‘Lion King’ actor gleefully ‘hogs’ the limelight

Ben Lipitz, right, portrays the character Pumbaa alongside Nick Cordileone as Timon. Photo: Joan Marcus


How did  a Jewish boy from New Jersey end up wearing a porcine costume in Disney’s “The Lion King?”

Ben Lipitz, who plays Pumbaa the Warthog in the national touring company, has both a long and a short answer to that question, but first let’s talk about the show, which won six Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 1997. Today “The Lion King” is the highest-grossing Broadway show ever. Some 64 million people in 15 countries on five continents have left the theater singing songs penned by Elton John and Tim Rice.

If by chance you have missed the boat — or better yet, the safari vehicle headed for the savannah — “The Lion King” returns to the Fox Theatre Aug. 15, where you, too, may take in the breathtaking costumes, the stunning visual effects and the award-winning puppets you no doubt have heard about.

Back to Lipitz. After nearly 10 years with the show — fully one-third of his professional career — Lipitz has transformed himself into Pumbaa for almost 3,500 performances. Also, in each city where the show tours, Lipitz confers with the local Jewish Federation office to see how he might be of use, perhaps to speak to young people in theater programs or to conduct a master class for adult actors. Lipitz also produces benefits for local organizations that work with people living with AIDS, as part of the cast’s collective commitment to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Lipitz, 48, is a member of The Actors’ Studio. He has performed on stage at numerous regional theaters, in several popular television programs and in two films. He is married to Rosalie, an actor who now cares for their two children, Matthew and Mikaela, ages 7 and 4. The family lives in Delaware Water Gap in the Poconos.

While in Houston with “The Lion King,” Lipitz made time to talk about the show, his early yearning to be a rabbi and his take on the circle of life.  

How did a Jewish boy from New Jersey end up wearing a porcine costume in Disney’s “The Lion King?”

The long answer is that originally it was just like any audition. That playing Pumbaa has become a central part of my career — and my life — was really more of an accident. The principal actors’ contracts run one year at a time, so I never take the job for granted.

Is this role more than a job to you now?

Yes. “The Lion King” is one of the most incredible pieces of theater ever produced. It tells a story that everyone responds to, a story that creates change in people’s lives. I am so grateful to be part of that.

Tell us about your character.

Pumbaa is the walking embodiment of “Hakuna Matata,” which means “no worries” in Swahili. He is the Everyman character, all embracing, and a character with tremendous heart.

You have had some personal experience with the circle of life — please talk about that.

In my time with “The Lion King,” I have welcomed the birth of my son and also lost my father, Leonard. For months, he traveled with me on the road. He was alone — my mom, Marilyn, died 15 years ago — and my father loved what I did, and wanted to be a part of it. We think the circle of life is a cliché. I know it is not. It’s how life really is.

In addition to the many emotional elements, this is a high-energy show, one that must take a toll physically.

It’s one of the most strenuous shows out there, and we perform eight shows a week. But we meet the challenge every time, because the audience has that expectation, that the show will be as engaging as the first time we performed it.

You first stepped on stage in third grade, in the role of Saul the Reindeer in a class Christmas play. Were you hooked on theater that early?

Hey, Santa brought me latkes! In high school, I was active in B’nai B’rith, and I wanted to be a rabbi — or else a social worker or an actor. I went on to earn my BFA in acting at the California Institute of the Arts. Now, on the road, I always reach out to the Jewish Federation. Though I have to be away from home, that connection makes me feel less isolated.

We’re now ready for the short answer. How did a Jewish boy from New Jersey end up wearing a porcine costume in Disney’s “The Lion King?”

Practice, practice, practice.