Q&A: Charlie Brown Christmas Producer Lee Mendelson

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This interview originally ran on December 25, 2010.

Lee Mendelson is a first-rate storyteller, which isn’t a surprise seeing as he’s been doing it for more than 50 years. An award-winning television producer, Mendelson is the man behind more than 300 television shows — from an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s America and Americans to Bob Hope Christmas specials. But it was his 40-year partnership with late comic strip artist Charles Schulz that would become his legacy. In 1965, Mendelson executive produced a Christmas special that immortalized Schulz’s plucky Peanuts gang into holiday icons. In the 45 years since its debut, A Charlie Brown Christmas has endured as one of America’s most cherished Christmas traditions, but it’s the classic that almost never was. As Mendelson and I began our talk, he told the story of TIME’s surprising role in the production.

I was proud to discover that TIME helped A Charlie Brown Christmas gather the momentum it needed to be made. How did that happen?

In 1963, I did a documentary on Willie Mays, the world’s best baseball player and one on Charlie Brown, the world’s worst. We sold the Mays documentary, but never sold the Charlie Brown documentary. Three years later, TIME Magazine put the [Peanuts] characters on its cover and we got calls from advertisers and networks asking if we were still thinking of doing an animated show, and that’s what led us to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

(MORE: See A Charlie Brown Christmas on the All-TIME 100 TV Shows)

We had done a couple of minutes of animation in the documentary but people said, “You can’t have kids who talk like adults.” We had given up, but when Coca-Cola called after the TIME cover they asked if we’d ever thought of doing a Christmas show and I lied and said, “Oh, absolutely.” So they asked us to send them an outline on Monday. I called Schulz on the phone and said, “I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and he said, “What’s that?” and I told him, “It’s something you’re going to write tomorrow.”

When we first did the Christmas special the network thought it was awful. There was a TIME Magazine writer who wanted to see it and they told me that I’d better not let him see it, but I said, “It’ll be worse if we don’t.” So I sit in the room alone with the TIME magazine critic as he watches and he doesn’t say a word, doesn’t take any notes, gets up and leaves. I said, “Oh my God, we’re dead.” Two days later the review came out and it was a whole page calling it the greatest cartoon ever made. I remember it saying, “it’s going to run for 100 years.” TIME Magazine saved our butts. Twice.

You’ve made it to 45 years, so 100 may not be out of the question.

That’s right. We’re about halfway there.

I always hear so much about the Coke sponsorship, but that the branding was ultimately cut out.

It’s so funny how that has lasted in people’s memory. When Charlie Brown hits the tree, a Coca-Cola sign fell down. That was the only connection. Of course, once they weren’t the sponsors anymore, that fell away, but people seem to make a big deal out of it. Back then, there were only three networks, [and] we got a 50% share of the audience — half of all the people watching tuned into our little cartoons. There were tens of millions of people who saw that Coca-Cola sign and it stuck in their minds all these years.

Your partnership with Charles Schulz was one of the most successful in any franchise in history. What made you work as a team?

We were partners for 38 years. We were good friends before we were working together, but what was good was that we weren’t under the same roof. We didn’t have a studio over us. We all worked in different places and on different things, not just Charlie Brown. That independence — I think that’s why we went 38 years and the Beatles didn’t.

(MORE: See Charlie Brown on the Top 10 Movie Thanksgiving Scenes)

But it still wasn’t always easy. When you cast the children, there were real objections.

Absolutely. One of the reasons I could never sell the Charlie Brown Christmas show was because all the networks kept asking about what kind of voices I was going to have. Up until that time, in any cartoon, if there were child characters, they were always voiced by adult actors. We decided we should use real children, which was, I think, the first time that had ever been done.

In 1961, a Peanuts Ford commercial was made and the kids were about six and seven at the time. We went back and got that same cast. It was total serendipity. Sometimes, if they’d make a mistake, we’d just let it flow. The first cast did the first four shows and then after that, of course, we had to get a new cast, which we’ve done about every two years. We’ve had about 150 actors over the years.

We got a bunch of them together about 15 years ago. There were about 100 of them — all the Pepperment Patties, all the Lucys, all the Charlie Browns. Stacy Ferguson, Fergie, was our Sally for two years. At 10, she could sing as good as she does now. We’re proud of her. When we did He’s A Bully Charlie Brown five years ago. We needed an older kid for a bully so we brought a 13-year-old in. He was very shy, but four or five years later you’d hear his name everywhere: “Taylor Lautner.” Those are our two most famous protégés.

This is one of the most enduring pieces of entertainment to focus on the religious aspect of Christmas. Do you think if you pitched a special with the same content today, would that show be made?

I have no idea. No one ever questioned it back then. When we were writing the show, Schulz said, “If we’re doing this show and it’s going to be on at night, I’m going to add some meaning to it. I don’t want it just to be something funny. If we’re going to do it, I think we should talk about the true meaning of Christmas — at least what it means to me.” Bill and I just looked at each other. We weren’t so sure it was a good idea. We asked how he was going to do it and he said, “Well, I think one of the kids could read from the Bible.” Bill and I looked at each other again and just said look, no one has ever done anything like this before, and I remember Schulz saying, “Well, if we don’t do it. Who will?” And that was it.

It’s interesting that the plot of the show fights off Christmas consumerism so vehemently, but Peanuts itself has become such a huge marketing vehicle.

It was even an issue at the time because the Snoopy dolls were big and the calendars were big, but Schulz said, “Look, all I do is draw comic strips and write television shows. I can’t control anything else. If there is merchandising, there’s merchandising. Whatever happens, happens.” It was just funny that one of the most commercial items in the world tries to fight it off. It’s ironic. I can’t describe it any other way.

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