In my line of work, I rarely work with the same people more than once. I often find myself explaining who I am and figuring out who I’ll be spending the next few days with inside an office smaller than a typical half-bathroom. As a get-to-know-you question hoping to spark more conversation, people will sometimes ask things like “What’s your favorite movie?” or “Who’s your favorite actor?”
I can always answer the first one quickly. My favorite movie is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
The second question is never easy.
I don’t have a favorite leading actor. I’ve always had more of a fascination with character actors instead. I often play a little game with myself when watching something and see how quickly I can place someone. I’ll often annoy my wife with commentary like “hey, that person was also in (fill in the blank.)” Sometimes, the need to know where I’ve seen them before is so great I’ll stop what we’re watching and Google them until I’m satisfied that I know where I’ve recognized them from.
By definition, according to Wikipedia, a character actor is a supporting cast member who plays unusual, engaging, eccentric, or memorable roles. One of my favorite character actors in television may not have a household name, but I guarantee everyone knows precisely who he is.
He’s Ernie Sabella.
A New York native like myself, Ernie Sabella grew up in Westchester County. He attended Westlake High School in Thornwood, which is known for its performing arts program. He then went on to major in theater at the University of Miami. Ernie has an extensive stage career, having appeared in numerous Broadway productions, like Guys and Dolls, Chicago, and Man of La Mancha.
Ernie Sabella has an extensive television and film career making numerous appearances in supporting roles, including over 100 roles in television. Over the years, he has also appeared in several commercials for products like NyQuil or Mastercard.
So, without further ado, here are what I consider, in my opinion, the 5 Memorable Characters of Ernie Sabella:
Honorable Mention – Mr. Pond (Married with Children) – I’d like to start with a brief honorable mention, if I may. Ernie made a guest appearance on the Married with Children Season One episode titled “Peggy Sue Got Work.” In this memorable episode, Ernie appears as Mr. Pond, Peg’s new boss at Muldin’s Department Store. As the slimy boss of the clock department, he asks if Peg wants to be called “Ms.” or “Mrs.” Bundy. He then asks if she enjoyed the employee training video, in which he appeared, and brags that he was the one that convinced William Shatner to narrate the video by giving him a free VCR. Before leaving, he makes Peg set the hundreds of clocks in the store for Daylight Saving Time.
5 – Police Officer & Ed Halstead (Newhart) – Ernie plays two different roles on the sitcom Newhart. In an early first season episode, he plays the role of a police officer that gets under Bob Newhart’s skin and later appears as a chatty guest at the Newhart’s Inn. Newhart was a sitcom that ran from 1982-1990 featuring Bob Newhart as he and a cast of eccentric characters operated a small inn in rural Vermont. In the episode “A View From The Bench,” Ernie plays a Police Officer who throws Bob Newhart out of a basketball game, and the two continue funny banter back and forth throughout the episode. Ernie continues to keep tabs on Bob and prevents him from watching what turns into the best game of the year. In another episode, “The Man Who Came Forever,” Ernie portrays Ed Halstead, a guest who books a room at the inn after fighting with his wife. Ed talks Bob’s ear off while Ernie excels at portraying an irritating, self-absorbed man oblivious to his surroundings. Bob struggles to talk sense into him and get him to leave his hotel. Ernie appears again in the next episode, “The Looks of Love,” to continue the storyline.
4 – Donald “Twinkie” Twinkacetti (Perfect Strangers) – Appearing in over 22 episodes during Seasons One and Two of Perfect Strangers, Ernie portrayed Donald “Twinkie” Twinkacetti. Early in the series, Larry and Balki find themselves working at the “Ritz Discount Store” located on the ground floor of their apartment building. Their boss, Donald, is overbearing, obnoxious, and very cheap. He also happens to be their landlord and constantly, and very happily, reminds them that rent on their apartment is due. “Twinkie,” as Larry and Balki referred to him, constantly berated and insulted his employees and often called them by the names “Turnip” and “Yo-Yo.” Unfortunately for Ernie and his fans, when Season Three started, we found Balki and Cousin Larry living in a much larger apartment in a newer building without their old landlord and boss, Donald. Ernie appeared again as Donald Twinkacetti for a 2006 pilot episode for a Perfect Strangers reboot that featured Bronson Pinchot, Louie Anderson, and Ernie Sabella.
3 – Naked Subway Guy (Seinfeld) – Officially billed “Naked Man,” Ernie made a very brief appearance on, in my opinion, the greatest sitcom of all time. His appearance in the Seinfeld episode “The Subway” was definitely a memorable one, even for those who don’t consider themselves fans of the series. In 2013, New York City’s official tourism organization labeled this episode the “New Yorkiest” of all Seinfeld episodes, as each of the four main characters has their own storyline interacting with the craziness of the New York City subway system and its residents. In a previous episode, Jerry’s car was stolen (“The Other Side of the Street”) and had recently been found on Coney Island. Jerry falls asleep on the subway ride to retrieve the car and wakes up seated across from a naked Ernie Sabella. The Naked Man is busy reading the newspaper with his briefcase (thankfully) in his lap and admits to being a nudist who sees no problem with the naked body. Jerry informs him he has a problem with HIS body but decides to carry on a conversation with him anyway, and they find they share a love of the Mets. The pair get off the subway together and decide to ride the famous Cyclone roller coaster and grab a Nathan’s hot dog and french fries.
2 – Leon Carosi (Saved By The Bell) – What child of the 80s and 90s didn’t love Saved by the Bell? Of course, we all did, and who amongst us nostalgia nerds doesn’t remember Leon Carosi from the Malibu Sands Beach Club? This is my favorite of all Ernie’s characters for my own nostalgia reasons. During Season Three of Saved by the Bell, the gang gets summer jobs at the Malibu Sands Beach Club, owned and operated by the curmudgeonly Leon Carosi. Truly a teddy bear, Leon portrays a gruff exterior as not only a shrewd businessman but a protective father of Zack’s new love interest, Stacey. Throughout six episodes, Ernie excels at playing a comical grumpy manager of the beach club while still being a loving, if not overbearing, father. In the end, he also becomes a bit of a father figure for Zack and the Bayside gang too.
1 – Pumbaa (The Lion King) – As the voice of Pumbaa the warthog in The Lion King, Mr. Sabella found his most recognizable (and likely lucrative) role. Given the length of time, the extensive number of appearances, and the financial success of the film and its associated pieces, it’s easy to argue Pumbaa is his most successful role of all time. Ernie has provided the voice to Pumbaa for not only film and television but nearly everything in between. He’s voiced the animated warthog in video games, amusement park rides, public service announcements, and even instructional and safety videos. Alongside his good friend Nathan Lane, who were both starring on Broadway in “Guys and Dolls” at the time, the two auditioned for the roles of the Hyenas but were so funny while ad-libbing their parts they were given the roles of Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Sabella). While some actors might be upset their most significant success comes from a cartoon, Ernie takes it in stride. He once commented that his brother took his kids to Disney’s Epcot, where Pumbaa was part of the film “Circle of Life” in the Land Pavillion. He said, “My brother took his kids there, and they said, ‘Hey, that’s Uncle Ernie!’ Finally, I did something that will live on.”