Sebastian Enjoys a Long Shellfish Life
03/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
SOME ACTORS MIGHT NOT CONSIDER A crooning crab to be the role of a lifetime. But Sam Wright, who labored for 19 years as a talking grape in Fruit of the Loom commercials, says his move up the food chain has provided "that little piece of immortality I was seeking as a performer."
That's little as in little people. Wright, 43, the voice of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, has been King Crab of the teeniest-bopper set ever since he warbled the crustacean's Oscar and Grammy-winning tune, "Under the Sea," in Disney's animated flick two years ago. Buoyed by the sale of 2 million copies of the Mermaid sound track, Disney spun off a school of Sebastian-inspired records, videos and Disney specials including Sebastian and Sebastian's Party Gras!, two collections of reggae and calypso standards and Sebastian's Caribbean Jamboree, a video that was first broadcast on the Disney Channel in 1990. Sebastian is now nearly gold, and Party Gras! has sold more than 200,000 copies, impressive for an album marketed to tots.
To get into his Sebastian persona, the 6'3" Wright insisted during recording sessions that his microphone stand be raised so he could "feel like I'm small" and that lights be dimmed and tinted blue to simulate Sebastian's undersea world. "Sam wasn't just someone reading lines," says Ellen Woodbury, a Disney animator who helped redraw early Sebastian cels to resemble Wright after he was cast as the crab. "He was Sebastian."
And still is. During a recent promotional tour in L.A., Wright mugged for young fans lined up for autographs at a shopping mall. "You all got to make a Sebastian face!" he said in his best shellfish voice. "Stick out your lower lip and make your eyes big."
Wright does not come by Sebastian's Caribbean patois naturally. His roots are in South Carolina where, as the third child of Richard Wright, a carpenter, and Louise, a domestic worker, he discovered the power of acting at age 5 when he saw A Man Called Peter at a drive-in. "Everyone in the car older than me was bawling, and they were all looking at the screen," recalls Wright. "My little mind went, click, click."
His career didn't click until many years later when, after a brief stint studying drama at South Carolina State College, Wright ended up in New York City in 1971. Penniless, he spent several nights on the street until a small theater group boarded him in the basement in exchange for handyman duties and a turn as a nude statue in an avant-garde play. The production was savaged by then New York Times critic Clive Barnes, who cracked that Wright's 15 minutes of immobility was the "best performance of the whole evening."
More hard times followed. "My friends down in the Bowery would save up money they'd usually spend on liquor and give it to me to go uptown for auditions," says Wright. Eventually he landed a part in the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Next was a role in Joseph Papp's Two Gentlemen of Verona, a gig that took him to London in 1973. There, at a street demonstration to save a London theater, Wright met Amanda, now his wife. Wright noticed her, he says, because she was the only fully clothed person in a group of marching Oh! Calcutta! cast members. "It was raining. It was freezing," recalls Amanda. "And I said, 'No, I will not take my clothes off.' "
When Wright returned to the U.S. that year, Amanda soon followed. By then Wright, who at first had balked at auditioning for the Fruit of the Loom ad—"I don't do commercials. I'm an artist," he had reasoned—was fully into his fruity role. And he was grateful for the steady work between stage (he was nominated for a Tony for The Tap Dance Kid in 1984), soap (All My Children, Ryan's Hope) and film roles (Dizzie Gillespie in Clint Eastwood's Bird).
Now recording vocals for a fall CBS series based on The Little Mermaid and planning a third Sebastian album, Wright is happily reaping the rewards of his undersea life. But back home in the upstate New York town of Walden, where he shares a rambling eight-room house with Amanda and their three children, Dee, 14, Sam, 12, and Keely, 9, his animated alter ego is not always appreciated. "There are little Sebastians stuck all over the house," Wright says. "They're like little icons that we genuflect before: 'Say thank you, thank the crab.' But I think it's starting to mess with Mandy's decor now; everything is red."
Indeed, when Amanda was awakened one recent morning by Wright, in character and working a Sebastian hand puppet, she saw red. "No!" she exclaimed, "not in the bed, Sam! No! Do not bring him in the bed!"
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles