*Samuel E. Wright, the two-time Tony-nominated actor who voiced the Trinidadian-accented character of Sebastian the Crab in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid, died peacefully Monday night at his Walden, New York home after a a three-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 74.
His daughter Dee told The Hollywood Reporter: “He was the brightest light.”
Wright made his Broadway 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.
His first Tony nomination came in 1984 for his portrayal as a stern father in the musical The Tap Dance Kid. He 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.
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 reported 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.’”