Melendez was a native of Hermosillo in Sonora, Mexico. After coming to the United States he began animating for Disney, working on the features of the early 40s (Pinocchio, Fantasia, etc.). He did a stint at Warner Bros. working on the classic post-war Bugs Bunny cartoons, as well as at UPA where he contributed to Gerald McBoing-Boing (now a children’s television show) and other groundbreaking work. He founded his own studio, Bill Melendez Productions, in 1964, creating hours and hours of industrial, television, and other work.
His claim to fame came with the company’s first production, however: A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charles Schultz not only approved Melendez to bring the Peanuts gang to life, but stipulated that his be the only company that ever animates Snoopy and the gang. That request has been honored up to the present, even for all the MetLife commercials and other spots that the Peanuts characters appear in. A Charlie Brown Christmas, probably my favorite Christmas film of all time, for any age group (the Grinch is the other contender), garnered enormous praise and set the wheels in motion for over forty subsequent Peanuts specials. The film’s innovations have come to be known as equally groundbreaking as the comic strip: the use of plunger mutes for adult voices, for instance, and the tremendous jazz scores by Vince Guaraldi, with the “Linus and Lucy” theme making its way into the standard repertoire. Much of the shows’ innovations—like the use of authentic children’s voices (Melendez himself has always done Snoopy and Woodstock)—have been adapted for other children’s programming today.
I already knew most of this, and the fact that he’s received dozens upon dozens of awards, but what I didn’t know about Melendez was that he was also the first to animate Jim Davis’s Garfield, as well as working on Babar, Cathy, and a host of other characters. He had a studio in London and has done a few feature films—the original The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance—along with his television work. Although budgets, tight schedules, and his sheer prolificness precluded much of his work from being as inspired as A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, he was an innovator, pioneer, craftsman, and artist.
Rather than go into more detail myself I’d like to survey some of what’s been written about him, particularly in the wake of his passing. His own website has an excellent biography as well as a portfolio and other samples of his work.
ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive Quicktime interview
Finally, here’s an interview from YouTube, with more available here.