Back in the 1960s, when it came time to turn Charles Schulz’s hyper-successful Peanuts comic strip into the animated cartoon that would eventually be called A Charlie Brown Christmas, animator José Cuauhtemoc “Bill” Melendez was the man hand-picked by Schulz for the job. Taking Schulz’s almost impossibly simple lines and turning them into moving images was tough, but Melendez — who had cut his teeth at an upstart animation studio called Disney in the late 1930s — figured out the mechanics of making the images work.
“Charlie Brown has a big head, a little body and little feet,” Melendez told the LA Times in 2000. “Normally, a human takes a step every 16 frames — about two-thirds of a second. But Sparky’s [Schulz’s] characters would look like they were floating at that pace. After several experiments, I had them take a step every six frames — one-fourth of a second. . . . It was the only way that worked.”
Melendez’s fingerprints were all over the first Peanuts television specials — as well as the first full-length film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown — giving initially-skeptical studio heads confidence in the characters as a viable animation franchise. More importantly, Melendez gave life to characters that had previously existed only on the comics page, and created some of the most influential, and iconic, bits of animation in popular culture. (Listen to the jazz riff “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas and see if you can do it without immediately thinking of various characters dancing goofily, shoulders out, heads lolling from side to side. You can’t, can you? I’ll bet you even did those dances yourself.)
Technical prowess aside, Melendez also gave voice to Snoopy, providing him with the now-familiar groans, yips, and laughter.
Bill Melendez died on September 2, 2008, at age 91.
Good grief, indeed.