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At 81, Disney's First African-American Animator Is Still In The Studio

Aug 26, 2016
Originally published on October 2, 2016 9:12 pm

If you've seen Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book or the Toy Story movies, you've seen the work of animator Floyd Norman; for decades, he has helped bring Disney and Pixar classics to life.

Now 81, Norman still works for Disney, where he has plied his trade, on and off, since he became the studio's first African-American animator in the 1950s.

Norman's love of art began long before his Disney job, as he reveals in a new documentary, An Animated Life. "Any empty surface was a blank canvas for me," he says. His mother was constantly scrubbing scribbles off the walls. "I was drawing on everything," he recalls.

Norman grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., a place that, he says, sheltered him from much of the racial tension and segregation of the time. He tells NPR's David Greene he experienced no racism — "none whatsoever."

"We lived in a Pacific paradise," he says. "I didn't know it at the time, but my experience as a child was probably a good deal different from many, many people. We had access to everything — good schools, concert, theater."

Thanks to that upbringing, it never occurred to Norman that he couldn't apply for a job as a Disney animator.

"I think the thought just never occurred to a lot of young black talent to apply for a job in the film industry," he says. "And it wasn't just Walt Disney. I'm sure the same thing happened at other film studios as well. There was a perception that opportunities were not available for people of color."

So he applied, and in the mid-1950s he became Disney's first black animator. Many saw that as a big deal — but not Norman.

"There were about half dozen of us came to work at Disney that same week," he says. "We came from different parts of the country. We were all from different backgrounds. ... We were Asian, we were Latino, we were black, we were white. Nobody thought about that because that was not the issue at hand. Nobody thought of themselves as being a trailblazer for their race or their group. We were just a bunch of young kids looking for a job."

Still, many have accused Walt Disney and his studio of making racist films, often lampooning minority groups, including African-Americans. Norman downplays that view.

"There just wasn't the same sensitivity there as we have today," he says. "A lot of this happened, it's unfortunate, but that was just the times in which we lived. I don't think we should go back and try to erase the past. This was part of our history, this is part of what happened, and so we should be able to deal with that."

Norman also worked on the animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which aired in the 1970s and '80s. It was based around Bill Cosby's memories of growing up in Philadelphia and featured a cast of African-American characters.

"Keep in mind that Bill Cosby, who created Fat Albert, was simply reflecting on his childhood ..." Norman says. "It was just making fun of ourselves and there's nothing wrong with that ... I think when others do it, it might be viewed as insensitive, but I see nothing wrong with poking fun at yourself, and as a cartoonist that's what I do every day.

When Norman turned 65, he says Disney tried to force him to retire, but he wouldn't have it. "I wanted to continue to work," he says. "You see, creative people don't hang it up. We don't walk away, we don't want to sit in a lawn chair, we don't want to go out and play golf, we don't want to travel the world. We want to continue to work."

And so he did — given the opportunity to contribute as a freelancer, Norman found his way back into the studio. Most freelancers work at home and only come into the office once the job is complete, but not Norman.

"I decided I didn't want to work at home," he says. "I missed the camaraderie of the big studio. I missed talking to people. I miss being around the action. And so ... I found an empty office and I moved in. I was probably in violation of some rule or law or whatever, but there I was."

He continued to work in the office, and his colleagues affectionately coined the term "Floydering" — it rhymes with loitering — in his honor.

Norman — who has met and worked with Tom Hanks — has been compared to Hanks' famous character, Forrest Gump. Norman says it's not so far off:

"Forrest was the guy who just sort of showed up everywhere," he says. "So a lot of people have looked at me when it came to the animation business where I was the guy ... just popping up all over the place. That's because I love this business, and I never wanted to be apart from it."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We want to introduce you to an animator whose work might be more familiar than he is. For decades, Floyd Norman has been animating films and TV shows ranging from Disney classics, like "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Jungle Book"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAN'NA BE LIKE YOU - THE MONKEY SONG")

GREENE: (As King Louie of the Apes, singing) Now, I'm the king of the swingers, oh, the jungle VIP.

GREENE: ...To modern Pixar classics, like the "Toy Story" films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOY STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) To infinity and beyond.

GREENE: And he was involved in many, many more. At 81 years old, Floyd Norman still does animation work for Disney, a place where he has plied his trade off and on since he became the studio's first African-American animator on staff back in the 1950s. But Floyd Norman's love of art began long before his job at Disney. He talks about this in a new documentary about his career that's called "An Animated Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FLOYD NORMAN - AN ANIMATED LIFE")

FLOYD NORMAN: Any empty surface was a blank canvas for me. So my poor mom had to clean my scribbles off the wall because I was drawing on everything.

GREENE: Floyd Norman was growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif., a place that he says sheltered him from much of the racial tension and segregation of that era.

NORMAN: We lived in a Pacific paradise. I didn't know it at the time, but my experience as a child was probably a good deal different from many, many people. We had access to everything, you know, good schools, concerts, theater.

GREENE: No racism at all, you didn't feel that?

NORMAN: Absolutely not, none whatsoever. I mean, that sounds odd when you think of 1950s America, but I didn't experience that in Santa Barbara.

GREENE: That's why Floyd Norman says he wasn't in the mindset of many African-Americans, assuming they could never get a job at Disney.

NORMAN: I think the thought just never occurred to a lot of young black talent to apply for a job in the film industry. And it wasn't just Walt Disney. I'm sure the same thing happened at other film studios as well. It just - there was a perception there that opportunities were not available for people of color.

GREENE: It was 1955 when Floyd Norman was hired as Disney's first black animator on staff.

NORMAN: There were about a half dozen of us who came to work at Disney that same week. And we came from different parts of the country. We were all from different backgrounds. And so we were Asian, Latino. We were black. We were white. Nobody thought about that because that was not the issue at hand. Nobody thought of themselves as being a trailblazer for their race or their group. We were just a bunch of young kids looking for a job.

GREENE: Now, many have described the films that were produced by Disney at that time as racist, often lampooning minority groups, including African-Americans. But Floyd Norman downplays that view.

NORMAN: There just wasn't the same sensitivity there, you know, we have today. So a lot of this happened. It's unfortunate, but that was just the times in which we lived. I don't think we should go back and try to erase the past. This was part of our history. This is part of what happened. And so we should be able to deal with that.

GREENE: I even think in later years, like something you worked on, "Fat Albert," right?

NORMAN: Right, right.

GREENE: I mean, that you could even argue was lampooning the African-American community in some ways, even that late.

NORMAN: Well, yeah. Well, keep in mind that Bill Cosby, who created "Fat Albert," was simply reflecting on his childhood, growing up in Philadelphia and the fun he had growing up and some of the zany, wacky characters he grew up with. And one of those kids happened to be a chubby kid they called Fat Albert.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONNA HAVE A GOOD TIME")

MICHAEL GRAY: (As Fat Albert) Hey, hey, hey. It's Fat Albert.

NORMAN: It was just making fun of ourselves. And there's nothing wrong with that, you know. It's nothing wrong with poking fun at yourself. I think when others do it, it might be viewed as insensitive. But I see nothing wrong with poking fun at yourself. And as a cartoonist, that's what I do every day.

GREENE: But when Floyd Norman turned 65 years old, still at his creative peak, Disney forced him to retire, though he never really went away.

So did you feel underappreciated at the moment they let you go?

NORMAN: Not underappreciated, but disappointed - disappointed because I wanted to continue to work. You see, creative people don't hang it up. We don't walk away. We don't want to sit on a lawn chair. We don't want to go out and play golf. We don't want to travel the world. We want to continue to work. And so I was disappointed when I realized I was age 65 and my career was essentially over. Well, it wasn't over because I found out I was able to continue to work.

GREENE: You did. And you kept coming to Disney and actually somewhat...

NORMAN: (Laughter) I guess I did.

GREENE: ...Coined the term floydering (ph), which I guess is what happens when Floyd is loitering. Tell me what exactly that was referring to.

NORMAN: Well, that's correct. I had the opportunity once I retired from full-time employment. I came back to the Disney studio to work as a freelancer. And so most freelancers work at home, and they bring their work in once the job is completed. Well, I decided I didn't want to work at home. I missed the camaraderie of the big studio. I missed talking to people. I missed being around the action. And so I decided I wanted to just stick around Disney. So I...

GREENE: You weren't going anywhere.

NORMAN: (Laughter) I found an empty office, and I moved in. I was probably in violation of some rule or law or whatever, but there I was.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLOYD NORMAN - AN ANIMATED LIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Everyone knows who Floyd is. Hey, it's Floyd Norman. Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know, somehow it gets out that Floyd Norman's here. And people will come sidling up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He's like an ambassador for this business.

NORMAN: So I guess my position is somewhat unique. I don't know what you would call me. Maybe I continue to floyder (ph) at Disney (laughter).

GREENE: (Laughter) The filmmakers of "An Animated Life" say that Norman's floydering (ph) and his longevity in the animation business reminded them of a non-animated movie character, Forrest Gump, because his work pops up through decades of animation.

As you look back at your life and career, I mean, what do you make of that?

NORMAN: Well, that's interesting, especially having had the opportunity to meet and work with a guy like Tom Hanks, who played Forrest Gump.

GREENE: Oh, wow. OK. Then you have some special insight.

NORMAN: Yeah. It's kind of special to me, having worked on the "Toy Story" films and...

GREENE: That's very cool.

NORMAN: ...Being involved with "Saving Mr. Banks." But Forrest was the guy who just sort of showed up everywhere. And so a lot of people have looked at me when it came to the animation business, where I was a guy who was showing up at Hanna-Barbera, showing up at Pixar, at Disney and just popping up all over the place.

And that's because I love this business. And I never wanted to be apart from it. So in that sense, I guess I have been sort of the Forrest Gump. Hopefully, you know, there to help and to encourage, but never wanting to be too far from the business because I love it so much.

NORMAN: Floyd Norman, it has been a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

NORMAN: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure as well.

GREENE: The documentary, "An Animated Life," opens in selected theaters tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.