Leland Maurice Mendelson (March 24, 1933 – December 25, 2019) was an American television producer best known as the executive producer of the many Peanuts animated specials.
Mendelson, a native of San Francisco, California, entered Stanford University in 1950, where he studied creative writing. After graduating in 1954, he spent three years in the Air Force. He then worked for several years for his father, a vegetable grower and shipper.
Mendelson's career in television began in 1961, when he started working at San Francisco's KPIX television station, where he created public service announcements. A fortunate find of some antique film footage of the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair led to Mendelson's first production, a documentary entitled The Innocent Fair. The documentary was the first in a series on the history of the city, San Francisco Pageant, for which Mendelson won a Peabody Award.
Mendelson left KPIX in 1963 to form his own production company. His first work was a documentary on Willie Mays, A Man Named Mays. Shortly after the documentary aired, Mendelson came across a Peanuts comic strip that revolved around Charlie Brown's baseball team. Mendelson thought that since he had just "done the world's greatest baseball player, now [he] should do the world's worst baseball player, Charlie Brown." Mendelson approached Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz with the idea of producing a documentary on Schulz and his strip. Schulz, who had enjoyed the Mays documentary, readily agreed. The 1963 documentary, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (not to be confused with the like-named 1969 Peanuts debut movie), was the beginning of a 36-year collaboration between Schulz and Mendelson.
While Mendelson was attempting to find a market for the Schulz documentary, he was approached by The Coca-Cola Company, who asked him if he was interested in producing an animated Christmas special for television. Mendelson was, and he immediately contacted Schulz in regards to using the Peanuts characters. Schulz in turn suggested hiring animator and director Bill Melendez, whom Schulz had worked with while creating a Peanuts-themed advertising campaign for the Ford Motor Company. Mendelson also hired jazz composer Vince Guaraldi after hearing a Guaraldi-composed song while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.
After a hurried six-month production period, A Charlie Brown Christmas aired December 9, 1965 on CBS. The show went on to win both the Emmy and Peabody awards, and was the first of over 40 animated Peanuts specials created by the team of Mendelson, Melendez, and Schulz.
In 1968, Mendelson produced the documentary, Travels With Charley based upon the book by John Steinbeck. The original 1963 Schulz documentary was never broadcast, but on May 22, 1969 an updated documentary did air on CBS, called Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz.
Mendelson was the founder and head of Lee Mendelson Film Productions, a Burlingame, California-based television and film production company. Mendelson Productions has produced over a hundred television and film productions, winning twelve Emmys and four Peabodys, as well as numerous Grammy, Emmy, and Oscar nominations. On December 25, 2019, Mendelson died from lung cancer, leaving a wife, Ploenta and four children.