Samuel E. Wright, whose vocal portrayal of Sebastian the crab in Disney’s The Little Mermaid included the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea,” died yesterday at his home in the village of Walden, New York, of prostate cancer. He was 74.
His death was announced on the Facebook page of the town of Montgomery, New York.
“Sam was an inspiration to us all and along with his family established the Hudson Valley Conservatory,” the tribute states. “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.”
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Though known to millions as the voice of the Jamaican crab who serves as King Triton’s advisor and sings one of the most beloved songs in the Disney canon, Wright has an extensive roster of Broadway credits, beginning with his multiple roles (apostle, leper, reporter) in the original 1971 production of Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1974 he replaced Ben Vereen as the Leading Player in the hit musical Pippin.
By the early 1990s, Wright had appeared on Broadway in Over Here!, The Tap Dance Kid (scoring the first of two Tony Award nominations), Welcome to the Club and, in 1991, the hit Lincoln Center Theater production of Mule Bone by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston with music by Taj Mahal.
In 1997, Wright originated the role of Mufasa in the Broadway production of The Lion King, earning his second Tony nomination
Wright began his television career in 1976 with a series regular role on Ball Four, the baseball comedy starring Jim Bouton, and in 1980 was cast as Officer Turk Adams in a costarring role with Sonny Shroyer on the Dukes of Hazzard spin-off sitcom Enos. Subsequent appearances included roles on All My Children, The Cosby Show, Spencer For Hire and Jonny Zero. In 1988 he played jazz great Dizzy Gillespie in Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird.
The following year would bring his signature role when directors Ron Clements and John Musker cast him as the scene-stealing crab in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Given the movie’s standout song to perform, Wright delivered the impossibly catchy “Under the Sea” with a reggae lilt that would give voice to one of the most famous and loved songs written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
Watch the Under the Sea video below. Wright also performed Mermaid‘s “Kiss the Girl,” itself a Best Song Oscar nominee.
The role would stay with Wright for decades, as the actor voiced the jovial crustacean in sequels and spin-offs including the 1992-94 TV series, video shorts such as Sebastian’s Caribbean Jamboree (1991), Disney’s The Little Mermaid 2
In 2000, Wright voiced another Disney character for the live-action/computer-animated hybrid film Dinosaur. As Kron, Wright played against his friendly Sebastian demeanor to voice the imperialistic, unforgiving leader of the survivalist Iguanadon herd.
Wright is survived by wife Amanda and children Keely, Dee and Sam.