Pat Carroll, the gregarious Emmy-winning comedienne who was a television mainstay for decades before segueing to a voiceover career that included portraying the villainous sea witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid, has died. She was 95.
Carroll died Saturday of pneumonia at her home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, her daughter Kerry Karsian told The Hollywood Reporter.
Carroll’s perky personality, screwball wit and impeccable timing made her a great second banana, and Red Buttons, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, Steve Allen and Charley Weaver were among those who called upon her to make their programs funnier. Her antics on Caesar’s Hour earned her an Emmy in 1957, and she was nominated for her work on the classic variety show the following year.
In a 2013 interview with Kliph Nesteroff, Carroll compared Howard Morris, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar on Caesar’s Hour to the Chicago Cubs’ legendary double-play combination of Tinkers to Evers to Chance.
“I learned so much about comedy from watching those three work together. It was unfailing,” Carroll said. “They worked together for so long that they had that innate sense of each other’s timing. It was impossible for them to fumble. We did two shows every Saturday night because one was for the West Coast and one was for the East Coast. If they totally abhorred a sketch they did, those three would sit in Sid’s dressing room with the writers and write a brand new sketch. Yes, amazing.”
For the next two decades, the bubbly blonde always seemed to pop up on TV.
Carroll played Bunny Halper, the high-spirited wife of nightclub owner Charley Halper (Sid Melton), on three seasons of The Danny Thomas Show in the early ‘60s; was Hope Stinson, who shared ownership of a newspaper with Ted Knight’s character, on the last season (1986-87) of Too Close for Comfort; and appeared opposite Suzanne Somers on the 1987-89 series She’s the Sheriff.
Carroll stood out as a cranky patient who shared a hospital room with Mary Richards (the latter was there to have her tonsils taken out) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1971, and she portrayed Lily Feeney, the mother of Cindy Williams’ character, on a 1976 installment of Laverne & Shirley.
Her TV credits also included Cinderella, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Love, American Style, My Three Sons, Police Woman, Busting Loose, The Love Boat, Trapper John, M.D., Evening Shade, Designing Women and ER.
Carroll also was a game show favorite. To Tell the Truth, The Match Game, I’ve Got a Secret, Password All-Stars, You Don’t Say and The $10,000 Pyramid — you name it, she played it.
And she played Doris Day’s matchmaking sister in With Six You Get Eggroll (1968).
Carroll’s throaty laugh and spirited intonations made her a natural for animation work.
She first slipped into the recording booth in 1966 for the animated series The Super 6. But it was during the ‘80s that her voiceover career skyrocketed; she could be heard on the cartoons Yogi’s Treasure Hunt, Galaxy High School, Foofur, Pound Puppies and Superman.
Undoubtedly, her most memorable character was Ursula for the 1989 Disney feature The Little Mermaid. It would prove to be one of her favorite roles. “It was a lifelong ambition of mine to do a Disney film,” she told author Allan Neuwirth in Makin‘ Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows and Movies. “So, I was theirs hook, line and sinker.”
Carroll’s enthusiasm made the octopus-like character uniquely her own and Ursula would become one of Disney’s most memorable villains. However, she landed the part only after an arduous search by the studio.
Little Mermaid producer and lyricist Howard Ashman was a big fan of TV’s Dynasty and envisioned Ursula as a Joan Collins-type. And who better to play her than Collins herself? Alas, her agent quickly nixed the idea.
Writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker saw Ursula more like a bellowing aquatic version of Bea Arthur, but her agent took offense when the script likened the actress to a witch — and passed. Roseanne, Heart’s Nancy Wilson and Nancy Marchand of The Sopranos fame then reportedly read for the role, but none was quite right.
Charlotte Rae and Elaine Stritch auditioned, but Rae didn’t have the vocal range for Ursula’s signature tune, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and Stritch couldn’t deliver the song the way Ashman wanted.
Carroll, though, immediately understood Ashman’s approach. The key was a recording that he had made of him singing the song. Once Carroll heard and saw that, the rest was easy.
“He gave me that performance! Come on, I’m honest enough to say that,” she said in Makin‘ Toons. “I got the whole attitude from him … his shoulders would twitch in a certain way, and his eyes would go a certain way … I got more about that character from Howard singing that song than from anything else.”
Carroll won the part and went on to voice the character in several video games and a 1993 Little Mermaid CBS series. (She also provided the voice for Morgana in the 2000 direct-to-video release The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea.)
Patricia Ann Carroll was born on May 5, 1927, in Shreveport, Louisiana. When she was 5, she and her family moved to Los Angeles. At age 20, she served as a Civilian Actress Technician for the army, writing, producing and directing all-soldier productions. She graduated from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. in 1949.
Carroll’s first professional appearance had come in 1947 alongside Gloria Swanson in a regional stock production of A Goose for a Gander. This led to more stock company roles, and she also sharpened her comic chops by performing in nightclubs and resorts.
Carroll’s off-Broadway debut came in 1950 in Come What May. Shortly after, she began landing television work on Goodyear Television Playhouse, The Red Buttons Show and The Saturday Night Revue.
Carroll first starred on Broadway in 1955 in the musical revue Catch a Star! written by Danny and Neil Simon. The performance earned her a Tony nomination. Decades later, Carroll received rave reviews for her off-Broadway, one-woman show Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein: A One-Character Play.
In his 1979 review for The New York Times, Walter Kerr wrote: “Miss Carroll, working from a text prepared by Marty Martin, gives us the bizarre, close-cropped, richly robed woman who could be — and once was — mistaken for a bishop with a zest that is awesome … I don’t know precisely how Miss Carroll is able to do it, but she manages — without any effort at all — to make us share Gertrude Stein’s attitude toward herself.”
The actress received a Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of the author; she beat out fellow nominees Moore, Susan Sarandon, Phyllis Frelich and Blythe Danner for the honor.
Carroll was married to Lee Karsian from 1955 until their divorce in 1976, and they had three children: Tara, an actress; daughter Kerry, a casting director; and son Sean (he died on the same date as his mom 13 years ago).
Survivors also include a granddaughter, Evan.