Bill Melendez, an Emmy-winning animator who brought Charlie Brown and the "Peanuts" gang to blithe, blockheaded life on television and in films — and who helped keep them alive after the death of their creator, Charles Schulz — died Tuesday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 91 and lived in Los Angeles.

Share story

Bill Melendez, an Emmy-winning animator who brought Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts” gang to blithe, blockheaded life on television and in films — and who helped keep them alive after the death of their creator, Charles Schulz — died Tuesday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 91 and lived in Los Angeles.

Mr. Melendez’s son Steven confirmed the death, saying his father had been in declining health after a fall last year.

One of the few Hispanics in the business when he began his career in the 1930s, Mr. Melendez was the only animator Schulz allowed to shepherd his characters onto the screen. He did so in more than four dozen TV specials, four feature films, a slew of Saturday-morning cartoons and scores of commercials.

Mr. Melendez won six Emmy Awards, starting with “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), the first “Peanuts” television special and still a holiday staple. From that program onward, Mr. Melendez also supplied the “voice,” such as it was, of Snoopy.

His other “Peanuts” work, produced with his longtime collaborator Lee Mendelson, includes the specials “You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown” (1975) and “Life Is a Circus, Charlie Brown” (1980), both of which received Emmys, and the feature films “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” (1969) and “Snoopy, Come Home” (1972).

After Schulz’s death in 2000, Mr. Melendez animated several more “Peanuts” specials, among them “Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown,” first broadcast in 2003.

Jose Cuauhtemoc Melendez was born Nov. 15, 1916, in Hermosillo, in the Mexican state of Sonora. His father, a Mexican army cavalry officer who later became a general, was a romantic who gave his children Aztec names, Steven Melendez said. (Cuauhtemoc was a 16th-century Aztec ruler.)

Growing up, Jose drew everything in sight: horses, cattle, cowboys. In 1928, his mother moved with him and his siblings to Arizona so they could learn English. Jose, then about 12, was placed in a kindergarten class, a humiliation, his son said, that forced him to learn his new language in a hurry. The family later moved to Los Angeles.

As a young man, Mr. Melendez planned to be an engineer, but the Depression intervened. He held a series of odd jobs, including working in a lumberyard, before a friend persuaded him to show his drawings to the Walt Disney Co.

Disney suggested formal training; after Mr. Melendez studied briefly at the Chouinard Art Institute, Disney hired him in 1938. There he helped animate “Fantasia” (1940), “Pinocchio” (1940) and myriad Mickey Mouse cartoons. He also acquired a new name. After asking Disney to bill him as Cuauhtemoc Melendez, he was informed that his name was too wide for the credits and that he would hereafter be known as Bill.

In 1941, Melendez left Disney after an animators’ strike he helped organize. He joined Leon Schlesinger Productions (later acquired by Warner Bros.), where he worked on Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. He formed a studio, Bill Melendez Productions, in 1964.

Mr. Melendez and Schulz met in the late 1950s over a Ford Falcon. Mr. Melendez had been engaged by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to produce an animated commercial for the car. Ford wanted to use “Peanuts” characters in the spot.

Schulz demurred until he saw Mr. Melendez’s drawings. They were noteworthy for their fealty to Schulz’s style; instead of embellishing the comic strip’s flat figures and clean, simple lines, Mr. Melendez kept them much as they were.

Mr. Melendez’s other work included the TV special “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (1979); he also animated the specials “Garfield on the Town” (1983) and “Cathy” (1987), both of which won Emmys.

Besides his son Steven Cuitlahuac Melendez, president of Bill Melendez Productions, Mr. Melendez is survived by his wife, the former Helen Huhn, whom he married in 1940; another son, Rodrigo Cuauhtemoc Melendez, a retired rear admiral of the Navy; six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.