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The African Teen

The African Teen

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Disney was evolving in the seventies. Nearly a decade had passed since the Old Maestro ruled his magic kingdom, and the Mouse House was trying to make it in Hollywood's brave new world of movie making. Veteran writer/producer, Bill Walsh came up with a very funny concept about a black coach who goes to Africa in search of a superior athlete. Of course, the punch line to this joke is -- the African athlete happens to be white. (Rim shot, please) You've probably already guessed the title of the film, right? "The World's Greatest Athlete."

Okay, not a bad idea. Some actually thought this was a very funny movie, although I found this Disney comedy somewhat lacking in wit and charm. Not that they didn't try. The moviemakers did their best with a lackluster screenplay and leaden direction. The film did boast an impressive cast, including Jean-Michael Vincent as the star athlete. John Amos and Tim Conway played the coach and his wacky assistant. Dayle Haddon rounded out by as the love interest. Veterans, Roscoe Lee Brown, Billy De Wolf and Clarence Muse provided good support, and sportscasters; Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford also make an appearance.

This was the seventies, and Disney was still trying to find its way in a rapidly evolving Hollywood. Though it might seem a minor thing to some, the company was finally using black extras in the crowd scenes. Not something the average person would even notice, but being a person of color, I was keenly aware of this significant change in attitude. Like American television of the fifties and sixties, ethnic types were pretty much invisible in Disney films. This led to some good nature ribbing on occasion. While visiting the jungle set on stage three one afternoon, I saw comic Tim Conway playing a scene with a group of spear wielding African natives who had taken him captive. I joked to all who could hear that Disney had come a long way since "Song of the South."

It's a shame, but it seems we had more laughs on the set than in the movie. Those who remember the film might recall that Jean-Michael Vincent's character had a pet tiger that he brought with him from Africa. Yeah, I know there are no tigers in Africa, but I guess the scriptwriters somehow found a way around that little problem. Anyway, there were a number of scenes where Tim Conway had to interact with this ferocious beast, and he wasn't always comfortable doing so. Even though the trained tiger was a pussycat at heart, there was no mistaking the fact that this was one huge kitty. Though well trained, the large cat sometimes really got into performing, or maybe he just wanted to play with Mr. Conway. One particular scene with Tim and the tiger was being shot on stage Two one afternoon, and I stopped in to enjoy the fun. After the director called, "cut," the large cat had so enjoyed his romp with Mr. Conway he continued to play. Having had enough of the big cat, Tim Conway headed off the set with the happy kitty hot on his heels. Unfortunately, he was headed in my direction. As the hapless actor came running toward me, you can imagine some of the very un-Disney like comments he was making.

Another very amusing bit that never ended up in the movie was a scene with veteran character, Clarence Muse and Roscoe Lee Browne who played the Witch Doctor. John Amos and Tim Conway find themselves in a secret cave guarded by several foreboding African warriors. Conway's character was suppose to come rushing up to the Witch Doctor with an urgent message, as the spear wielding natives glower menacingly at him. Each time the director called, "Action!" Conway would run pass the guards with a funny aside that would invariably send the "scary savages" into fits of laughter. Naturally, the scene would have to be re-shot, but the very funny Conway could not be restrained. He continued to ad lib, sending the cast and the crew into hysterics. As I said, the making of the movie was funnier than the film itself.

Eventually, the coach arrives back in civilization with his "African" star and pet tiger. The action moved to the university set on stage Two on the Disney lot where college professors had to match wits with the witch doctor who was more of a Rhodes scholar than a jungle primitive. Sadly, the scenes that seemed so funny on the storyboards fell flat once they went before the camera. Although I did enjoy my visit to the set to watch sportscaster, Howard Cosell do a very funny impression of -- Howard Cosell. I enjoyed chatting with Clarence Muse, John Amos and Roscoe Lee Browne on the set. When Mr. Browne found out I worked in animation, he told me he always wanted to be the voice of a cartoon character. Luckily for us, he got his chance in 1988, when my pal, George Scribner hired him to voice Francis, the English bulldog who loved to quote Shakespeare in Disney's "Oliver and Company."

"The World's Greatest Athlete" joins the long list of what's become known as Disney's low budget comedy programmers that the company cranked out during the seventies. They weren't all that bad -- but sadly, not all that good either. There's not a lot I remember about this seventies comedy because there just wasn't that much worth remembering. I do, however, remember all the laughs we had on the Disney set while making the film. It's just too bad that the real humor of "The World's Greatest Athlete" never made it into the movie

Did you enjoy Floyd's column today? well, if so, please be aware that there are two great collections of Norman's writings & cartoons already 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 heading over to the Afrokids.com website.

But here's the best news of all: Floyd's third book of cartoons, "How the Grinch Stole Disney: Making Money & Mayhem inside the Magic Kingdom," debuts this week at Comic Con International. You can read all about this great new collection of toons by following this link over to o-meon.com. Or -- if you're headed to the Con this year -- you can drop by Booth 5013, visit with Mr. Norman in person as well as purchase  your very own autographed copy of "How the Grinch Stole Disney."

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