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At 81, a Disney Animator Is Still Fine-Tooning

They tried to force him out at 65, but Floyd Norman simply never left

Floyd Norman

Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/Contour by Getty Images

Floyd Norman

Veteran animator Floyd Norman is a true Disney legend: Besides being the first African-American animator in Disney Studios' history, he's the only Disney filmmaker to work personally with Walt Disney (on 1967's The Jungle Book) and also at the company's Pixar Studios (on 2001's Monsters, Inc.).

A delightful new documentary, FLoyd Norman: An Animated Life, traces 81-year-old Norman's career — which should have ended when Disney abruptly fired him at age 65 but continues to this day as he simply refuses to put away his pencil (or computer mouse). Besides advising animators at Disney, Norman continues to work in animation — most recently as storyboard artist for Cartoon Network's edgy animated series Robot Chicken.

In the clip below — exclusive to AARP Movies for Grownups — Floyd and his wife, Adrienne, recall the disorienting days after Disney gave him the ax. But as Floyd told us, "A good story is a good story."

Floyd Norman's is a good story.

(Video) Floyd Norman's Journey: Hired as the first African-American animator at Disney in the mid-50s, Floyd Norman was devastated when his job was discontinued right after he turned 65.

You were working at Disney for eight years before The Jungle Book came along, one cog in a very large wheel. Then all of a sudden, you're working directly with Walt.

I never expected to work with Walt Disney himself. I was happy just to be working at the studio. I thought that was as good as it gets. But the screenwriter for The Jungle Book had a run-in with Walt. He quit, so Walt needed to put together a new story team, and I was on it. It wasn't something I particularly wanted, but at the Disney studio, you didn't get requests. You were given orders.

Has something been lost since the days when animated films were drawn by hand?

It's still all about the storytelling. When I left Disney in the late '90s to go work at Pixar to make digital films, my working process creating a story was no different from when we were doing hand-drawn films. In fact, it hasn't changed since the 1930s. A good story is a good story.

Well, you've got a pretty good story yourself. Especially when you ran straight into a buzz saw of Hollywood ageism.

Well, you don't have to be 65 to get in trouble. My first run-in with age happened when I was 37. Although I was primarily a writer and a layout artist, I wanted to get into animation. They were looking to train animators, but if you were not in your early 20s, you were deemed too old to be starting out in animation. It's ridiculous when you look back on it: 37 and you're too old? But that's the way it was.

You did break into animation, and you did that as well as story work on dozens of projects for several studios. But Disney was your home — until you turned 65, that is.

It wasn't official, perhaps, but at Disney, 65 was certainly looked at as retirement age. I got called in, and I found out I would no longer have work awaiting me at my desk.

Was there a sense that the technology of animation was passing you by?

No, I never had a problem with the technology. I was one of the first Disney artists to bring a computer to work from home. I had an early Commodore computer, and I would write scripts on it. I just always learned how to use the new tools and turned them to my advantage.

Q. In any case, you didn't retire, did you?

I left for a time, but I found myself coming back. I found myself continually returning to a job and a business that I really loved. So I came back and began just hanging out, looking at what the kids were doing, offering tips and words of advice. I just involved myself in the process because I loved the process. It was all unofficial. I wasn't employed all the time I was doing this. But I really didn't want to play golf or go sit on the front porch in a rocking chair.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.