On Sunday, the world got the news that the legendary Pat Carroll passed away. The Emmy-winning actress from Shreveport, Louisiana was 95 years old. She leaves behind a body of work that includes film, television, stage, and even voice-over work for video games and cartoons. But for Disney fans around the world, she will always be remembered as the voice of the sea witch Ursula in 1989’s animated masterpiece The Little Mermaid.
The role, and the chance to work with Disney, were the culmination of a long burning desire. In a behind-the-scenes interview, she stated, “I had wanted all my life to work in a Disney film, and when I was called by the agent to say ‘Would you like to audition for a Disney film? I said ‘Oh my lord, that’s an answer to prayer! Of course, I would.’”
Her performance of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is, without question, one of the most iconic moments in Disney film history, cementing Ursula’s status as one of the greatest of all animated villains. As brilliant as the music and lyrics are, it’s Carroll’s throaty performance that truly brings it to life. She manages to make the song simultaneously alluring and threatening, blending humor and menace in equal parts as she attempts to seduce Ariel into signing away her voice (and the rights to her life).
Looking at the performance today, it seems inevitable that she should be cast in the part. It’s impossible to imagine any other voice in the film. That’s why it’s so surprising to learn that she was not the first name sought. Several actresses were considered prior to Carroll, including Joan Collins, Bea Arthur, and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. While all three would no doubt have brought their own élan to the role, it’s hard to believe that any could have matched what she ultimately delivered.
She once described the character (whose appearance and demeanor were patterned on actor, singer, and drag queen Divine) as, “an ex-Shakespearean actress who now sold cars.”
“She’s a mean old thing! I think people are fascinated by mean characters,” she said. “There’s a fatal kind of distraction about the horrible mean characters of the world because we don’t meet too many of them in real life. So when we have a chance, theatrically, to see one and this one, she’s a biggie, it’s kind of fascinating for us.”
In a Behind the Voices feature, she described the joy she took in giving the evil enchantress her voice.
“Ursula is fun!” she said. “I don’t know why it is, but for actors to play a good person is very difficult. To play someone mean is heaven. I have not been cast as villains too often, but I think I’m a wonderful villain. So, for me, it was a kick in the britches!”
The joy in the role didn’t abate over the years. In a 2013 video on the official Disney Parks YouTube page, Carroll expressed her continuing love of the character as she experienced it in the Magic Kingdom attraction ‘Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid’ for the first time.
“I love to see her in her enormity because she tickles me. Ursula tickles me,” she said. “She’s bigger than life and she loves it. And I get a big kick out of doing it.”
Before the video ended, she burst out in that wickedly entertaining voice (complete with trademark laugh), booming, “It’s terrific darling! I’ll come here again. Believe me.”
In numerous interviews, she seemed keen to downplay her own brilliance when it came to the performance. Speaking to D23, she said, “It is such fun to do a character like this because what’s on the paper is just suited for actors to come along and go ‘blah, blah, blah’ because it works. Because it’s written right and it’s on the paper. Your job is half done, and that’s a true something. Actors take a lot more credit than they deserve.”
She was just as modest when it comes to her showstopping performance of”‘Poor Unfortunate Souls”. In the same D23 interview, she talked about how much she loved singing the song, though she does not consider herself a singer.
“Oh, I love singing,” she said. “I’ve sung since I was a little girl of five on a bar in El Paso, Texas. I always loved it, but I am not a singer, either trained or by ambition. I always bow to singers because I am not one.”
She credits many of the nuances in her musical performance to lyricist Howard Ashman. While waiting in a music rehearsal, she asked Ashman to perform the piece for her.
“He put on the cloak immediately,” Carroll said. “He was brilliant and I watched every body move of his. I watched everything. I watched his face. I watched his hands. I ate him up. I stole ‘innit?’ from Howard. I stole two or three other ad-libs that he put in, and I said, ‘Howard is it okay if I steal those?’ And he said, ‘I was hoping you would!’”
All of which belies the stunning artistry and skill that she brought to the role, a truly once-in-a-lifetime performance that continues to delight and entertain audiences decades after the film’s release. It’s this audience appreciation, particularly from younger viewers, that Carroll was most taken with.
“I am always delighted as an actress when a character that I have admired, and I love Ursula. I think she’s a marvelous character,” Carroll said. “When a character that you have loved and tried to bring to life, comes to life and is received. And is received by children particularly. If I can win over kids with a character I’ve done my job, because kids are the hardest audience in the world.”
As a grateful fan, who was seven years old when the movie was released, I can without question say that she captured the imagination of children. She was funny and terrifying, a character that commanded your attention every moment she was on screen, and occupied your thoughts when she wasn’t.
Taking to Instagram, her daughter Tara Karsian asked fans to, “honor her by having a raucous laugh at absolutely anything today (and every day forward) because, besides her brilliant talent and love, she leaves my sister Kerry and I with the greatest gift of all, imbuing us with humor and the ability to laugh…even in the saddest of times.”
Here’s to you, Carol. And here’s to Ursula.