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 don’t know about this particular animated project. 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 Cosby’s production company in Beverly Hills where we were able to take a meeting with one of his producers. 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 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.
I remember the afternoon we sat in the conference room of the Beverly Hills office 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 managed to get Cosby’s ear before we did. 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 and work on the animated special without getting paid.
As I think back on the nineteen sixties and the Bill Cosby Fat Albert special for NBC, something still gripes me even today. There were no people of color on the project with the notable exception of animator, Leo Sullivan. And no, Bill Cosby doesn’t count. It still strikes me as odd that the famous black comedian never noticed his “black show” was pretty much lacking in color. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that Bill Cosby’s animation team should have been black. After all, a lot of the animators on the show were good friends. Having said that, I can’t help but think that my partner, Leo Sullivan was simply a “token black” working for a very rich black man.
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 Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. I was with Mr. Adderly when he viewed a rough cut of the animated film on the Moviola, but such was not to be. The dream of a Bill Cosby Animation Studio suddenly washed down the drain. Director, Ken Mundie left the project and the other animators soon departed as well. 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 have a lot of great memories of the “Fat Albert Special.” I loved the early development I did on the show and I love the innovative techniques we used on the special. The artists did amazing compositing without the use of costly opticals and we sure didn’t have the luxury of digital technology. Finally, I love how director, Ken Mundie deconstructed the animation process and allowed every artist to do every job on the film. It was an amazing, creative time. Sadly, the entire sixties enterprise has one bad memory that remains to this day. You can probably guess who that is.