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Samuel E. Wright, the two-time Tony-nominated actor who provided the Trinidadian-accented voice of the fun-loving Sebastian the Crab in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid, has died. He was 74.
Wright died peacefully Monday night at his home in Walden, New York, after a three-year battle with prostate cancer, his daughter Dee told The Hollywood Reporter. “He was the brightest light,” she said.
The delightful Wright worked often on Broadway; he made his debut in 1971 in Jesus Christ Superstar, replaced Ben Vereen in the original 1972-77 production of Pippin and starred as Mufasa in The Lion King starting in 1997.
He earned his first Tony nomination in 1984 for his portrayal as a stern father in the musical The Tap Dance Kid, then received another for The Lion King in 1998.
Wright also appeared as jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie in Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988) and as the purple bunch-of-grapes character in a series of commercials for Fruit of the Loom underwear.
For The Little Mermaid, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, Wright performed “Under the Sea,” which won the Oscar for best original song, and “Kiss the Girl,” which was nominated in the category as well.
Wright later recorded reggae-infused albums for Walt Disney Records as Sebastian and returned as Triton’s courtier for a 1992-94 Little Mermaid prequel for CBS, for the straight-to-video sequel The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea and for other shows like Marsupilami and House of Mouse.
“Maybe not every actor would say this, but if I didn’t want to be immortal, I wouldn’t be acting,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1991 interview. “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?’ If you have that kind of attitude, you tend to take each role and make it the best role you’ve done. You don’t know what people are going to judge you by. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cartoon, Dizzy Gillespie or Othello, I’m going to play it with the same fervor — just in case anybody’s watching.”
Born on Nov. 20, 1946, in Camden, South Carolina, Wright played Washington Americans ballplayer C.B. “Cool Breeze” Travis opposite Jim Bouton on the short-lived 1976 sitcom Ball Four, then starred in 1980-81 as a cop on The Dukes of Hazzard spinoff Enos.
He also guest-starred on such series as The Cosby Show, Simon & Simon and Spenser: For Hire and did voice work on Dinosaur (2000).
Survivors include his wife, Amanda — they would have been married 49 years in June — and their children, Keely, Dee and Sam.
Wright helped establish the Hudson Valley Conservatory, a performance and event venue in Walden, and on Facebook, the Town of Montgomery wrote:
“Sam and his family have impacted countless Hudson Valley youth always inspiring them to reach higher and dig deeper to become the best version of themselves. On top of his passion for the arts and his love for his family, Sam was most known for walking into a room and simply providing PURE JOY to those he interacted with. He loved to entertain, he loved to make people smile and laugh and he loved to love.”
The 1991 L.A. Times piece noted that Wright kept a collection of little red crabs in his home, “and every time I pass one 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.'”
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