mendelson's work: patriotism, wholesomeness, and a desire to combine education with entertainment.
"What I wanted to do was pick subjects that the whole family would watch," he explains, "subjects that would inspire people." And the bulk of Mendelson's productions reflects these middle-American values. You'll find Flip Wilson knocking out Muhammad Ali--and then falling over him--in a 200th birthday salute to America. Or Gene Kelly reading children's letters to God like this one: "Dear God, Count me in. Your friend, Herbie."
Mendelson also discovered early in his career that stars would participate in low-budget documentaries if the subject was worthy. For example, when he was doing his documentary on the wilderness, he approached Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who were members of the Sierra Club, and found they were happy to get involved. Likewise, he was able to enroll the talents of George C. Scott in the making of From Yellowstone to Tomorrow , celebrating the park's centennial.
Mendelson also enlisted stars from his animation series for more serious projects. In Why, Charlie Brown, Why? Chuck's friend Janice suffers from cancer, and in the four-part miniseries, This Is America , he dispatched the Peanuts gang time-traveling through American history.
In today's television land, which has been redefined by MTV, Fox and the hundreds of cable stations, Mendelson is re-examining his proven formula. The students of Communication 154 may never see Charlie Brown re-released in 3D, but they do get an inside look at Mendelson shifting gears toward feature-film production. In this six-credit undergraduate colloquium titled "The Work of the Producer," the students study two of the features Mendelson has in development and simultaneously work on their own projects including animated specials and documentaries.
Dressed in a polo shirt and light pants, Mendelson cultivates a homespun manner and encourages a laid-back atmosphere in his class. He's lighthearted, energetic and a motor mouth; he is also passionate about his subject. When attention turns to The Rock , a blockbuster action film, Mendelson becomes visibly upset. "There's a 20-minute chase scene through San Francisco that has nothing to do with the plot," he says, shaking his head. "I wanted to scream!"
Students learned quickly he's not the stereotypical movie mogul--despite his tendency to wear sunglasses indoors. "He's not the producer who will only do what sells," says student Blanca Torres.
In one assignment, Mendelson asked students to make films based on their own backgrounds. Japanese-born Drue Kataoka shot eight hours of film in the Mexican-border town of Douglas, Ariz., the home of her maternal grandmother. She interviewed border-patrol guards and customs officers, urging them to speak freely about their jobs.
In another film, the grandmother of a Latino student, Eric Gavidia, tells in poignant fashion how she came to this country from Mexico in 1957, securing a $10-a-week job in the hope of improving her children's standard of living.
When the students aren't working on projects, the whole class bands together to talk about two feature-film scripts Mendelson is developing. The discussions often center on race and ethnicity. Both films are based on memoirs. Warriors Don't Cry tells the story of Melba Beals, a young, black schoolgirl who, in 1957, became the central figure in the battle to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. China Boy , written by Gus Lee, focuses on an American-born boy from an aristocratic Chinese family who is caught between two conflicting cultures.
Both Beals and Lee visit the class to discuss the works in progress. The students pepper Beals with questions about her script: How will she handle the rape scene? What about the vulgar language? All the while, Mendelson nods knowingly, satisfied that the students have grasped the tough issues involved.
The China Boy project is the high point of the class. Lee teaches them William Goldman's toughest lesson about scriptwriting: "Kill all your darlings." Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , but wound up cutting the original premise of the screenplay. For Lee, his "darlings" are even more precious because they are actual events from his childhood.
"It was a fascinating process to have (the students) work with me critiquing the China Boy script," Mendelson says. "When 18 or 20 out of 24 people tell you that this paragraph sucks or this scene doesn't ring true, you listen."
Collaboration is central to the class. "I don't know how classes operate these days," Mendelson says, "but I consider it a partnership. When you're dealing with creativity, you're equals. It has nothing to do with who's older or who's been in the business."
For nine months, he develops this partnership with the students, teaching a mixture of curiosity and passion. He also teaches the students how to apply their knowledge. Among other things, they learn that after the script is written they have to figure out how to fund it, who's going to direct it, casting, locations, and scheduling for shooting.
Mendelson leads them calmly through it all. He composes a diagram of the various roles in filmmaking: The executive producer is the hub, while the writer, director, cast, editor, photographer, line producer and investors are all spokes connecting to the hub. Lee then humorously offers his "true hierarchical snapshot," one that includes the baker, the driver, the attorney and the dog.
But despite all the finer points, perhaps Mendelson's most enduring advice is quite simple: It is possible to succeed on your own, from scratch. "I taught them to think small," Mendelson says. "You don't need a lot of money. Just an idea and a camera."
Marc Greilsamer, MA '93, is a San Francisco writer.
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