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The Lion King is one of the most popular movies that Disney animation has ever produced. It's become such a part of the culture that it's hard to imagine anything about the movie being different. However, one voice actor very nearly got fired just as things were getting started. Ernie Sabella was cast to give voice to the role of Pumba, one of the films' pair of comic relief characters. The fact that comedy was the goal became a problem as director Rob Minkoff says that after the first recording session, the jokes just weren't working. According to Minkoff...
We almost had to lose Ernie Sabella. We did our first session, we cut it together, we played it and the jokes didn't land. It wasn't his fault, it was completely our fault. So after the meeting, the [executives] were disappointed about it, and said, 'Maybe we should look to recast him.'
Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella portrayed the comedic duo of Timon and Pumba in The Lion King. As with many comedy sidekick characters in Disney films, the pair became an instant hit, which makes the fact that it almost didn't happen surprising. Apparently, as Rob Minkoff tells it, the two came in and actually auditioned together, which is unusual for animated film auditions. They auditioned to play two of the hyenas, but the two were so funny together that it was decided to cast them as the meerkat and warthog, and the characters were actually created around the actors.
Rob Minkoff tells Yahoo that the reason Ernie Sabella's jokes weren't landing had nothing to do with Sabella himself. He implies that the jokes themselves just weren't very good and the script needed a rewrite. At a certain point, even the greatest comedian can only do so much with jokes that aren't funny.
Because Rob Minkoff had seen Earnie Sabella and Nathan Lane be hilarious together, he knew that the issue wasn't with Sabella's performance. He pushed to be given a second chance to make the role work and this time, with better material to work with it would seem, it worked.
I put in a pitch and said please give us a second chance, because I think he's gonna be great, and Ernie and Nathan are so good together. So they said, 'OK, take another swing at it.' And then the next scene that we played went over like gangbusters, and everybody realized that they were great together. So, we almost lost him.
From James Earl Jones to Jeremy Irons to Robert Guillaume, so many great actors created iconic characters with their voices in The Lion King. At this point, it's difficult to imagine Pumba sounding any other way. It may be the biggest hurdle that the new "live-action" version has to overcome. Fans are so used to the characters sounding one way, that anything that sounds different is going to sound strange in everybody's ear.
The Lion King is now available in the brand new Circle of Life Edition Blu-Ray combo pack.