Disclosure: This post is part of my all expense paid trip to Walt Disney World. However, all opinions are 100% mine.
Ernie Sabella is the voice of one of the most beloved characters in The Lion King – Pumbaa! As part of my recent Walt Disney World press trip, I had the opportunity to sit down with this great talent and discuss his role in The Lion King, how he came to the role, and more. Ernie Sabella is just as charming in real life as he was as Pumbaa. He had such a lighthearted yet genuine air about him! What an experience!
Ernie Sabella and His Thoughts on The Lion King
As I mentioned in a previous post, The Lion King is now a part of the Walt Disney Signature Collection, and to celebrate one of the most successful animated movies of all time and its release on Blu-Ray/DVD + Digital combo pack, I’m thrilled to bring you this interview with Ernie Sabella to give you an even more personal look at the film.
Becoming Part of the Lion King Family
Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane (voice of Timon) were the best comic relief duo of any Disney movie, in my opinion, but there was a time 25 years ago when they actually didn’t know if they would be a part of the film or not. In fact, their audition for the roles was actually the product of happenstance. They were both in NYC performing Guys and Dolls on Broadway, and the opportunity just sort of fell into their laps.
“We were doing Guys and Dolls at night, uh, Nathan Lane and I,” he said, ” And it was an audition for something called – I think – King of the Jungle or something like that. And, um, okay, Disney. Wait, they said, uh, to Nathan, ‘We want you to read for Hyena.’
“‘Oh, are there two of them?'” (Nathan)
“‘All right, come on.'” (Nathan to Ernie)
“I said, ‘What?'”
“‘Come on. We’ll read for Hyenas. We’ll get this over with.'” (Nathan)
“And, um, we went in to like a little padded booth. And, uh, read the lines, and, uh, a little improv ’cause we worked together. And then he said something, and I said something.”
Finding Out He and Nathan Got the Roles
Ernie went on to say that after about two months, he realized that he hadn’t heard anything from Disney. He finally called his agent who told him he’d gotten the part, and Disney wanted him to come in and start working on the film. The only problem was that Ernie couldn’t remember what he’d done in the audition.
“And, Nathan says to me in the elevator, ‘What did we sound like?’
“I said, ‘What?'”
“‘What did we sound like? I don’t remember what we did. That was two months ago. What are they expecting to hear?”
“I said, ‘Uh, I don’t – I don’t know.'”
“The elevator doors open, and now we’re in a big loft type apartment. And there is Tim Rice, Elton John, Rob, Don, and a big piano. We’re walking very slowly to this piano. And didn’t even want to say hello, might be the wrong voice. So, uh, I’m nodding. Want to come over here? Now, uh, they showed us the drawings. Neither one of us is saying a word. And then we get to the piano.”
“‘Let’s just read the first scene that you guys appear.'”(One of the people at the piano)
“And at that time I think I had the first line, which was ‘He’s so cute and all alone. Can we keep him?’ So, uh, I borrowed from, not knowing at the time, but I must’ve seen the Godfather recently.”
Not Realizing the Role Was His
For eight months, Ernie and Nathan were going back and forth for parts of the film because the process of voice over can take months and months. All the while Ernie thought it was some sort of extended casting thing. What Ernie didn’t know what that Disney had locked him in in their minds for Pumbaa from the first audition!
“And now I’m thinking they haven’t fired us yet. They’re writing the – so then we get to Hakuna Matata. And we just kept singing it, you know? And then we came back, another session. Sing that song again. We added this. Hakuna Matata. Not knowing until we saw the first screening – which is half color, half black and white – that it was a coming of age, the boy, the teenager, the adult song. And it was really long. And at the end of the song, Hans Zimmer – who I think is very much responsible for the success of this show.”
“Hans Zimmer said to me and to Nathan, ‘You– you play– you play, uh, a mouth instrument.'”
“I said, ‘I do. I play, trumpet or trombone.'”
“‘Really? Okay, so at the end just do whatever you want to do. So, um, *Ernie makes a trumpet sound* and he kept it in the movie, as they’re coming out of the water. They kept it. They kept it in the movie. And so I went, ‘That’s me!’”
Ernie Sabella Continues to Voice Pumbaa
Ernie Sabella is one of the funniest and humble men alive. The way he and Nathan play off of each other is amazing. And even now that he’s working solo, he is still hilarious. These days, he’s doing the voice of Pumbaa on Disney’s “The Lion Guard” on The Disney Channel. Even though he didn’t want to do the role solo, he’s kept Pumbaa alive and kicking for Disney for all these years, and I’m so glad!
Being able to hear Ernie Sabella reminisce about his role as Pumbaa, working with Nathan Lane, and how it all came together was a real treat. If you love The Lion King, don’t forget to pick up The Lion Kind Blu-Ray/DVD + Digital combo pack for your Disney library. It’s fresh out of the vault and part of the Walt Disney Signature Collection, so snag it ASAP. Because like all Disney movies, once it’s back in the vault, it’s there for a while!
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