Samuel E. Wright, a veteran stage actor who earned two Tony Award nominations but was best known for voicing the headstrong crab Sebastian in the 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid,” died on Monday at his home in Walden, N.Y. He was 72.
The cause was prostate cancer, which he had been fighting for three years, his daughter Dee Wright-Kelly said.
Mr. Wright performed in eight Broadway shows beginning with “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971. His most prominent role was as Mufasa in the original cast of Disney’s “The Lion King,” which brought him one of his Tony nominations for best featured actor in a musical in 1998. He received another nomination for the same award in 1984 for his role in “The Tap Dance Kid.”
But Mr. Wright reached his widest audience working on several Disney movies, particularly “The Little Mermaid,” in which he voiced the Jamaican crab Sebastian. In the movie, he performs the song “Under the Sea,” in a bid to keep Ariel, a rebellious mermaid princess, from engaging with humans and falling in love with a prince named Eric.
Among the lyrics he sings to try to keep her in the ocean:
“Ariel, listen to me / The human world, it’s a mess / Life under the sea is better than anything they’ve got up there.”
In a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Wright said he was grateful for the role of Sebastian, which he reprised in other Disney movies, appearances and television shows.
“Maybe not every actor would say this, but if I didn’t want to be immortal I wouldn’t be acting,” Mr. Wright told the newspaper. “I do want to make my little mark on the world. An actor’s worst nightmare is to hear, 10 years from now, ‘Sam Wright? Who was Sam Wright?’”
Samuel Ernest Wright was born on Nov. 20, 1948, in Camden, S.C., to Richard Wright, a carpenter, and Louise (Cooper) Wright, who died when Mr. Wright was an infant.
Mr. Wright attended Camden High School, where he was “first bit by the acting bug” when he was cast in a contentious production called “Sitting Bull,” according to his family. He briefly attended South Carolina State University hoping to study dramatic arts, but there was no acting department at the university.
In 1968, he moved to New York City to pursue his dream: acting full-time.
Among his early roles were “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in London’s West End. There, he met his wife, Amanda, a dance director, according to his family. The couple were married in 1974.
On Broadway, he also had roles in “Over Here!” in 1974, “Pippin” in 1974, “Welcome to the Club” in 1989 and “Mule Bone” in 1991.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Wright began to practice “Under the Sea” to prepare for an audition for “The Little Mermaid.” He went across the street to borrow his neighbor’s piano to practice.
Mr. Wright’s vivacious voice helped win “Under the Sea” an Academy Award for music (original song) at the 1990 Oscars and a Grammy Award for best song written specifically for a motion picture or for television in 1990.
He also sang “Kiss the Girl” in the animated film, trying to prompt Eric to kiss Ariel after she lost her voice in a magical exchange with a sea witch named Ursula to become a human and attempt to be with the prince.
Mr. Wright also played Kron, the antagonist dinosaur, in Disney’s 2000 animated film “Dinosaur,” which also has a ride in Walt Disney World Resort’s Animal Kingdom. He also played Dizzy Gillespie in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film, “Bird.”
In 1994, Mr. Wright co-founded the Hudson Valley Conservatory, a performing arts school, with his wife. The conservatory offers classes in acting, music and dance. On Tuesday, the New Rose Theatre Group, a nonprofit group with the conservatory, announced a scholarship fund in Mr. Wright’s name.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Wright is survived by another daughter, Keely Wright; a son, Sammy Wright; a sister, Edna Harris; and three grandchildren.
In reflecting on the lasting impression of her father’s most famous role, Ms. Wright-Kelly said she remembered going to a local movie theater to watch “The Little Mermaid” when it was first released and thinking about how Sebastian looked and acted exactly like her father. “There was my dad,” she said.
“I remember looking around and looking at all the kids’ faces and saying, ‘Oh my God, everybody loves this,’” she recalled. “I was young, but I did know that things were going to shift for us. I realized I was going to be sharing my dad with other people because Sebastian was incredibly loved.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
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