COLUMBIA, S.C. — Samuel E. Wright, the South Carolina native who famously voiced “Sebastian the Crab” in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and had an acting career spanning five decades, died this week. He was 74.
Wright died Monday in New York after a three-year bout with prostate cancer, according to his family’s obituary.
“My beautiful, strong, loving daddy is off to his next adventure,” one of Wright’s daughters, Dee Kelly, wrote Tuesday on Facebook. “My heart has so much to say but I’m still processing the fact that the light that was and is my daddy will not be able to physically be here with me.”
Born in Camden, South Carolina, in 1948, Wright got his start in acting while a student at South Carolina State University in the 1960s, according to the school, where he helped launch an acting department. A standout athlete, Wright also performed in shows including Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” and the Greek tragedy “Medea.”
“Sam was a very kind heart. He was a sweet young man,” said Sandra Salley, who served for nearly 40 years as the drama department’s secretary. “He was very lovable.”
Moving to New York City in 1968 to try his hand on the stage, Wright ultimately landed roles in more than 18 Broadway productions, replacing Ben Vereen in “Pippin” and becoming an original cast member of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He was twice nominated for Tony awards: in 1984 for “The Tap Dance Kid,” and in 1998 as the original “Mufasa” in “The Lion King.”
There were movie roles as well — Wright played jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie to Forest Whittaker’s Charlie “Bird” Parker in the Clint Eastwood film, and he frequently showed up on the small screen: In the 1970s, Wright portrayed the purple grape in an iconic series of Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials.
In 1984, Wright co-founded the Hudson Valley Conservatory, a performing arts school in Walden, New York. On its Facebook page, the organization announced the creation of a scholarship in Wright’s memory, saying it was “overwhelmed with the love being sent our way.”
But it was in 1989 that Wright received a role that would introduce him — or at least his voice — to new generations: that of “Sebastian the Crab” in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Wright was awarded a best original song Grammy for “Under the Sea,” which also achieved double platinum status.
“As a kid, I was fascinated with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and more so now after learning that Mr. Wright was the voice that brought so much joy into our lives,” said Davion Petty, S.C. State’s alumni relations director.
A family service was held for Wright on Thursday. A memorial visitation was planned for Friday in Walden, New York.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.