L. Wayne Hicks
Fat Albert lives again.
The corpulent hero of Saturday morning television during the 1970s and 80s, Fat Albert has been resurrected for a big-screen adventure that opened Christmas Day. The 20th Century Fox movie stars Kenan Thompson of "Saturday Night Live" in the title role and features the characters creator, Bill Cosby, as himself.
Praised for its lack of violence and moral messages dont smoke, dont steal, dont drop out of school - the television series "Fat Albert the Cosby Kids" earned considerable attention and acclaim during its 20-year run.
The series was based on characters Cosby claimed to know from his boyhood in the projects of Philadelphia. Cosby told of the exploits of Fat Albert in his early standup routines, when his comedy drew from childhood instead of his later role as a father figure. Cosby oversaw production of two cruder versions of the character for prime-time specials that aired on NBC in the 1960s, and then allowed the animation house Filmation & Associates to produce a series for Saturday morning. Cosby provided several of the voices for the series, including those of Fat Albert and Mushmouth, and also stopped by the Filmation studio to film live-action wraparound messages to hammer home the point of the episodes.
Unlike other cartoons that have been transformed into movies, such as "Scooby-Doo," "The Flintstones" and "Josie and the Pussycats," the "Fat Albert" movie delivers a twist. As written by Cosby collaborator Charles Kipps and Cosby himself, the movie brings the characters out of the television tube and their adventures in a 1950s junkyard into the world of present-day reality. Only about 3 percent of the movie is animated, but each character has been given a slightly new appearance. The cartoon faces are based on the actual faces of the actors playing the parts. The actors from the live-action segment supplied the voices for their animated counterparts.
That certainly pleased Shedrack Anderson III, who plays the real and animated Rudy, the more well-to-do member of the Junkyard Gang. The other kids banged away and plunked on instruments made of discards; Rudy played an electric guitar emblazoned with a large "R."
"When you do a cartoon character, you can be a little bit bigger than in real life," Anderson said, "so it was a lot of fun to be able to just completely let yourself go and really try to be a cartoon character."
A veteran actor at 27, Anderson made his motion picture debut in 1991, playing one of the Lost Boys in "Hook," the Steven Spielberg retelling of the Peter Pan legend. After graduating from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Anderson attended the famed Juliard. He went on to a starring role in the NBC Saturday morning teen drama "Just Deal," which aired from 2000 to 2002. He now has a recurring role on the Disney series "Phil of the Future."
Anderson was too young to have enjoyed "Fat Albert the Cosby Kids" reprised as "The New Fat Albert Show" for its run from 1979-84 during its heyday. "I liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles growing up. Thundercats. Silverhawks. I watched those kind of things. Transformers. Voltron. I was into those kind of cartoons." He was, Anderson admits, "vaguely familiar" with the Fat Albert television series.
The studio made sure its cast became more familiar with the old series. "There was actually a DVD collection that Fox gave us a few weeks before we started filming," Anderson said. "We watched the show. You got to know the characters, how they walked, how they talked."
Anderson originally read for the part of Bill Cosby not the actor but the young friend of Fat Albert because he does an impression of Cosby.
"Through the course of auditioning, they eventually chose me for Rudy. I went back and forth for them to look at me probably seven times. It was a huge process and for an actor, thats grueling, because you dont know if you have the job. You dont know whats going to happen. I was just so thankful that I actually landed the gig."
The film nearly didnt get made. Cosby announced the project several years ago and hired a director, Forest Whitaker, but the movie was scrapped in pre-production when Whitaker and Cosby couldnt agree on how to proceed.
In addition to his role as co-screenwriter, Cosby along with his wife Camille is executive producer of the movie.
"Hes very protective of the characters," Anderson said of Cosby. "He would let you do what you wanted to do. So he was very open to new ideas, new concepts for the characters, but if it was something that would be out of character like for Rudy to say, Yo, man, whats up? that wouldnt really be tolerated."
For this go-round, Cosby hired Joel Zwick, best known for directing hundreds of television episodes including "Webster" and "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" -- and for the surprise movie hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
"I wanted to direct "Fat Albert for two reasons. Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby," Zwick said in the movie's press kit. He said if he had to pick a third reason, it would be the movie's universal theme of first love.
Zwick found Thompson after a nationwide search for the right actor to play Fat Albert. Cosby needed to watch only a few seconds of his audition tape to agree with Zwick. In his second season on "Saturday Night Live," Thompson previously appeared in the movies "Good Burger," "Barbershop 2: Back in Business" and "D2: The Mighty Ducks." His first part on "SNL" called for him to do an impression of Cosby.
"I grew up watching The Cosby Show' and have done Bill Cosby impressions almost since the day I could talk," Thompson said, according to the movies press kit. "Meeting him and playing his character was a dream come true."
In "Fat Albert," the cartoon characters emerge from a television set when a girl watching the show (Doris, played by Kyla Pratt) cries and her tears drop onto the remote control. Fat Albert and the others pop out to help her, find themselves strangely out of place in the real world, and eventually realize that to survive they must find their way back through the television.
"Because Rudy is the guy who thinks hes hot stuff, he eventually falls for Doris," Anderson said. "They have a slight romantic interlude. The feelings are definitely there."
Pratt is a familiar face and voice. She appeared in Eddie Murphys two "Dr. Doolittle" movies. Pratt also lends her voice to the Disney Channel animated series "The Proud Family" as Penny Proud.
Fat Albert has his own love interest as well. Hes smitten with Doris' foster sister, Lauri (played by Dania Ramirez). Fat Albert even considers not returning to his cartoon world. It's finally up to Cosby to convince Fat Albert to return.
"It took me a while to get into character," Cosby joked in the movies press kit. "In the interest of research, I moved into his house, slept with his wife, and spoke with his children. Theyre all very nice people, by the way.
Cosby hasnt had much success on the big screen, flopping in such movies as "Ghost Dad" and "Leonard Part 6." His greatest triumph has been on the small screen. He revived the situation comedy format in the 1980s with "The Cosby Show." Before that, he racked up a series of Grammy Awards for comedy albums, broke the television color barrier when he co-starred with Robert Culp on "I Spy" and helped to educate children through his appearances on "The Electric Company," "Captain Kangaroo" and, of course, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids." Cosby used the "Fat Albert" show as a springboard to earning his doctorate in education.
He was incredible to work with," Anderson said. "Its one of the greatest experiences of my life. "He would come onto the set. He would be dressed in sweat pants and you would think, Oh, Bill Cosby, big icon. He would have on suits and there would be all these bodyguards around him. But he wasnt like that at all. He was just a normal guy. He and his wife Camille would come onto the set and say hello and give us hugs and talk to us. They would laugh when we do something funny. It was great. It was a great experience."
Anderson said Cosby was apologetic about one aspect of making the movie.
"It was the first time that we had actually tried on the clothes for the characters. Here I was in my Italian leather pink boots, my purple [turtleneck] and my pink sweater and my bright orange hat. I went out onto he set and everybodys laughing: Oh, my God, you look just like Rudy. I was so embarrassed."
"I laughed," Cosby said in the movie press kit, "because the colors and costumes really stood out. I apologized to each actor for putting them into those particular get-ups."
Colors aside, the clothing exacted its toll on Anderson. He suffered through three months of filming when the temperature around Los Angeles would sometimes reach 100 degrees. A turtleneck and corduroy pants arent comfortable to wear in that heat. But Anderson didnt have it nearly as bad as Kenan Thompson. Considerably slimmer in real life, Thompson had to bulk up via a "fat suit" that gave him the girth of Fat Albert. The suit itself weighed nearly 20 pounds.
"It took about two to three hours every day to put on the fat suit, and then he had to put the makeup around the fat suit so that you couldnt tell he had a fat suit on," Anderson said. "For him they had to have an ice trailer, which is just an air-conditioned trailer, so after he shot he could go into the trailer and cool off. He probably lost about 15 pounds shooting the movie."
Anderson also would escape into Thompsons refrigerated trailer to get out of the heat. "We developed a bond over the film," Anderson said. That also was true of the other members of the Junkyard Gang. "None of us knew each other before we did Fat Albert. We knew each others work, but we had never actually met. In the film I think youll see we really all hit it off. Even now that the film's over, we still all hang out. We still call each other and have dinner and all that kind of stuff. We really formed a bond, all seven of us."
Although it's premature to discuss a sequel, Anderson said he would be willing to revisit his role. "I would do three or four more. It was so fun working with all the guys. I would definitely do it again."
The "Fat Albert" series proved to have a colorblind audience, with children tuning in without regard to the color of the characters. "Fat Albert" was the first animated series with an all-black cast. Anderson said he hopes the movie will have a similar universal appeal.
"I hope that the movie goes beyond certain neighborhoods and crosses over into all levels," he said, "because I think it really sends out a great message to any person in the world. Fat Albert is a character thats just there to solve problems. For him to be a big, obese person, lets say, that doesnt matter. Thats the most important thing: It doesnt matter what you look like, where you come from or who you are. We can all get along. We can all understand and help each other with our problems."