Interview and Written By: Dan Deevy
In downtown Philadelphia, home of the Fat Albert junkyard, TheCinemaSource had an opportunity to meet the cast and crew of Fat Albert. What were they like? Well, this anecdote should say it all. There’s a deleted scene in the movieâ€”which will eventually make its way to the DVDâ€”where the gang sings a version of “Unforgettable.” When asked about the scene, with only the slightest prompting, they’re good-natured enough to singâ€”yes, sing!â€”and at 10:30 in the morning!â€”for a room full of journalists.
When they weren’t singing, they were laughing, swapping jokes, taking digs at each other, and then gushing about how much the material meant to them. And it’s real. In the movie, the gang has an infectious camaraderie, and it’s clear that the chemistry is genuine.
“I had a real good time. The energy level was scary,” Director Joel Zwick says. “When I started the movie, I was actually 16 years old,” he jokes. “I sensed that literally within five minutes of pulling this cast together, the key to this movie was going to be my harnessing this insane energy level, and getting it on tv.”
The energy was driven by the compatibility of the cast, something that Zwick sought from the very beginning. “Every single one was my first choice,” he says. “I knew nothing about the Fat Albert series. My kids were just a little bit too young, and I was definitely too old. So I got some DVDs and kind of looked at them. And I made the determination for myself that it wasn’t really a character-driven comedy. It was a moral. Little moral tales that were being told. So what I wanted to capture was a kind of innocence and sweetness of purpose from the actors. I was less concerned about their level of craftâ€”although I was totally amazed about how great they turned out to be on that levelâ€”I wanted nice people.”
Underneath the bubbly goofiness, in both the tv show and the movie, is a sweet morality-tale. Each member of the cast believes in this wholesome outlook. “I think the great thing about this film is that it brings a positive message, not just to the inner-city, but everywhere,” says Shedrack Anderson, who plays Rudy. “Everyone from every walk of life can get something from this film. That’s what’s important. This is a total family movie. Anybody can go and learn something from it.”
Aaron Frazier (who plays Old Weird Harold) agrees. “You look at Fat Albert. He was overweight. But he was still able to help people,” Frazier says. “Besides all our differences, he was still able to go out there and solve people’s problems. He could look beyond the naked eye and see what’s inside, and recognize the real love inside the characters.”
So what does Fat Albert himself have to say? “I liked the idea of the atypical hero,” says Kenan Thompson, who stars in the title role. “Fat Albert. That was really creative of Bill to go in that direction for a hero, instead of the muscle-bound guy or whatever. Just the fact that he always wanted to solve problems, and how everybody ran up behind Fat Albert. I thought that was cool . . . Bill Cosby’s a funny dude. And it all came across in the cartoon. I liked that part of it, but my favorite part of it was the music. All of those different songs in the episodeâ€”it wasn’t that it was that great, but it was so funny. Because they would make up songs about not skipping school, or don’t drink and drive, or stuff like that. As a kid growing up in the 80’s, it was good musical stuff.”
Many longtime fans of the tv show will wonder it the movie, which is live-action, after all, treats the material with respect. Thompson says that’s not an issue. “The movie is not a continuation of the series. It’s a story of its own, in a way. So we were free and open to do what we wanted, pretty much, but we still. We were pretty much in the ballpark of what everyone’s familiar with, but we were doing a new thing to it.”
In real life, how much is Thompson like Fat Albert? “Fat Albert is a little bit more of a Good Samaritan than I am,” Thompson says, laughing. “If he’s driving by and sees someone with a flat tire, he’ll help them change it. I’m more of the type to roll down the window and say, ‘Are you okay?’ and maybe keep driving. But I’m not a bad guy.”
Even though Bill Cosby is the man behind Fat Albert, Zwick says that he had Cosby’s blessing to make the movie his own. “Bill Cosby has been noted in his career for being a perfectionist, and for being hands-on. That’s been his modus operandi and his rap. I came out to Philadelphia to meet Cosby. The first thing I said to him was, ‘I know you’re Bill Cosby. I know you’re an icon. I’ve seen all your work. But I’m going to tell you one thing. If this doesn’t become my movie, we’re going to fail.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You got it brother. Just take off and do it.’ And you know something? He just let me do it. As long as he felt the sensibility was in the world that he felt it should be in. From that point on, he was nothing but supportive.”
So if even movies like Agent Cody Banks get a sequel, what can we expect in terms of Fat Albert 2? “I think that if it does well, they’re going to want to make a sequel,” Zwick says. “I know that they’ve got the cast all signed to deals, which will allow them to make the sequel. I think it’s story-based. I’m a story-based director. I intend to do it, unless the story is so completely absurd that I believe the integrity of the project is not one that I want to get behind. And I don’t wish to retread the same material. I don’t’ have enough years left to retread stuff that I’ve already done. I hope that they can find a fresh take. They’ll start to work on that. Cosby will pitch a storyâ€”he doesn’t want to write this next one, he just wants to pitch the storyâ€”and hopefully we can find a story that can take the characters in different places than this one did.”