Thank Ernie Sabella for boosting the status of warthogs everywhere if not on the food chain, at least in our hearts. His gravelly vocal performance as Pumbaa in Disney's The Lion King has already passed into popular culture with lines like, ''They call me MISTER pig.''
''I wasn't thinking, 'Oh you'll be immortalized as a Disney character forever' that far ahead,'' insists Sabella. ''It was more like, 'Oh, I hope I get a callback.'''
And that is what he got after just one reading done while he played Harry the Horse in Broadway's Guys and Dolls. When he saw sketches of Pumbaa, Sabella came up with a voice: ''I thought of Wallace Beery in Treasure Island.'' Then, as the recording went on, a gentler Pumbaa emerged. ''I thought [animator] Tony Bancroft captured me, not only in essence, but he made me slimmer on screen,'' jokes Sabella, who's been approached to do a cartoon series for Disney, The Adventures of Pumbaa and Timon. He already has an episode in mind: Pumbaa dreams he's an opera star, Pumbaarotti. ''I like singing,'' he says breaking into the song, ''Hakuna Matata!'' He stops to explain: ''It means no worries, no problems.''
And what does Pumbaa mean? Says Sabella, obviously enjoying his new fame, ''It means a three-bedroom condo on Central Park West.''