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Sam Wright reflects on career

‘My mind was always on another horizon...’

Posted: April 12, 2018 4:39 p.m.
Updated: April 13, 2018 1:00 a.m.
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Sam Wright

For a young African American boy growing up in a small Southern town in the 1960s, the idea of becoming an actor was a big dream -- some back then might have even called it impossible.

But even as a child, Sam Wright had big dreams to match a prodigious talent -- and equally prodigious drive and ambition.

By any measure, Wright has achieved success most people hardly even imagine, much less pursue. A well-regarded, award winning actor of stage and screen, he is well-known for a variety of roles throughout a solid career, including as the original Mufasa in the first Broadway production of The Lion King, Dizzy Gillespie in the movie Bird and a most endearing and iconic role as Sebastian the Crab in Disney’s 1989 movie, The Little Mermaid.

But he neither rests on laurels nor pines for past glories; indeed, once he is done with something, he is ready to immerse himself in the challenges of the next project, Wright said.

“My mind was always on another horizon,” he said.  “The most exciting work I’ve ever done is what I’m doing now.”

Wright got his first inklings of other horizons while he was still a young boy growing up in Camden.

“I was a little boy and every Thursday night in Camden there was a drive-in movie -- Thursday night was the night black people got to go to the drive in – and everyone made quite an event out of it. They dressed up, took picnic baskets, all that.”

Wright remembered one movie that had his family absolutely transfixed -- what he saw on the screen was a tall man wearing a white collar, black suit and standing behind a box. This person was Dr. Peter Marshall, a minister who at the time was very well regarded by the black community, Wright remembered.

But what he remembered most was the attention the man behind the box received from the crowd; this resonated deeply with young Sam.

The young boy was told the man behind the box was a minister and he decided he, too, wanted to be a minister. Then one day, he asked a couple of questions of his minister and soon discovered two things: one, preachers did not make much money and two, being a minister is a calling – one must be compelled by an overwhelming love of the lord to do it; money is not the motivator.

Young Sam realized this was the wrong calling for him.

“I realized I wanted to be an actor, and after that I was on everybody’s case about it,” he said. “I definitely got bit by that bug in Camden.”

His first stage experience would be in a Camden Community Theater production of Annie Get Your Gun. At that time, he was attending Jackson High School -- Kershaw County Schools had not integrated yet -- but one of his jobs was to go to Camden High School to collect chalk to take back to Jackson, so he knew several teachers there, including chorus/music teacher Julia Halford, who insisted that Sam sing the part of Sitting Bull.

“I did it, and it was fun, but a little dangerous -- it was a little dangerous to be the first to do something,” he said. “After all, I couldn’t go to the school, so why was I doing the play?”

Nevertheless, he said, from that point on, his career path was set.

“From them on, it became this magical journey of kismet and good luck and being able to take opportunity when it arises,” he said.

He graduated Jackson High School in 1967 and attended S.C. State College, now a university, where he and several others would form a theater group. The group would become quite well known and regarded; in fact, S.C. State was the first black college theater group to be invited to the Yale Drama Festival.

Wright is quick to point out that, while talent is important -- obviously, if you don’t have the skill set for a job then you cannot do that job -- persistence, tenacity and professionalism are equally important. Even more important is the realization that no one achieves anything on their own; everyone receives help along the way. Wright immediately notes he received a lot of help from many people all along his journey and for them he is eternally grateful, he said.

“A lot of people think I planned to come to New York and just got famous,” he said. “It really didn’t happen that way at all.”

In fact, he wound up in New York largely on a dare, he said.

One night, Wright said he was waxing effusive about his dreams and intentions when his college roommate, a young man named Lanell Brooks, cut him off.

“He said, ‘you’re not going to do anything -- you don’t have the guts to go to New York,’” Wright said. “I said, ‘you drive me to the bus station now, I’m on my way to New York,’ thinking he’d say, ‘no, forget it.’”

Instead, Brooks said, “Get in the car.”

“At this point, I’m still thinking, OK, I’ll go along with this, and he said, ‘I’m not leaving until I see you get on the bus,” Wright said. “So I got on the bus -- I was going to change buses at the next little town and come back, but I fell asleep -- and I woke up in the New York Ports Authority.”

Wright said his pride would not let him go home. But without any prospects, indeed, without knowing a soul, with no money, nothing at all, he was a little bewildered. Still, however it had happened, he had come to New York to become an actor and he set about trying to make that happen.

“I had a kind of strange pride that I swear came from South Carolina – it told me that if I decided to be a waiter, then I’m never going to be an actor, so I spent 90 percent of my time going to auditions. I was broke,” he said. “Homeless people were my heroes – for some reason, they saw something in me; they took care of me. They would panhandle; they would wash my clothes; they would make sure I had something to eat – and they did that for about four to seven years.”

He eventually got his first theater job in a small playhouse in the east Village, he said. He would paint the inside  of that theater every day and he would play the part of a nude statue in the production the theater was doing at that time; in return he was allowed to live at the theater.

But that job proved that dedication to craft and goals would eventually pay off, he said.

“I became that statue – people would come in and really believe I was a statue, not a living person. I actually got a great review and started getting more auditions,” he said.

Persistence, tenacity, work ethic – and a little playful imagination – helped him again when he went to audition for a part in Jesus Christ Superstar, he said.

“I tried to audition for Jesus Christ Superstar – they threw me out, again and again and yet again,” he said. “After the tenth time, I started coming in disguise. Eighteen times this went on – they would figure out who I was and throw me out the back door.”

But on his 18th try, the director, Tom O’Horgan, stopped the staff from giving Wright the bum’s rush. O’Horgan, who had just taken over as director, was apparently impressed with Wright’s audacious tenacity and invited him back to the stage to sing something from the show.

“I told him I had never been given any of the music, so I couldn’t sing a song from the show,” Wright said. “I sang, ‘Happy Birthday’ instead. He said ‘thank you’ and I was satisfied -- I had finally auditioned for Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Several weeks later, having completely forgotten about this audition, Wright said he was walking down the street when someone walked up to him and said, “Hey, you’re that guy, Sam Wright.”

“I was a little wary at first – I thought I might owe him money -- but then he said, ‘Tom O’Horgan has been looking for you for weeks -- he wants to put you in Jesus Christ Superstar!’”

“From that point on, I got into the show, I worked my way up, and every job I got from then on was because I did something a little silly that made the difference,” Wright said.

Wright, of course, would go on to play a number of memorable roles -- from the bunch of grapes in Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials to major Broadway roles, two of which would earn him Tony Award nominations, to television and movie roles.

“I’m still kind of in a state of shock,” he said. “I did achieve success after a number of years. I take it all with a grain of salt. I was very fortunate.”

When he was working, Wright said he was constantly thinking about other actors, particularly all the black actors in New York, who weren’t working. He would become friends with a number of young up-and comers, including Laurence Fishburne, Felicia Rashad, and Samuel L. Jackson, all of whom at that time were hustling to find work.

“I got so-called famous before any of them,” he said.  “All the people who are working now weren’t when I was -- and vice versa -- that’s how it goes. Fortunately, things do change.”

He also has words of advice for those who would go into show business.

“The days of wine and roses are very fleeting,” he said. “This is a business -- and people tend to forget that. The work is difficult, exhausting and if you are doing theater, you do your own stunts, and that can be dangerous. And you do it night after night. So if you want to do this, if you want to make your living at this, then there are certain things you need to understand.”

For one, once a theater production is set, it is to be done the same way every single night. There is no room or tolerance for creative deviation or improvisation once the show is set, he said.

“It’s something in the business they call the illusion of the first time,” he said. “That means every audience every night walks away with the feeling that they have seen that show for the very first time.”

Ultimately, the work, like any job, becomes something akin to factory work, he said. It’s a job each performer does the same way every night.“Everything about the business -- as you learn and grow -- you realize, it’s a business and there are certain things that are going to happen, just as they do in every single business,” he said. “It’s not a business you can raise a lot of ire over. They don’t care; if you have a problem you just don’t work anymore. There’s no sense of loyalty in the theater,” he said.

He is particularly concerned that younger performers, particularly children, get into the business in the right way and for the right reasons.

“Every show I’ve ever done -- Pippin, The Lion King, Tap Dance Kid -- all of them had a child in it, who grew up in my dressing room. Some become actors; most don’t. They end up bitter toward it.”

“I really don’t believe in child actors -- I think what gives you such creativity are those halcyon days of childhood. So if you’re working every night, you’re not really experiencing childhood.”

“I tell the parents, look, you have a very cute kid who can sing at a very unusual age, but when they turn 16 or 17, they’re not a kid anymore. They’re not unusual – the gimmick is gone – so what you have to do is get them trained so they can progress and continue in the field if they want to work in it. It’s a lot more complicated than the general public thinks. It’s quite a business -- and that shouldn’t be taken lightly if you want to go into it.”

Wright, who is retired from acting now, says he is enjoying his latest role, that of grandfather and “senior camper at Camp Run Amok,” which is what he calls his home whenever his grandchildren are there.

He still teaches -- he and his wife founded and operate the Hudson Valley Conservatory, a performing arts school in Walden, N.Y., he said.

“That has been rewarding -- we have had a number of our students move into successful careers,” Wright said.

He also enjoys giving back in other ways -- indeed, part of his coming to Camden goes back to that sense of community and thankfulness for help received along the way, he said.

“I’m very thankful for the career I’ve had,” he said.  “I don’t want to be self-effacing sounding --  but I feel like I should. I’ve been lucky and was able to take advantage of opportunities when they came.”

“I’m very happy to be coming home -- when I left the South, I left a place that is very different now,” Wright said.  “It was very difficult for an ambitious black kid to grow up in Jim Crow. The nice thing is, I had champions in that little town – they stood up for me – that’s one reason why I am always willing to help a place like the Fine Arts Center when I have the opportunity to do so.”

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