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Lane recalls role ahead of ‘Lion King’ 30th anniversary

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: June 1, 2024, 5:57am

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Nathan Lane laughs when asked what he recalls about creating the role of Timon, the mischievous meerkat, in the 1994 animated film “The Lion King.” Timon, along with his happy-go-lucky warthog pal Pumbaa, befriend the young lion Simba in the movie.

“I do remember we were then performing in ‘Guys and Dolls,’ so we would go in early sometimes to record,” Lane says of himself and Ernie Sabella, who played Pumbaa to Lane’s Timon. “While we were recording, Ernie would make flatulent noises to amuse me in the middle of his speech.

“He would just fart,” Lane says, laughing. “And so I would laugh. That inspired them to make Pumbaa a flatulent creature, and it was incorporated into the film, and in the song, ‘Hakuna Matata.’”

Lane and Sabella were to reprise their roles on stage at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday and Saturday, May 24-25, for a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the film, which was to screen to the accompaniment of a live orchestra. (Listen closely to the trombones during “Hakuna Matata”; there’s no telling what you’ll hear.)

Others scheduled to appear include Jeremy Irons, the original Scar; Jason Weaver, who sang the original Young Simba; Billy Eichner, who played Timon in the 2019 remake; and South African singer-composer Lebo M, who collaborated with film composer Hans Zimmer on the score to add authentic African voices.

Performers not in the original or remade films include Jennifer Hudson, Heather Headley, and North West, the 10-year-old daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and the cast of the Broadway musical version of the movie will be on stage at times, too.

In an interview edited for length and clarity, Lane talked about how he landed the role of Timon in “The Lion King,” why not everyone thought it was going to become a hit, and what makes “The Lion King” even more affecting than “Bambi.”

You’d worked in theater for years, but had only made a handful of movies when you and Ernie Sabella joined the cast of “The Lion King.” Tell me how you got that part.

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It gets very “Rashomon.” Ernie has his version of this story; I have mine. And I’m sure that the people casting or the directors remember something else. Ernie and I were doing “Guys and Dolls” at the time.

What I remember is this: We were both reading for hyenas. (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings ended as the hyenas.) I was going to go in and Ernie was going to wait for me; we were gonna get lunch or something. And I said, “Would it be OK if Ernie and I read together,” because, you know, it’s three different characters and it would be helpful to play off of someone.

We improvised a bit and then we left. Then like a month or two later we were told they were developing these characters for us of a meerkat and a warthog. I’m trying to piece it all together. Since it was a rather serious film, with the death of a father, and being thrown into the wilderness, perhaps it needed some comic relief.

How did those characters develop?

When we showed up, they showed us the drawings. Then we were like, “Well, what do you want them to sound like?” They said, ‘Well, you’re doing “Guys and Dolls,” that’s kind of the right feel for these two guys. They’re sort of Damon Runyan-esque characters.

And so [he laughs] I made Timon a Brooklyn Jew. Ernie, he very cleverly based the voice partly on Michael V. Gazzo from “The Godfather” movies. The character actor who’s very kind of raspy. [Gazzo played the Oscar-nominated role of Frank Pentangeli from “Godfather II.”] And the cadence was based on Wallace Beery, who had a very deliberate kind of cadence.

This was a big production. Did you expect it would be as big a hit as it was?

Not really, no. Nobody wanted to work on this film. That’s sort of the backstory. Nobody was excited about “King of the Jungle” (its name before “The Lion King”). I was told everybody wanted to work on “Pocahontas.” This was sort of the lesser thing. Little did they know [he laughs] it would become this monster franchise.

We were asked to do press. There was a presentation of like two scenes from the film, where Jeffrey Katzenberg (head of Walt Disney Studios at the time) came out with a real lion. Maybe a couple of lions. Talked while the lions sort of looked over the press, like, ‘Who could I eat?’ Then Ernie and I would come out and entertain the crowd and then sing “Hakuna Matata.” When I saw the footage from the film, I thought, “Wow, this really impressive stuff and could be successful.”

And when it was released and people saw it?

You just had that feeling when you saw it. You just thought, “Oh, wow, this really works in a big way.” It’s fun and entertaining, but it’s also emotional.

It has like “Bambi” only it’s worse. Because in “Bambi” its, “Mother? Mother?” A gunshot and “Mother? Mother?” That seemed like the worst that could ever happen. And then in this, (Simba) literally sees Mufasa, his father, on the ground, and then (his uncle) Scar blames him. So it’s not only the death of a parent, but guilt is thrown in for good measure.

That was really heavy. So by the time Ernie and I came on it was like people roared with laughter. People just were so relieved there were two light-hearted fellas.

You and Ernie also get to sing the two best-known songs, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”

We just did the verse (on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”). We don’t really sing the song for the lovers.

What was it like recording those?

Oh, man, Peter, it’s so long ago. I can remember flying in, having jet lag. Recording it with an orchestra and Hans Zimmer and it was unbelievable.