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Samuel E Wright: Unforgettable voice behind Sebastian in ‘The Little Mermaid’

Samuel  E Wright: Unforgettable voice behind Sebastian in ‘The Little Mermaid’
In the original line up for ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, the actor excelled on stage too

Samuel E Wright, an actor who supplied the calypso-inflected voice of Sebastian the crab in Disney’s animated classic The Little Mermaid and later received a Tony Award nomination for his performance as the ill-fated Mufasa in the Broadway version of The Lion King, morreu envelhecido 72.

Before the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid, a box-office sensation that marked the beginning of a new era of Disney animated musicals, Wright had a string of TV, film and Broadway credits including a Tony-nominated performance in the 1983 musical The Tap Dance Kid.

Director Clint Eastwood cast him as jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in Bird, uma 1988 film biopic of saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker (played by Forest Whitaker). And donning purple tights and a bulbous costume, Wright had become known to millions of TV viewers as a bunch of grapes in a long-running ad campaign for Fruit of the Loom undergarments.

But no role in his decades-long career rivalled Sebastian, the crustacean courtier who serves as the loyal and often exasperated minder of Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson), the mermaid princess who yearns to experience life on land.

Wright, for his part, had yearned since his childhood in segregated South Carolina for a role in a Disney film. He had once dreamed of being an animator, using whatever transparent materials he could find to produce a child’s approximation of animation cels.

“I would go into the garage, take out my father’s windowpane, and I would paint Disney characters on it, put it in an envelope, and send it off to Disney,”Ele disse ao Bergen Record of New Jersey dentro 1997. “By the time it got there, I’m sure it was all smashed up. I never got a reply.”

With his rich baritone voice, his talents leaned more toward performance, and when the opportunity arose to audition for a Disney film, Wright went after it with gusto.

“I wanted to wake them up," ele disse The Seattle Times, recalling his audition before Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the composer and lyricist, respectivamente, de The Little Mermaid. “I jumped around the room, leapt on top of the piano, slid from side to side and sang my heart out. Após, eu pensei, ‘Boy, I blew that one.’”

Far from having blown it, Wright had supplied just the Trinidadian accent the songwriters had envisioned for Sebastian. (Wright later told interviewers that he had learned the Caribbean intonation from two roommates at South Carolina State, the historically black college he attended in Orangeburg.)

Wright sang “Kiss the Girl”, a romantic number in which Sebastian leads a menagerie of water fauna in a chorus of ‘sha-la-la-la-la-la’ as he nudges along the timid Prince Eric in his courtship of Ariel. But the showstopper was the steel-drum beating, Grammy-winning “Under the Sea”.

“The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake,” Sebastian sings, desperate to dispel Ariel’s wanderlust. "Querida, it’s better down where it’s wetter – take it from me!”

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, movie critic Michael Wilmington said Wright had earned “himself a place of honour beside Cliff Edwards’s Jiminy Cricket, Edward Brophy’s Timothy, Clarence Nash’s Donald Duck – and Walt’s own Mickey Mouse – in the top-CEL gallery of Disney vocalisations … He should have any audience in his pocket.”

The Little Mermaid won the Academy Award for best original score, with Menken and Ashman also claiming the best original song Oscar for “Under the Sea”. Wright reprised the role of Sebastian in TV, video game and direct-to-video spinoffs over the next two decades, most recently in The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning (2008).

Wright in 1973 while starring in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ at the Phoenix Theatre in London

He continued his association with Disney when he was cast as Mufasa, the protagonist Simba’s father, no 1997 Broadway adaptation of The Lion King. (The original film version was released in 1994 with James Earl Jones as Mufasa.) Dentro 2000, Wright played Kron, an iguanodon, in the Disney computer-animated film Dinosaur.

He traced his family’s heritage to the Maasai people of Kenya and said he took particular pride in wearing a Maasai headdress as Mufasa. Ao mesmo tempo, ele disse, he did not value any single role in his career over another.

“An actor’s worst nightmare is to hear, 10 years from now, ‘Sam Wright? Who was Sam Wright?’” he told the Los Angeles Times. “If you have that kind of attitude, you tend to take each role and make it the best role you’ve done … It doesn’t matter if it’s a cartoon, Dizzy Gillespie or Othello, I’m going to play it with the same fervour — just in case anybody’s watching.”

Samuel Ernest Wright was born in Camden, South Carolina in 1946. (Online reports that he died at age 74 are incorrect, according to his daughter.) He was raised by his father, a carpenter, and his older siblings after their mother died following Wright’s birth.

Accounts varied as to how Wright settled on a career in acting. His daughter says he was sitting in church one day when he looked around him, witnessed the congregation enraptured by the minister and decided that he, também, would become a pastor.

Mais tarde, ela diz, Wright found himself in a cinema and noticed that the screen stars held their audience similarly in thrall. It was then, ela diz, that he set his sights on acting.

He made his TV debut in the minor league baseball comedy Ball Four dentro 1976, later appearing in shows including the Dukes of Hazzard spinoff Enos, the soap opera All My Children, the sitcom The Cosby Show, the detective series Simon & Simon and the procedural Lei & Order. He also had a small role in the 1991 minissérie Separate but Equal, a dramatisation of the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education in which segregated public schools were declared unconstitutional.

On Broadway, Wright was in the original cast of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar and replaced Ben Vereen as the leading player of the theatre troupe at the centre of Pippin, a fictional musical about the son of the French ruler Charlemagne that ran from 1972 para 1977.

The Tap Dance Kid, in which he played the disapproving father of an African American youth who dreams of becoming a dancer, brought him his first Tony nomination; The Lion King brought his second.

Reflecting on her father’s portrayal of Sebastian, Dee Wright-Kelly said that the silly, watchful crab “is my dad” and that “everything that Sebastian said to Ariel, I’ve probably heard in my actual life as his daughter”.

Ao longo dos anos, Wright amassed a collection of toy crabs. “Every time I pass one," ele disse, “I genuflect and say, ‘Thank you for the house, my kids’ education and the fact that we don’t have to eat cheese grits anymore.’”

He is survived by his wife, three children, a sister and three grandchildren.

Samuel Wright, singer and actor, nascido 20 novembro 1946, faleceu 24 Maio 2021

The Washington Post