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Hank Azaria’s relationship to the most iconic cartoon of a generation is a question of prepositions. He is indisputably on The Simpsons (his voice work on the show has won him four Emmys); also, he is The Simpsons – or at least a good percentage of the regulars that populate their world: Moe the Bartender, Apu the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor, Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy, The Sea Captain, Carl Carlson, as well as a one-man army of walk-ons like Cletus Spuckler, Professor Frink, Dr. Nick Riviera, Lou, Snake Jailbird, Superintendent Chalmers, Disco Stu, Duffman and the Wiseguy.
A gifted mimic at five, Azaria had no idea his impressions were an unusual talent. “I just loved Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Then when I got old enough to realize it was all the same guy, Mel Blanc, I lost my mind.” Memorizing comedy routines he saw and doing funny voices remained a diversion while he was growing up in Queens, NY, but became an obsession once he did a high school play. He decided on acting and studied drama at Tufts University and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Apparently not an optimist, he’s said he didn’t expect to be successful as a professional actor, but determined to hang on until he was 25 just so he wouldn’t regret not trying.
His path proceeded along the standard Hollywood lines – a move to L.A., work as a catering bartender and plenty of auditions. His debut was in the 1986 ABC series Bash, a one-line part he told all his friends about, only to discover it was cut. But a little humiliation is a small price to pay for a SAG card, right? Parts in sitcoms like Family Ties and Growing Pains followed, as did Hollywood Dog, his first-ever voice role. The pilot failed, but prompted a casting director to ask him to audition for Moe. Simpsons exec producer Matt Groening kept asking him back, a rogues gallery of voices was compiled, and a stable career was born.
Live action work picked up around the same time with recurring roles on Friends and Mad About You. A small part in Pretty Woman was his first feature film; subsequent roles soon became bigger and more diverse – Quiz Show, Along Came Polly, Dodgeball, Cradle Will Rock, Night At the Museum, Godzilla – but none more memorable than Agador – Spartacus – in The Birdcage. As a dialed-to-eleven Guatemalan houseboy, he made us laugh harder than the movie’s stars, comic icons Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
Every industry has a “guy” – the one you go to when you want the reliable best in the business, and Azaria became the go-to for making any line funny just by saying it. Playwright Jenelle Riley said, “[Azaria’s] appeal can best be summed up by, of all things, his hilarious cameo in the goofy comedy Dodgeball. As Patches O’Houlihan, 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…Pound for pound, Hank Azaria is the best actor working today.” Azaria humbly passes most of it off to “dumb celebrity impressions,” but that’s dismissing the work of a master mixologist. Patches O’Houlihan? “Essentially a bad Clark Gable impression, but I tried to add some young Rip Torn in it.” Moe? Al Pacino, with some gravel thrown in. Agador? Puerto Rican street queens, tempered with his grandmother. Apu? Peter Sellers in The Party. We’ll end the list there so as not to ruin a potentially amusing Azaria-watching parlor game for you.
Those indelible characters can make it easy to overlook Azaria’s fine dramatic work in series like Huff and Ray Donovan, and his touching AOL series Fatherhood. Variety called his Emmy-winning performance as Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie “the most layered and sensitive work of his career.” As it often happens, genius work in one arena overshadows equal work in another. As they say, it’s a blessing and a curse. In his new IFC dark comedy Brockmire, Azaria is a famed major league baseball announcer who suffers an embarrassing public meltdown live on the air and decides to reclaim his career in a small rust belt town calling games for a minor league team called the Morristown Frackers. So mostly, a blessing.