The cast and crew gain some weight for Fat Albert
The defining characteristic of Fat Albert is that he's, well, fat. To assume this larger-than-life persona, Kenan Thompson had to wear a fat-suit, which weighed over twenty pounds. He sounds like a good sport about it. "It was pretty comfortable," Thompson says. "They form-fitted it to my body. It was form-fitted to my knees and my elbows, so I still had my mobility. It was just hot. We were suited in the desert, so it was hot."
Thompson has always been a fan of the cartoon. "I liked the idea of the atypical hero," he says. "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. And I always loved Mushmouth. He's the greatest, ever."
"Bill Cosby's a funny dude," Thompson continues. "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 episode—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."
Much of the cast is too young to remember the original broadcast of Fat Albert. Keith Robinson, who plays the role of Bill, says that, "When the actual show was on, we weren't around . . . My memories of Bill Cosby are basically from The Cosby Show, and Picture Pages, and stuff like that. And then when we started the movie, they gave us a whole stack of DVDs, so we got acquainted with the series really quick."
The cast all agrees that the message of Fat Albert is completely positive, uplifting, and innocent. Aaron Frazier, who plays Old Weird Harold, says, "You look at Fat Albert. He was overweight. But he was still able to help people. 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."
Shedrack Anderson, who plays Rudy, also believes in the importance of this wholesome message. "I think the great thing about this film is that it brings a positive message, not just to the inner-city, but everywhere," Anderson says. "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."
Adds Thompson: "The whole movie is a message. I think the main message is to just try and be a nice guy, to try and help people. Plus, it's sugar-coated with fun."
Fat Albert the movie is set partially in the cartoon—which is still stuck in an earlier generation—and partially in a modern-day high school. Thompson was struck by the contrast in the generations. "Cosby and them grew up in the 50's," he says. "That's the mentality of before rock n' roll. The way that they would approach girls, the way they have a crush on girls, it's totally different from our generation. They respected their mommies and daddies and stuff. Sometimes I wish that I grew up in the 70's, but I was born in '78, so I came close."
When asked how similar he is to his character, Thompson says that, "Fat Albert is a little bit more of a Good Samaritan than I am. 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." He laughs.
Thompson says that it was not very difficult to slip into the role, but that he wasn't sure how often to employ the Fat Albert "voice." "The most difficult thing was to try and figure out where and when to keep the ‘voice' going. We were going back and forth on that. I didn't want him to talk like this [here he imitates the funny Fat Albert voice] when we're supposed to be serious." As far as preparation for the role, "I watched a lot of cartoons, episodes, DVDs. But 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."
One of the most entertaining parts of the film is the back-and-forth between Old School—where the gang comes from in the cartoon—and New School—a modern high school culture. Thompson says that he is both Old School and New School. "I like to keep current, but I do like Stevie Wonder, things like that. I like music, you know what I mean—you have to know your history. You gotta know your Old School. And the New School—because I love ‘Lil John."
Fat Albert hits theaters on Christmas Day. For Christmas, Thompson jokingly says that he just wants "the movie to do really well!" Then he pauses, thinks, and says that all he can think of wanting is "curtains for my new place."
From the constant joking and the bubbling enthusiasm, it's clear that the cast had a genuine camaraderie. Director Joel Zwick says that that very energy was integral to the film. "I had a real good time. The energy level was scary. When I started the movie, I was actually 16 years old," Zwick 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."
Zwick was thrilled with the cast. "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 craft—although I was totally amazed about how great they turned out to be on that level—I wanted nice people."
The casting of Thompson epitomizes this process. Zwick made an audition tape of Thompson doing Fat Albert, and then he showed it to Bill Cosby. "Cosby looked at it for no more than 15 seconds, and said, ‘Hire him.' All that Cosby picked up was his sweetness. He couldn't care if he was funny or not funny—anything about him except that he seemed to evoke a certain kindness and sweetness that he wanted in the character of Fat Albert."
Zwick talks about some scenes that were cut from the movie, and will probably make the cut for the DVD. "There's a kissing scene that we cut because, let's face facts, 12-year-old boys are gagging during kissing scenes. The ‘Unforgettable' scene [where the cast sings] –which is a gorgeous moment in the movie—just slows the movie at a time where the movie could not be slowed. It was just in the nature of how to tell the story efficiently and cleanly—that stuff got lost. There's a wonderful scene when they first find the junkyard—that will be there." There are also some additional scenes featuring Mushmouth that will be on the DVD.
Bill Cosby, of course, is the creator, original voice, and guiding force behind Fat Albert. He also co-wrote the film, but Zwick says that there were no turf wars or disagreements over the material. "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."
Even though the film hasn't yet hit theaters, it's never too early to start thinking about 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 story—he doesn't want to write this next one, he just wants to pitch the story—and hopefully we can find a story that can take the characters in different places than this one did."