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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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