Today is my birthday and I’m taking a breakfast break on the patio of Walt Disney Imagineering. As I reflect on my long career in the cartoon business I can’t help but think I’ve been lucky enough to participate in an impressive number of exciting projects. Yet, if I had a birthday wish, I think it might surprise you what that wish would be. You see, anyone who has worked in this crazy business knows there are always projects that fall by the wayside. The movies or TV shows that for one reason or another were abandoned while still in production or development. If I had a birthday wish, I’d love to go back in time and relaunch the many failed projects I’ve worked on. Not just any project, mind you. I’m speaking of the cool ideas that showed real potential and could have sparked a good deal of creative innovation.
Decades ago, my partner Leo Sullivan and I sat down with executives from the major publisher, DoubleDay. We were joined by screenwriter, Buddy Prince who had collaborated with us on our Black History films. At the time, DoubleDay was publishing the Zenith Series on Black History and were eager to take the published material to film. One of the stories particularly intrigued me. It was entitled, “The Battle of the Crater,” one of the historic battles of the Civil War. I had recently been impressed by the films of Stanley Kubrick and his masterful storytelling in “Paths of Glory.” I wanted our film to reflect the same sensibility of the Kubrick film and portray war as the horrific enterprise it truly is. Though we were eager and ready to move forward on the Doubleday project, extraordinary circumstances caused the Zenith Series to be mothballed.
Our next ill-fated project was the second “Fat Albert” Special being produced for NBC by Bill Cosby’s animation studio. I’m willing to bet you never knew Mr. Cosby had a cartoon studio, did you? Anyway, the first “Fat Albert” special was aired in the summer of 1968 by NBC, but Cosby’s deal with the network involved two shows. That meant show number two had already moved into development even though the little company had lost its studio space. Believe it or not, the little animation company had even moved into the Cosby home in a fashionable section of Los Angeles. However, nobody in their right mind wants animators in their home and before long the zany cartoonists were booted out of the Cosby home by Mrs. Cosby herself. As I said, you can’t really blame Camille Cosby for having had enough. In time, the Cosby cartoonists found a temporary residence in one of the bungalows of the commercial studio FilmFair in Studio City. It was here I watched rough animation on a Moviola with jazz composer, Cannonball Adderly who was hired to score the film. It appeared the director and Mr. Cosby failed to come together on this second animated attempt. The animation unit was shut down and Bill Cosby moved his project to Filmation Studios and the rest is history.
The decade of the seventies brought many social changes. Young men began sporting beards, long hair and sandals. Of course, the girls wore hip hugging bell bottoms and platform shoes were all the rage. It was in this crazy, shifting environment we began to develop an animated motion picture we called, “Bush Head.” Inspired by the music of Smokey Robinson, Bush Head was a prehistoric kid of color who lived during the time of the dinosaur. Naturally, in this fanciful film we played free and loose with time and history. It was just a heck of a lot more fun to have our hero, Bush Head ride his pet dinosaur. Keep in mind this was decades before films like Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” mixed reptiles with humans. Working in Hollywood’s Motown headquarters we hashed out character and production designs. We created rooms of storyboards detailing the wacky, prehistoric storyline. Composer, Smokey Robinson often met with us to discuss songs and storylines while dining on a delicious plate of ribs and collard greens from the nearby soul food restaurant. Motown music filled the air along with the fragrance of the “funny little cigarettes” that were popular during the era.
A good deal larger than most conference rooms, the upstairs Sunset Boulevard Motown space was filled with colorful production design paintings and a series of elaborate storyboards. On the day of the presentation to Berry Gordy we were visited by “wise guys,” Joey and Carmine. At least that’s what their names should have been. They gave the large room a once over looking for hidden cameras or secret recording devices. I was never sure whether their concern was protecting us — or Mr. Gordy. In any case, the Motown boss did not make an appearance until the room was deemed “safe.” The “Bush Head” presentation was now underway. Much of the pitch was led by Phil who even got down on all fours mimicking the dinosaur dancing to the music. Our villain was an evil witch doctor and when it came to his scene, composer, Smokey Robinson could not resist getting involved. Channeling the movie bad guy, he waved his arms wildly while doing his evil incantation. I’ve done my fair share of movie pitches during my career and on occasion one stands out as magical. I’ve little doubt that all of us were thinking, what an amazing movie this is going to be. Sadly, our project was dumped when Motown decided to produced “The Wiz” as a feature film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
There you have a few of my motion picture regrets this Birthday Morning, June 22, 2016. There’s a good many more projects I can tell you about. However, that will have to wait for another day.