Lee Mendelson, an Emmy Award-winning producer who was instrumental in bringing the holiday staple “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to television in 1965 and wrote the iconic lyrics to the song “Christmas Time Is Here,” died on Christmas morning at his home in Hillsborough, Calif. He was 86.
His son Jason confirmed his death and said Mr. Mendelson, who had lung cancer, died of congestive heart failure.
Jason Mendelson said his father’s death on Christmas — a day that he was strongly associated with because of his music and television productions — “was a pretty serendipitous thing.”
Despite the popularity of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which was the idea of the “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz, the project almost never materialized.
Mr. Mendelson approached Mr. Schulz about making a documentary about his life, and the creation of “Peanuts,” but was nearly turned down, according to an interview in The Los Angeles Times.
Mr. Schulz learned that Mr. Mendelson had made a documentary about Willie Mays, a baseball player he admired, and that sealed the deal.
“Well, if Willie Mays can trust you with his life, maybe I can trust you with mine,” Mr. Schulz said.
After they completed the documentary, an ad agency for Coca-Cola looking for family-oriented television shows to sponsor called Mr. Mendelson and asked if a “Peanuts” Christmas special could be created, The Times reported. Mr. Mendelson agreed.
Mr. Schulz, who died in 2000, created a story line, including the idea of a fragile tree, about Charlie Brown’s attempt to direct a school Christmas play. Mr. Schulz did not want a laugh track to be used and was committed to keeping a religious message in the show, despite opposition from Mr. Mendelson.
An animator, Bill Melendez, and the jazz composer Vince Guaraldi were added to the project.
However, the iconic lyrics to “Christmas Time Is Here” came from Mr. Mendelson.
“I just wrote, scribbled some words down on an envelope,” Mr. Mendelson told the Television Academy Foundation in 2010. “And never thought much about it.”
The music was “critical to its acceptance,” he said, adding that the show’s creators never thought the song would become a Christmas standard. “That just happened over the years,” he said.
Instead of adult actors, Mr. Mendelson chose children to voice the characters, his family said. He also recruited his own children to participate in other animated projects.
The show became a success, with more than 15 million household views that night. Today it remains a holiday television fixture.
“It became part of everybody’s Christmas holidays,” Mr. Mendelson told The Times. “It was just passed on from generation to generation. We got this huge initial audience and never lost them.”
Lee Mendelson was born on March 24, 1933, in San Francisco to Palmer Mendelson and the former Jeanette Wise. His father owned a fruit and produce business. He earned a degree in English from Stanford University in 1954, his family said, and entered the Air Force that same year.
He became involved with radio and television and in 1961 landed a job at KPIX-TV in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he won a Peabody Award for the best locally produced documentary in the country, “San Francisco Pageant.” Two year later, he started Lee Mendelson Film Productions Inc.
After the success of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Mr. Mendelson produced television movies and shorts including “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966), “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” (1973) and “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!” (2015), for which he earned his 12th Emmy Award. He also produced the 121-episode series “Garfield and Friends.”
Three previous marriages ended in divorce. Mr. Mendelson is survived by his wife, Ploenta, and her son Ken, as well as his four children Glenn, Lynda, Jason and Sean, and eight grandchildren.