A few weeks from now movie audiences will be treated to a big screen version of Bill Cosby's comedy creation, "Fat Albert." Actually, this movie should really be titled, "Slightly Over Weight Albert" because the star of the movie can hardly be called fat. In any event, the lead character is based on Bill Cosby's childhood stories about growing up in Philadelphia in the fifties. Fat Albert was always a favorite in Bill Cosby's famous comedy routines, and that led to an animated television special, to a TV series and finally a live-action feature film. Where do I fit into all this, you ask? Well, I was there at the beginning.
After the untimely death of Walt Disney in 1966, I left the Disney studio to begin a new venture along with my partner, Leo Sullivan. Like all young and eager entrepreneurs we were ready to take on anything. Somehow, Leo had gotten word that Bill Cosby was interested in taking his Fat Albert comedy routine into cartoon animation. We knew that if we were to be taken seriously we would have to have more than talk when it came to meeting Mr. Cosby. So, the two of us took one of Cosby's routines from an LP (remember those?) entitled, "Wonderfulness," and animated the routine using Cosby's voice as the soundtrack. Having completed our little film, we began the search for Bill Cosby.
To be honest, we knew nothing about tracking down a star of Cosby's stature. Still, we were persistent, and eventually the trail led to a building in Beverly Hills, and the offices of Campbell-Silver-Cosby. After securing an appointment, we met with a producer named Marvin Miller. Miller seemed impressed by our animated pitch, but told us Bill Cosby had already spoken to another animator who wanted to be part of the deal. As a matter of fact this animator had so impressed Cosby that Bill wanted him to direct the "Fat Albert" television special. Much to our surprise, the animator turned out to be a guy we both knew. His name was Ken Mundie.
Ken Mundie had always seemed an unusual choice by many in the animation business. Ken was unconventional in many ways. Not just an animator, he was a fine artist, and a ski bum who often jetted off to Europe on many a skiing jaunt. Ken was probably best known for his main title designs for motion pictures. He also designed and directed the main titles for the TV series, "I Spy," which starred Cosby and Robert Culp. Ken hated the mainstream studio system, and felt artists should drive the creative process, not businessmen or studio managers. He had bounced from studio to studio because his unconventional ideas were not always welcomed. Now, here he was in charge of a major television animated special, with the blessing of one of America's biggest entertainers. Things were about to get interesting.
Cosby's partners, Bruce Campbell and Roy Silver found office space for the "Fat Albert" animation team on Melrose Avenue in West Los Angeles. Oddly enough, the studio was owned by producer, *** Brown who had produced the "Clutch Cargo" TV series. Anybody remember that weird show with the animated drawings and live-action mouths? Anyway, this facility became our home for the duration of the production. One of the first things Ken Mundie ordered was an Oxberry Camera System. Ken was insistent in doing all the production in house. Nothing, not even photography was to be jobbed out. Ken was intent on breaking the so-called animation rules. This was going to be a film where the artists did everything -- and I do mean everything. The art team would develop the story, sketch out the layouts, paint the backgrounds, animate the characters, and finally ink and paint the cels. Talk about breaking the rules. Ken Mundie was just getting started.
Let me introduce you to the animation team. The team that would create one of the most unusual animated specials ever produced for television. First off, there was director, Ken Mundie and production manager, Ray Thursby. The artists, in no particular order were, Richard Drew, Amby Paliwoda, Bill Hadji, Leo Sullivan, Lil Evans and Bob Bachman. Late in the production, Jackie Banks joined the crew as a cel painter. I painted cels on the production myself even though I was not an official member of the crew. I was working as a writer on another TV series for ABC called, "Turn On," but that's another story.
My pal, Leo Sullivan was the only black animator on the crew, and following Bill Cosby's instructions, Leo proceeded to teach the "white dudes" about "The black experience." How should the characters walk and talk? What makes a person hip or cool, and is there a difference? I confess it was fun watching my friend, long time Disney animator, Amby Paliwoda who was probably in his sixties at the time, trying to get the "groove" into his animation. For an "old white dude," Amby did a pretty darn good job.
When the studio opened its doors on quiet Monday morning, the crew was surprised to find coffee and fresh pastries from a Beverly Hills bakery waiting for them. With the artists being pampered from day one, it was clear the Campbell-Silver-Cosby office knew little about the animation business. Yet, there's something missing from this whole scenario. What about the creator of Fat Albert? Where was Bill Cosby in all of this? Well, to be fair Bill Cosby had his hands full back in the sixties. He was busy performing live, doing recordings, and had just begun production on his new television show over at Warner Bros. studio where he played a high school coach. Cosby pretty much turned responsibility for the special over to his partners, along with input from writer, Jack Mendelsohn. As I said, Ken Mundie's concept of animation production was unconventional. The artists animated on sheets of acetate with China markers. The stacks of acetate were painted on the opposite side, as is normal in conventional animation, and then photographed on the Oxberry Camera with live-action footage being projected up through the bottom of the camera's platen. Thus, animation and live-action was being composited during photography. No expensive opticals were required.
The unique little production continued on track with Ken Mundie and his creative team cranking out a ton of drawings. One of the things Ken was determined to prove was that animation could be developed and produced with a small team of artists. There was no need for a huge animation factory where lackluster shows are stamped out like widgets. Animation was an art form, right? Why handle art like an assembly line product? Still, it was hard work and the crew put in many late- nighters and weekends. Yet, tough as it was, the crew was energized and inspired. They were doing something that had not be done before -- and as we have come to see, never would again.
"Hey! Hey! Hey! Its Fat Albert" premiered on NBC in the summer of 1969. Those who saw this unique animated film still talk about it even today. The energetic sketchy animation playing over live-action footage was unique all by itself. The film had a European sensibility, and like it or not, reflected the vision of its director, Ken Mundie. Jazz master, Herbie Hancock, provided the film score. If you've never heard the Fat Albert main theme, you've missed some truly great jazz. This television special eventually led to an animated series produced by Filmmation in the seventies called "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids." More people probably remember this rather mundane TV series than the Campbell-Silver-Cosby produced Special. More often than not, this lackluster factory made product sticks in people's minds more than the animated masterpiece that has probably been forgotten. Yet, the story doesn't end here. Bill Cosby's little animation team actually made another film that's never been seen. Plus, there are more funny stories surrounding the little creative group that haven't been told, such as Mrs. Cosby kicking the artists out of her Beverly Hills home. In animation, it seems, the fun never ends.
So, if you happen to catch "Fat Albert," or at least the slightly overweight Albert at your local movie house this December, look for some great title animation done by a new generation of talented young animators, led by my pal, Bert Klein. I worry the current "truckload" of CGI animated feature films bodes ill for the future of traditional animation. Eventually, this wonderful art form will be lost because there will be no one left who remembers how to do it. These kids are my hope for animations' future and the future of hand drawn cartoons in particular. It's guys like this that make me want to stand up and shout, Hey! Hey! Hey!
Did you enjoy Floyd's column today? well, if so, please be aware that there are already two great collections of Norman's writings & cartoons on the market: his original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com web site) as well as the follow-up to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper." Which you can purchase by clicking on that the image on to the right, which will take you straight over to Afrokids.com.
If you're an animation fan and don't already own either of these two great books, NOW would be a really good time to get them!
I was about 8 when Hey, hey, hey... was aired and I never forgot it.It is evident that it was aimed squarely at a Black and hipster demo and sooo far ahead of its time that no animated show, to this day favorably compares. Yes, the low-budget production values of Jay Ward and Bill Scott's Bullwinkle actually enhanced the show's satirical quality and, yes, the squiggle vision of Dr. Katz enhanced the show's entertainment value. Nevertheless these classics do not compare the "real" Fat Albert. As with most who saw the original I was deeply disappointed with the TV show and would give anything to see the original again. Truly, a classic.
FIlmation's Fat Albert series was fantastic. Filmation, unlike the other animation companies at the time, did all of their work in the USA and did not ship everything overseas to be produced. Shame on you for slaughtering the people that made Fat Albert a household name while entertaining kids with good moral values.
I remember heaps from this original Fat Albert special: Cos to Russel: "Okay, okay, so mom didn't buy you at the Salvation Army store - just for now...c'mon, let's go" Other lines, "He dropped the ball down the sewie-hole! You all gimmie yer chewin' gum..." - which lead to them sticking the chew on top of Weird Harold's cap, he was tall and skinny enough so they could lower him down head-first in the sewer, and the ball got stuck on the gum so they could pull it out!
Nolan, the worried owner of the football, whining all the time about "my momma said not to kick it, not to drop it, not to throw it..." etc etc
Walking home through the alleys after getting creeped out at the monster movie, one of the gang makes a nasty comment about how Fat Albert would take up a hundred seats at the movies - ooooops! They were walking by Albert's apartment building at the time, and Albert heard the insulting remark through his open window - which is why he refused to play in the big game.
It was a great animated special, I remember it vividly - I want it to come out on dvd!