Culture

Remembering Pat Carroll, TV Pioneer and the Voice of Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid'

Pat Carroll (YouTube/Inside the Magic)

Over the weekend, we lost NBA legend Bill Russell and Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols, but lost in that news was the fact that another accomplished celebrity who wasn’t as big of a household name passed away.

Pat Carroll, the actress and comedienne with the distinctive voice who was a fixture in the early days of television and became famous in her later life for voicing the villainous Ursula in The Little Mermaid, died on Saturday at the age of 95.

Carroll was a tremendous actress whose career spanned seven decades and included roles on the big screen, the stage, and on television. It was in the early days of television comedy that she made her first big impact, winning an Emmy for her work on Caesar’s Hour in 1956. She played Shirley’s mother in Laverne & Shirley and appeared on shows as diverse as ER, The Love Boat, and The Carol Burnett Show.

Her early television success translated into a long career in the theater, where she received a Tony nomination for the 1955 musical Catch a Star! and won a Grammy for the 1980 recording of her one-woman show about Gertrude Stein.

But her most lasting impact may have been portraying the sea witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid, the animated feature that launched Disney’s renaissance in 1989. She would return to the character multiple times, including in her last role in 2020, voicing Ursula for a special on Disney+.

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The physical inspiration for the character may have been drag actor Divine, but Carroll gave Ursula a unique characterization.

She told an interviewer:

…my desire before I kicked the bucket was to do a Disney film. I’d never done one. And I got a call from my agent saying, “Would you audition?” “Would I? I would be thrilled to!”

I auditioned for Ursula probably six times, and a year later, I got the call to come and do it. I was so thrilled. I was so excited. And I thought of Ursula — I saw the storyboards on her, and I thought, “This character is very weird. I mean, that’s big. That’s a big villain. And that’s a female character. Now, how do I make a female character big in a comedic sense?”

And I thought of Ursula as an ex-Shakespearean actress who sold used cars. Now if that doesn’t give it to you in a ball, I don’t know what will. And I followed that thing. I had it in my head every time we did a set. I just thought of her in that way. And I couldn’t get any bigger.

Just reading the interview doesn’t do her gregarious laugh and expressive personality any justice. The interview clip is in the tribute video at the end of this article.

Carroll was a dedicated Roman Catholic who relied on her Christian faith to help her choose roles, and she described herself as a “lifelong Republican.”

With such a long career and vibrant presence, fans of great acting and singing will miss Pat Carroll for sure.

Check out this wonderful tribute video: