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Samuel Ernest Wright of Walden NY, passed away peacefully at home after a three-year battle with cancer, which he fought with unwavering strength, grace and his trademark sense of humor.
Sam was born in the fall of 1948 in Camden, SC to Richard and Louise Wright. A popular student at Camden High School, Sam was not only a scholar, he was also a naturally gifted athlete, and had even been encouraged to pursue a career in the NFL. But it was also at Camden High that Sam was first bit by the acting bug, when he was cast in a controversial production of Sitting Bull, and was so taken by the connection with an audience, his focus shifted from football to the arts. After high school, Sam attended South Carolina State University with the hopes of studying dramatic arts, but the school didn’t have an acting department- so he lobbied to start one, which eventually lead to Sam being offered a scholarship at CW Post in their drama department. Sam had a natural curiosity about the human condition; he took an interest in studying people’s mannerisms, movements, actions and behaviors. He was a keen observationist, and his inquisitive nature set the foundation for an acting career that spanned five decades.
In 1968 Sam moved to NYC to pursue acting full time- a dream many thought was foolish and irresponsible. The idea that a black man from the south could move to New York City to become an actor was unheard of at the time. But Sam found some early success in New York, and in 1973, he was offered a role in a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona in London’s West End. It was there that he met his wife Amanda, a dance director. When the run of “Verona” came to an end, Sam left London- and Mandy, behind and returned to NY. During the course of the five hour trans-Atlantic flight, Sam made a life-altering decision; when he landed at JFK, he walked right off the plane and straight to a payphone, where he called Mandy and asked her to marry him. Although their courtship was brief, she left her native home of London behind and moved with Sam to Queens, NY., where they were married in a private ceremony June 14,1974. Sam soon landed a role in a Broadway production of Pippin, where he replaced Ben Vereen as the lead. Since then, he has been in over 18 Broadway productions- most notably, 1983’s The Tap Dance Kid, for which he received his first Tony nomination for portraying the unsympathetic father of a boy- played by a young Alfonso Ribeiro, who’s life dream was to become a performer, and for originating the role of Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King, for which he received a Drama Desk Award and his second Tony Nomination.
When he wasn’t acting on stage, Sam worked steadily on the small screen as well, with over 25 credits to his name and recurring roles on hit shows like The Cosby Show, All My Children, The Dukes of Hazard, and more. He also portrayed the purple grape in the iconic series of Fruit of the Loom commercials that became synonymous with the brand. Sam also acted in several films, most notably the Clint Eastwood directed Bird, playing the coveted role of jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie to Forest Whittaker’s Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Sam and Mandy moved from Queens to Rockland County NY to start a family, and in 1977 their daughter, Dee Tabitha was born. Two years later Mandy gave birth to their son, Samuel Emrys, and in 1982 their family was made complete with the birth of their daughter Keely Ann. When the children were young, Sam auditioned for a role in a new Disney animated film as a voice actor, which typically had a shorter and more forgiving shooting schedule, allowing Sam to spend less time away from Mandy and the children. That role became the pop-culture icon that we know as Sebastian the Calypso Crab from The Little Mermaid, and the film’s success earned Sam a Grammy Award for Best Original Song Under the Sea- which also achieved RIAA certification and double platinum status, as well as an Oscar for Best Original Song in a Film. It also enabled the young family to move from the suburbs of NYC to the town of Walden, where the children could enjoy a more pastoral childhood. In 1997 Sam was offered the prodigious role of Mufasa in Elton John and Tim Rice’s joint venture with Disney in their Broadway production of Lion King. For six years, Sam commuted back and forth daily from Walden to Pride Rock, just so he could be home with his family every night. Of the many diverse and extraordinary roles Sam has played in his long and storied career, it was the role of devoted husband to his wife Mandy and adoring father to his three children that was his greatest achievement and brought him immeasurable joy.
As the children grew, Sam’s desire to work locally so that he could be present in their daily lives did too, and in 1993 he and Mandy opened a performing arts studio in Walden, and through the couple’s tenacity, dedication and love of both creativity and community, the Hudson Valley Conservatory and The New Rose Theatre were born. Touted as the cultural epicenter of Walden Sam and Mandy dedicated their lives to teaching thousands of young students dance, drama, and the idea that even the most foolish and irresponsible dream can come true with determination and heart.
Sam and Mandy made a home for themselves in Walden and a wonderful life for their children, who are now raising children of their own with the same strength, kindness, grace, wisdom and inquisitive nature of their "Pop". It will be through them that Sam’s spirit lives on.
Sam is survived by his beloved wife Mandy, his three children Dee, Sammy and Keely, his son in law Chris Kelly, his daughter-in-law Megan Wright, Zak Kiernan, Chris Hale, Rupert Fuentes, his three grandchildren Ella Jean Kelly, Willow Mae Kelly and Maddox Emrys Wright, his sister Edna, his great niece Renee, the Murfitt family, his children’s in-laws the Kelly and McCarthy families, and generations of fans who had a love and appreciation for his work.
To honor the life and continue the mission of our beloved leader and mentor, the New Rose Theatre Group will be starting The Samuel E Wright Scholarship Fund. This fund will be used to support the children, school and community of young artists he created at the Hudson Valley Conservatory. If you would like to make a contribution to the fund checks can be mailed to:
Please make checks payable to The New Rose Theatre Group
New Rose Theatre Group
PO Box 702
Walden NY 12586
Or directly to New Rose Theatre Group Venmo @Rose-Group
We would also love for you to share any stories or images you have with Sam to firstname.lastname@example.org
Due to capacity limits, a family service will be livestreamed on our funeral home Facebook page- Millspaugh Funeral Home- on Thursday May 27, 2021 at 11am.
Memorial visitation will be Friday May 28, 2021, 2-4 pm and 7-9 pm, at Millspaugh Funeral Home, 22 Bank St. Walden, NY 12586. At the family's request it is asked that masks be worn by everyone in attendance.