Las Vegas Sun

September 17, 2019

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A real character: Actor Ernie Sabella sets up shop in Southern Nevada

If you see someone who reminds you of a warthog teeing off at Sun City Anthem golf course, don't be alarmed he's warm and cuddly and won't bite.

He is character actor Ernie Sabella, who has been the voice of Pumbaa the warthog in two animated feature films, "The Lion King" and "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride," and he is working on a third, "The Lion King III: Hakuna Matata."

The 52-year-old Sabella has guest-starred on more than 100 television shows, and he sometimes pops up in commercials for such products as NyQuil.

But his career began on Broadway, where he has appeared in such hits as "Guys and Dolls" (1992-95) and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1996).

Sabella also appeared as Amos Hart in "Chicago," both on Broadway (1997-1999) and in Las Vegas, when it was at Mandalay Bay in 1999.

The native of the Bronx, N.Y., is short and round, soft-spoken and genuinely humble. He has one of those faces you recognize, but can't quite place.

"My teachers in college told me I would be a character actor who would work forever, on big jobs, little jobs and freebie jobs," Sabella said. "They said I'd do mainly stuff people would kill for, but I should keep my feet on the ground and know that after the big job, you're back to ground zero."

Today Sabella's feet are firmly planted on the ground at Anthem in Henderson, where he and his wife, Cheryl, bought a home eight months ago.

Pumbaa in Las Vegas?

"Cheryl's parents live here (at Anthem)," Sabella said. 'I was in New York, where we had just finished with Chicago' after 3 1/2 years. I just needed to stop (working on Broadway) for a while. I didn't think I would ever have that feeling, but I was tired. So I stopped."

He said he decided to leave New York one day while walking through Central Park and he saw a temperature gauge that read 2 degrees. His wife wanted to move to California, but when they visited her parents they realized Las Vegas would be a better choice.

"Cheryl has always loved this kind of scenic view, and the weather," Sabella said.

McCarran International Airport allows him easy access to either coast, and Sabella's wife is a computer programmer who works out of their home.

They live about a block from The Revere golf course at Anthem. Sabella says he became addicted to golf while performing in "Chicago" during its Las Vegas run.

"My wife even bought me a putting green (for the backyard)," Sabella said.

A career move

Living in Las Vegas hasn't hurt Sabella's career.

"I'm doing 'Lion King' here," he said. "Someone picks me up in a car, brings me to a (recording) studio on Flamingo (Road) and I record my part. They flew me to New York so I could record a song with Nathan."

Nathan is Nathan Lane, the voice of Timon the meerkat in "The Lion King."

Lane and Sabella have been friends for more than 20 years. They appeared together on Broadway in "Guys and Dolls" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and co-starred in the 1997 movie "Mouse Hunt."

Sabella drives to Los Angeles every month or so for his recurring role as attorney Harland Bassett on "The Practice," which airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on ABC (Channel 13).

"They want to write me into more episodes (of 'The Practice')," Sabella said. "I'm not independently wealthy, but I convinced the producers on this particular project that if they could get me in once a month, or twice, that's all I wanted."

He also has filmed two shows for a series that may air on the Disney Channel (Cox cable channel 28) beginning in June. The proposed series does not yet have a title.

Sabella says "Chicago" may also return to Mandalay Bay.

"The producers nearly fell on the floor when they realized I lived here," he said. "They wouldn't have to pay me per diem."

Sabella said he isn't sure he would be offered a spot in the musical. Even if he was, he says he isn't sure he would accept the offer.

"I told my agents not to pursue it too hard," Sabella said. "It's going to be very time consuming."

Sabella has a lot of irons in the fire.

"There's plenty of work," he said. "So much you could kill yourself working, and I don't want to do that."

Since getting married for the first time two years ago, Sabella's attitude about working has changed.

"Before, there was no reason to stay home," he said.

Dying is easy ...

Sabella has led a charmed life -- for nearly dying when he was a child.

"I was a very sick child," Sabella said. "I wasn't supposed to live. I had a brain tumor, asthma, this and that.

"You wake up in morning and can't get your breath. When it comes to appreciating every single moment of your life, I've got that down."

His mother was Lorraine Sweeny, a big-band singer in and around New York City during the 1940s.

"I always remember her singing around the house and encouraging me to sing," Sabella said. "At bath time we would be singing -- it was wonderful. She always said, 'You sing wonderful. Sing louder. Keep singing.'

"She was a truly compassionate, loving, understanding poet of a person."

Sabella attended Westlake High School in Thornwood, N.Y., which had an outstanding performing arts program.

"They bused us into New York to see Broadway shows and the opera," he said, "and we would put on two or three musicals a year at the school, and one or two in the summer. I was in all of them."

Sabella went to college at the University of Miami, where he majored in theater.

"I went to Miami because Mom and Dad had a condo on the beach," Sabella said. "They said, 'Come on down and stay with us.' My bedroom had a view of the ocean."

After college, there wasn't much struggling to get his career going. His first audition resulted in a part in the 1976 Broadway production of the "Robber Bridegroom," starring Barry Bostwick.

After spending five years performing in a variety of Broadway shows, Sabella decided to go to Los Angeles in 1981 to see if he could get into television. It took him six weeks, but he landed a recurring role on "Hill Street Blues."

"I played a Vietnam vet who was shell-shocked, brain damaged," Sabella said.

In all, he said, he has appeared in more than 100 roles on television, including that of a nude subway rider on "Seinfeld."

Although the offers keep coming in, Sabella says he is taking life a little easier now that he and his wife have a home in Henderson.

"I love the smell of creosote and sage," he said. "Those are bushes, I just found out."