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Not Just a Pretty Voice
From the animated hills of Springfield to the Broadway stage, Hank Azaria shines in weird and wonderful roles. Should The May 02, 2005 By Jenelle Riley

Everyone plays favorites. I have a friend who can give an impassioned defense of Ashton Kutcher’s acting abilities with a completely straight face, using words such as “underrated” and “genius.” It’s not always easy to pinpoint why certain artists speak to you, why you respond to their bodies of work. Having grown up admiring the standards–the DeNiros, the Pacinos, the Streeps–I would say my taste isn’t so questionable. Yet it seems to puzzle people when I voice the opinion that my favorite actor by far is Hank Azaria.

Why Azaria? It’s not just because of his stellar vocal work on The Simpsons, in which he plays everyone from Kwik-E-Mart clerk Apu to the increasingly suicidal bartender Moe. It’s not because he manages to improve every film he’s in, whether showing up for a few scenes as a nudist scuba instructor in Along Came Polly or playing the lisping houseboy Agador Spartacus in The Birdcage. It helps that he can jump between broad comedy and heavy drama, such as his Emmy-winning work opposite Jack Lemmon in Tuesdays With Morrie and in films such as Quiz Show and Cradle Will Rock. Adding to his appeal is his tendency to take small roles that would normally fade into the background and to consistently create characters people care about: Think of his brief but memorable work as the editor in Shattered Glass who manages to be bemused and irritated by a lying reporter, or his slightly smarmy yet sympathetic sportswriter yearning for his hometown’s approval in Mystery, Alaska. All that versatility is a bonus, but none of it explains the actor’s allure. No, his appeal can best be summed up by, of all things, his hilarious cameo in the goofy comedy Dodgeball. As Patches O’Houlihan, the dodgeball champion who will age into the magnificently gruff Rip Torn, he delivers a pitch-perfect performance in an instructional video in which he chain-smokes, encourages a child to pick on those weaker than him, and steals the film from a cast of comedic greats. It’s a wonderful, odd moment that could have failed miserably in the hands of a lesser actor, and he manages to pull it off with only seconds of dialogue. In my humble opinion, and using my limited amount of boxing terms: Pound for pound, Hank Azaria is the best actor working today.

“I Am (Agador) Spartacus”

He might also be the busiest. In addition to his continuing duties voicing countless characters on The Simpsons, Azaria is balancing a flourishing film career. He is also in the midst of enjoying his Broadway debut in Spamalot, the smash musical based on Monty Python and Holy Grail, in which he manages to channel the spirit of John Cleese without resorting to mere imitation as the macho knight Sir Lancelot, along with several other roles. He will be taking a leave of absence from Spamalot in June to begin production on the second season of Showtime’s original series Huff, which he produces and stars in.

On this particular evening, during the intermission of a sold-out performance of Spamalot, two women from Woodland Hills are discussing the excellent performances from the show’s other actors, including Tim Curry and David Hyde Pierce. But it’s Lancelot they’re wowed by, and they’re desperately scanning the actor’s bio to see where they know him from. “Who was he in Birdcage?” one of them asks. “He wasn’t the butler, was he? That guy was, like, ridiculously buff.” This is a common conversation when it comes to Azaria, who tends to physically vanish into characters the same way he slips in and out of voices.

“I get that all the time,” he says, prepping in his dressing room at the Shubert Theatre shortly before curtain. “It can be really weird. People would recognize me; they just didn’t know where from. I’ve been asked if I’ve gone to every college in the country. Now they mostly know I’m an actor, but they used to not even know that.” Asked if he finds it either frustrating or freeing, he takes a moment to think it over. “It’s sort of both,” he concedes. “It’s nice to disappear in roles, but it used to be frustrating. I remember being offered a role recently, and the person said to me, ‘This will be good for you; you won’t just be known as Vocal Cartoon Guy or whatever.’ Then he immediately apologized. But he had a point.”

For the record, that was a “buff” Azaria in The Birdcage, and he was a houseboy, not a butler. It was also a huge breakthrough role; he had previously played only minor roles on the big screen. Azaria originally intended a life in the theatre. Trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and Tufts University, he began his career doing theatre in Boston. He and his future Huff co-star Oliver Platt attended college together. “We formed a company called Big Theatre, which only had one production,” he recalls. “We did a production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter together. Theatre was my main goal when I got out of school, but I couldn’t get arrested on Broadway or Off-Broadway when I was 22. The couple of jobs I got were on television, so I went out to L.A. and pursued that.”

Azaria briefly tried standup, and he soon found himself landing television work. “I did a commercial and then had a two-line part on a Peter Boyle show called Joe Bash,” he says. “I did a TV movie; I did some pilots. Family Ties was the first episode of television I ever did.” Then he went in to audition for a new animated series called The Simpsons.

Hello, Mr. Homer

Azaria had never considered pursuing voiceover work as a career. “I really fell into it,” he admits. “One of the first jobs I got in L.A., before Family Ties even, was a semi-animated pilot Fox did called Hollywood Dog. It was sort of Roger Rabbit–esque, where the dog was animated but everybody else was real. I did the voice of the dog.” The casting director on Hollywood Dog was Bonnie Pietila, who remembered him when she was casting The Simpsons. “They had me come in and read for Moe, the bartender. Then they expanded from there,” he says. He didn’t realize at the time the impact the show would have on him and vice-versa, but it was immediately apparent to others. Nancy Cartwright, who voices Bart, wrote in her autobiography, My Life As a 10-Year-Old Boy, “The thing about Hank that I most remember is that he started out so unassuming and then, little by little, his abilities were revealed and his contributions to the show escalated. I realized Hank was going to be our breakaway star.” Soon he was voicing a wide range of characters, including the clueless Police Chief Wiggum, the appropriately named Comic Book Guy, Jerry Lewis–doppelganger Professor Frink, and fan favorite Apu Nahasapeemapetalon, the diligent owner of the local 24-hour minimart. It’s largely because of Azaria that Apu even exists, as producers were initially concerned about making the character Indian. “We were worried he might be considered an offensive stereotype,” producer Al Jean once said. “But then we did the first read-through, and Hank said, ‘Hello, Mr. Homer,’ with his accent, and it got such a huge laugh; we knew it had to stay.”

Azaria had always played with voices and knew he had a wide range of characters inside him. “But I was so young; I didn’t know how many or how much they were going to be used,” he says. As his work on the show grew, so did his skill. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it became like a lab for a character actor. I had to do so many voices,” he says. He was also studying with the great Roy London, whom he credits with helping him blend characters with voices. “I learned so much,” he says of London, who died 10 years ago. “I learned how to fill in parts of a character with just a voice.”

He also learned just how important a voice was to a character, which helped him improve in all facets of his performing. “With voices, there’s no face or body, so everything has to be clear in your voice, or it isn’t there,” he says of his years on the show. “It helped me become vocally fast; I realized I could do a lot of convincing, different characters. You get to hear yourself back every week, you sort of know what’s effective and what isn’t, you know where you have to be more gravelly or where you can’t, where your range is, and how it’s coming off.” As he has improved as an actor, the characters have become increasingly three-dimensional. Professor Frink has explored father issues with guest star Jerry Lewis, Apu has become a father of eight, and Moe has fostered a growing death wish.

Jay Kogen, a former writer and producer of The Simpsons, remembers being surprised at Azaria’s performance in an episode in which the actor performed a musical number as Apu. “Not only was he funny and great at singing in character but he also made a dramatic impact,” he recalls. “I felt Apu’s pain. That’s hard to do in a dumb cartoon. As time went on, I was impressed more and more with Hank’s talent. Just when I think I know his bag of tricks, he’s always got a new thing he does to surprise me.”

Azaria was continuing to work outside The Simpsons, at one point pulling double-duty as a regular on the underrated Fox series Herman’s Head. He says he wasn’t concerned he would be pigeonholed as only a voice actor, because he’d worked before and only ever done The Simpsons. “About 10 years ago I started doing other voiceovers for cartoons for a couple of years, but I didn’t really love it. I was spoiled by The Simpsons.”

Seriously, Now

Throughout the 1990s, Azaria steadily built an impressive resume with solid performances in a range of movies. He tackled black comedy (Grosse Pointe Blank), updated classics (Great Expectations), big-budget blockbusters (Godzilla), and Woody Allen (Celebrity). He was spectacular in a dramatic turn as composer Marc Blitzstein in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, but he was still primarily known for his comedic turns. When asked if he made a conscious choice to begin pursuing dramatic roles, he pauses. “That’s an interesting question,” he muses. “I guess so, but I never looked at it that way, because all the roles I got were in comedy at first, and I was certainly happy to get those, so I never felt the lack of being considered a dramatic actor because I was so happy to get what I got. And then I became surprised later on when I got dramatic roles. But I never went, ‘Okay, now it’s time to get a dramatic role.'” He credits his ongoing studies with London for giving him a place to flex his dramatic muscles. “I guess I never sweated it, because most of the work I did with Roy London really prepared me, and I certainly felt capable, and I did so much work in class on serious stuff that it just didn’t bother me if I wasn’t getting this or that role,” he says with a shrug. “I just figured it would come eventually–or it wouldn’t. I don’t know why; it’s one thing I never sweated.”

The break eventually came, with a watershed performance in Tuesdays With Morrie. Sharing scenes with Jack Lemmon in the Oprah Winfrey–produced hit brought Azaria an Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Movie or Miniseries and catapulted him from the guy people thought they went to college with to a recognizable actor. Although he may not have seemed the obvious choice for the role at the time, he was never required to audition. “They offered that to me,” he says, still sounding a little surprised. “There was a time in my career where I hit a point where I was offered stuff. I’ve had a weird career; it’s like you said, I disappear into roles, but then everybody in the business knew who I was, even if the public didn’t. So I was given the role; it was nice.”

Azaria also headlined the woefully underappreciated miniseries Uprising, director Jon Avnet’s epic depiction of the true story of the revolts in the Warsaw ghetto in World War II. In perhaps his best performance to date, he plays real-life hero Mordechai Anielewicz, who helped organize the single largest Jewish armed resistance against the Nazis. Again he was not the obvious choice for the role, and it still puzzles the actor to this day. “I would always ask Jon why he cast me in that; that one I was curious about,” he admits. “I know he liked the fact I was Jewish, and he knew I could do accents well. He cast me and David Schwimmer in that, and we were both sort of mystified. He had some instinct that he wanted people who were more known for being funny. He never explained it satisfactorily to me; I don’t understand why.” Of course, there is the old adage that if an actor can conquer comedy, drama is a snap. “That’s what he felt,” he agrees. “He would always say, very complimentarily, ‘I wanted the best actors I could get, and you guys were it.'” He waits a moment before joking, “You know, I’m sure he offered it to other people before me; I just don’t know who they are.”

The same year Uprising premiered, Azaria was on the big screen as Catherine Zeta-Jones’ lisping yet macho boyfriend in America’s Sweethearts, and the two performances could not be further from each other. Although he didn’t intend to alternate between drama and comedy, he found he liked doing one after the other. “Actually, Tuesdays With Morrie and Uprising made me realize something: You can get depressed doing very serious, dramatic roles,” he says. “I never knew it before, but your body doesn’t know the difference between fake sad and real sad. In fact, I was just reading a book called Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, that’s about how we assess things very quickly and right away, unconsciously, and that’s where our instincts are, and they’re often correct. And if you think about it too much, they’re not correct. But they were talking about recognizing facial expressions and how, if people smile all day or make an angry face all day, it has a biochemical reaction, and you’ll start to actually feel that way.” He explains this is a simplistic version of what happens when actors do a serious project. “You sit there and you pretend to watch Jack Lemmon die all day, and you literally wear the mask of tragedy all day, and it starts to affect you,” he says. “I was surprised by that. On Uprising I almost went nuts; I was very depressed the first two weeks.” The only thing that helped the actor during that time was an old British comedy series. “This comes full circle, because I discovered the Monty Python DVDs were the only thing that cheered me up,” he says with a laugh. “So I discovered Monty Python is the opposite of the Holocaust.”

“Run Away!” Hit

A “huge, huge” Python fan for years, Azaria jumped at the chance to join Spamalot, which reunited him with his Birdcage director. “Being a Monty Python fan would have been enough, but Mike Nichols calling and asking you at home doesn’t hurt, either,” he admits. “From the second I heard it, I said, ‘I’m in.’ No matter if we fail, it will be the most fun failure I’ve ever had in my life. Let’s do it. No way I would want to miss this.”

Azaria, who recently wrapped a run of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago opposite Matthew Perry in London, found aspects of Broadway life harder and easier than he expected. “I was amazed at how much reworking it takes, day in and day out,” he says. “But the hours are very humane compared to shooting: 10 to 6 with an hour lunch break, that’s like heaven.” But singing and dancing elaborate musical numbers while repeatedly going through costume changes to portray six different characters takes its toll. “It’s much more physically demanding than I realized,” he says as he searches for a Red Bull, his preshow beverage of choice. “It’s vocally and physically extraordinarily strenuous; it’s very hard on the body. It takes a lot of concentration, but it’s such silly, fun material that it rubs off on you. If we were doing Diary of Anne Frank, I probably would report to you that it was a lot more oppressive, but it’s been a joy doing this–in fact so much fun that I haven’t realized how tiring it is.”

Azaria regrets he’ll be leaving the show in a matter of days to return to the Los Angeles set of Huff, though he’s eager to return to the series. His last foray into TV was the short-lived Imagine That for NBC, an experience he ultimately found frustrating. “I wanted to do something really truthful and interesting and impactful. We had a bunch of executives sitting in the room, all agreeing that The Larry Sanders Show was our favorite thing on television, but we couldn’t do it on NBC, and nor would we want to from a business standpoint; it simply wouldn’t make enough money,” he recalls. “By the time it aired, the writing was sort of on the wall, and I don’t blame them at all. It was apparent it wasn’t working.” He has no hard feelings against the network, where he excelled in guest roles such as Nat the Dog Walker on Mad About You and as the guy Phoebe should have picked on Friends, but he finds the cable channel Showtime a far better match for his sensibilities. “Sometimes network TV can be innovative, but most often the constraints are so intense that, even being able to curse, if that’s what feels real, you just can’t do it,” he says. “And, hey, I like to curse.”

Showtime is clearly happy with Huff, and it renewed the series for a second season before the first episode even aired. “That scared me, too,” he says. “I was, like, ‘Guys, are you sure?’ It was such hard work; I wanted to make sure we had a good thing first. But they were confident, and I’m glad they were.”

With less than an hour to go before curtain, Azaria locates his Red Bull and breathes a sigh of relief. “I need this,” he quips, “or I might not be so good out there.”

Something tells me there’s little chance of that.