A weekly look at SoCal life covering news, arts and culture, and more.
Hosted by John Rabe
Arts & Entertainment

Animator Floyd Norman, from Disney to 'Fat Albert'

Artist and animator Floyd Norman in his office.
Artist and animator Floyd Norman in his office.
CJ Greenspon
Artist and animator Floyd Norman in his office.
Mowgli in Disney's "The Jungle Book," on which Floyd Norman was story man.
Courtesy Floyd Norman/Disney
Artist and animator Floyd Norman in his office.
Ric Gonzales and a very young Floyd Norman in a non-Disney pose.
Courtesy Floyd Norman
Artist and animator Floyd Norman in his office.
Early sketch of Fat Albert.
Courtesy Floyd Norman
Artist and animator Floyd Norman in his office.
Floyd Norman on the Zorro backlot.
Courtesy Floyd Norman
Artist and animator Floyd Norman in his office.
Floyd Norman, a reluctant Disney Legend.
Courtesy Floyd Norman

Listen to story

Download this story 19MB

You may remember Floyd Norman's cameo in C.J. Greenspon’s Off-Ramp story about Disney Golden Books. Norman, who turned 79 a couple weeks ago, worked for Disney, on and off, from 1957 until 2001, and was the company's first black animator. He sat down to talk with C.J. about his long life and career.

Floyd Norman was born in 1935, in Santa Barbara, to James and Evelyn Norman. Norman decided he wanted to be an animator when he was six, after his mom took him to see "Dumbo."

His parents encouraged his dream, and it seems like the community of Santa Barbara did too. "My science teacher, Jacob Turnoff, played golf with a local cartoonist," says Norman, "and my science teacher said, 'Agh, we got this kid in my class who doesn't do his work. He's always drawing cartoons,' and the cartoonist said, "Send him over to me.'" That cartoonist, Bill Woggon, made Norman his assistant on "Katy Keene: The Fashion Queen" for Archie Comics.

After high school, Norman quit Katy Keene and moved to L.A., in hopes of working for Disney. When he showed his portfolio to the people at Disney's Burbank studio, they told him he needed formal training. Norman enrolled at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Then, one weekend in his junior year, "I was in Santa Barbara, believe it or not, watching the Mickey Mouse Club on television, and my phone rang. It was the Disney Studios calling, saying 'Kid, do you still want that job? Be here 8 o'clock Monday morning.'"

Norman started his dream job in 1957. He began, like everyone else, as an in-betweener, drawing the animation frames that go in-between a character's important poses. Norman calls it "a grunt job, a monotonous job, a tedious job," but he stills looks back on it as one of the most exciting times of his life. But then Walt Disney made him a Story Artist for "The Jungle Book."

Sing along with "I Want to Be Like You," from "The Jungle Book"

"When Walt says to do something, you do it," says Norman. " The story artist is the writer who writes the animated movie. It's just that we don't sit down with a typewriter, we sit down with a sketch pad and pencil." It was in fact, a very important job, and Norman found himself doing it for years to come on many cartoon series and movies.

RELATED: Floyd Norman's long list of credits

The latter half of the 1960's found Floyd Norman breaking out on his own as an artist. Disney died in 1966, before "The Jungle Book" was released, and Norman left Disney at this time to form Vignette Films with his partner Leo Sullivan and Norm Edlin and Dick Allen. Norman says Vignette Films produced Black Profiles, short animated films "detailing famous African Americans that made their contribution to their country and to their people as well."

Even before leaving Disney, Norman and his friends were driven by creative wanderlust. Using a camera he purchased from Disney's nephew, Norman and a few others captured footage of the Watts Riots in 1965, and their footage aired on an NBC report.

One of Norman and Sullivan's most important works from this time period was the NBC special "Hey, Hey, Hey, It's Fat Albert", which aired once, in 1969, the prototype of the popular "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" cartoon from the 70's.

If you're not careful, you might just learn something

Leo Sullivan had heard a rumor that Bill Cosby wanted to make the character from his stand-up routine into a cartoon, so he and Norman animated to the sound of one the Fat Albert routines. Cosby and his managers liked the demo and hired Sullivan. Norman worked on it unofficially, and he recalls the animation process as being unlike any other in the world, because rather than being a division of labor, every artist did every job.

READ MORE about the production of Fat Albert

Floyd Norman's credits from the 1970s on include "Soul Train's" intro, "Josie and the Pussycats," "Robin Hood," "Alvin & the Chipmunks," "Mulan," "Toy Story 2," and "Monsters, Inc." He's simply never stopped working, and though he's been given a plaque certifying his status as a "Disney Legend," he says didn't set out to prove anything. "I've often been called Disney's First Black Animator. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn't. Some people say I was. Okay, then I accept that, but the color of my skin, I don't think makes me unique. I think what this business is really based on is talent, and what you bring to it."