For some odd reason I began thinking about a remarkable animated project I worked on many years ago. It’s mentioned briefly in the current documentary on my life and career, but there’s probably a lot you didn’t know about this particular animated film. I had decided to bail out of Disney and a very good job after the Old Maestro had passed away in 1966. The truth is, I was considering leaving the studio eventually because we had already set plans in motion to create our own production company. Walt’s untimely passing simply speeded things up. We had a number of projects in mind, but my partner, Leo Sullivan had somehow gotten news that comedian, Bill Cosby was looking to bring his famous Fat Albert routine to cartoon animation. In the days before the Internet, information was not always easy to come by. Leo and I roamed Hollywood and Beverly Hills in an attempt to track down the famous comedian.
In time, we found the offices of Bill Cosby’s production company in Beverly Hills where we were able to take a meeting with one of his producers, Marvin Miller. As expected, Cosby was out of town, but his people gave us the go ahead on the creation an animated demo. This short sample of cartoon animation would sell the idea of bringing Fat Albert to the screen. At least we hoped it would. The first thing we did was rip the audio tracks off one of Bill Cosby’s comedy albums. In this case it was an album entitled, “Wonderfulness.” Each of us took a funny segment of the album and began creating animation to go with it. Clearly, we were on the right track. There was no better way to sell an idea and Cosby’s people loved our little animated film and awaited word from the man himself.
Time passed, and Cosby’s team eventually moved into a suite of offices on the Warner Bros studio lot in Burbank where Bill would be shooting his television show. I remember the afternoon we sat in the conference room and learned much to our surprise that Bill Cosby had already selected an animator to helm the Fat Albert project. There was an additional surprise when we were told that the animator was a guy we already knew. Apparently, the animation maverick, Ken Mundie had worked with Bill previously on the television show, “I Spy.” Ken managed to get Cosby’s ear before we did and lock in a deal to do the animation. I’ll admit it was a letdown, but at least my friend Leo got a job out of it. Plus, he and Ken had worked together before. Unfortunately, there would be no job for me on the Bill Cosby Fat Albert Special. I know it sounds crazy, but I was already so invested in the cartoon show, I would come in after hours from my day job and work on the animated special without getting paid. I know it made little sense, but I was already hooked on the cartoon.
As I think back on the nineteen sixties and the Bill Cosby Fat Albert special for NBC, something still puzzles me even today. There were no people of color on the black project with the notable exception of animator, Leo Sullivan. And no, the boss, Bill Cosby doesn’t count. It still strikes me as odd that the famous black comedian never noticed his “black show” was considerably lacking in color. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that Bill Cosby’s animation team should have been selected on the basis of color. After all, many of the amazing animators on the show were good friends of mine. Having said that, I can’t help but wonder was my partner, Leo Sullivan was simply a “token?” A minority on a show that ostensibly celebrated minorities?
Today, no one seems to know what happened to the Bill Cosby Fat Albert Special that was aired on NBC back in the sixties. However, I’ll bet you didn’t know that the NBC deal included a second special, did you? An animated TV special that was put into production and then, quickly trashed. If you remember, the first Fat Albert show was scored by jazz musician, Herbie Hancock. The music for the second special was going to be provided by Nat “Cannonball” Adderly. I was with Mr. Adderly when he viewed a rough cut of the animated film on the Moviola. For all you young people, the Moviola was an editing machine used back in the dark ages of film making. Sadly, the movie totally lacked the charm and imagination of the first special. Not long after, the project was eventually scrapped. The dream of a Bill Cosby Animation Studio was also washed down the drain. Director, Ken Mundie left the project and the other animators soon departed as well. However, Fat Albert managed to survive. In time, Bill Cosby took his fun characters to the West Valley animation studio, Filmation where they produced the acclaimed Saturday Morning television show, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”
I still have a lot of great memories from the NBC “Fat Albert Special.” I loved the early visual and story development I created for the show and I love the innovative techniques Ken Mundie and his team explored. Lead by technical director, Ray Thursby, the Cosby artists did amazing work by compositing animation and live-action without the use of costly opticals. Remember the year was 1968 and we didn’t have the luxury of digital technology. We worked with the tools we had and fortunately, the Oxberry camera allowed us to do an effect called, Arial Image. Even before digital technology we were able to “float” an image in space, and physically composite with a live-action picture. Finally, I love how director, Ken Mundie totally deconstructed the animation process and allowed each artist to do every job on the film. Trashing the bloated, big studio structure of endless departments and managers, the artists did every job on the film including story, layout, animation, and background. Finally, we even inked and painted the cels that would be photographed under the Oxberry camera. It was an amazing, creative time, and I’ve never had such fun on an animated television project in my career. Sadly, the animated Bill Cosby Fat Albert special has one bad memory that remains to this day.
You can probably guess who that is.