With more than 100 film, stage, and television roles to his credit, actor Ernie Sabella has been working regularly since 1978, including a memorable turn as an overweight nudist reading a newspaper on the subway. But it was only when he voiced Pumbaa, an animated warthog with flatulence issues in The Lion King—which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month—that he became attached to a household name.
Q: You live in Weatogue, Connecticut, now, but what do you remember of your days at Westlake High School in Thornwood?
A: It was a gift to go to Westlake. My musical theater teacher—she must be 80 now—I still talk to her. Her name is Rose Cremonese; what an environment she created. They’d grab any kid off the street and turn them into stars. It was a magnificent program.
Q: Is it true you and Nathan Lane were originally up for the hyena parts in The Lion King?
A: Nathan and I were doing Guys and Dolls, and we auditioned together, and we were just riffing and ad-libbing for the guy that was auditioning us. It really was a miracle we got those parts. I looked up every so often, and I swear, the man’s mouth was wide open.
Q: When a reporter asked [actor Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow without a brain] about not getting any residuals from The Wizard of Oz being televised so much, I think he said, ‘I’ll just have to settle for immortality.’ Do you feel that way?
A: In all the Disney parks all over the world, in Paris and in Japan, that’s me talking. Even at Disney World, at Epcot’s The Land pavilion, I’m part of the film Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable. My brother took his kids there and they said, ‘Hey, that’s Uncle Ernie.’ Finally, I did something that will live on.
Q: ‘The Subway’ was recently named the ‘New Yorkiest’ episode of Seinfeld by New York City’s tourism organization. When you commute via Metro-North, do people ask why you’re not naked?
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A: Sometimes we’ll be pulling into Grand Central, and some guys will slide over and start talking about that scene. But I think the majority of fans are respectful. I was at an IHOP on Sunset Boulevard years ago, when who walks in but Tony Bennett. Still in his tuxedo, too. You wanna go over and say something, you’re playing every Tony Bennett song in your head, but the man is entitled to eat his pancakes in privacy.
Q: This year, you’ll also be married, what, 15 years?
A: Cheryl and I met outside of the backstage door at A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was a matinée, and the sun was shining so brightly. I usually go catch a bite to eat at Sardi’s after a matinée performance, but, this day, I turned down the street in a different direction than my usual route, because it was so bright. And that’s when I met her.