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July 3, 1998
Source:  Chicago Tribune

By Bob Strauss

LOS ANGELES-   For a man who's more accustomed to being heard more than seen, Hank Azaria is really out there these days.

The longtime voice of such "Simpsons" cartoon characters as Moe the bartender and Apu the convenience store owner, not to mention the scene-stealing bat Bartok in last year's animated feature "Anastasia," Azaria is making quite a splash in the flesh this year.

He's had three features released so far -- "Great Expectations," "Homegrown" and, the biggest one of all, "Godzilla" -- with two on deck, "Mystery, Alaska" and "The Cradle Will Rock."

It's not exactly a big turnaround for the New York-raised actor, who has made previous film impressions in the likes of "Pretty Woman," "Quiz Show" and, most memorably, "The Birdcage," in which he portrayed Robin Williams' flamboyant houseboy. TV viewers also may remember Azaria as the consummate office sleazeball from the Fox network's "Herman's Head" series and will surely recognize him as Nat the dog walker, a recurring character on his girlfriend, Helen Hunt's, hit sitcom "Mad About You."

"Knock on wood," says the 33-year-old Azaria, looking relaxed in faded jeans, black shirt and a light jacket. "This has been a really good time for me. I feel very fortunate to be getting all these opportunities."

In the case of "Godzilla," all those years off-camera in the "Simpsons" recording booth paid off doubly. The monster mash's producer and co-writer, Dean Devlin, was such a fan of the show that he offered film roles to several of the show's voice talents, including Harry Shearer and Nancy Cartwright.

Azaria gets the biggest part, though, as a TV cameraman, accurately called Animal, who is the one civilian that chases the 200-foot reptile through Manhattan, intent on getting killer footage.

"He's the only one stupid enough -- or brave enough, depending on how you define it -- to run at Godzilla instead of away from it," Azaria says. "When you think of it, he's kind of the ultimate product of this video-crazed society we're in right now. I mean, this man is not thinking ahead of what he wants to get on `America's Funniest Home Videos,' and he almost gets killed a lot doing it."

That's where his "Simpsons" and other cartoon work proved invaluable. Since Azaria's humongous co-star was by necessity computer generated, he found himself acting opposite a big, imaginary nothing on the film's New York locations and cavernous L.A. soundstages.

"I think I found it, maybe, easier than other actors would. Obviously, we record the `Simpsons' with nothing there, like a radio play that they animate later. You have to imagine, very vividly, what's going on.

"So, at first, I found it easy and fun to do that on `Godzilla.' After a while, though, it got a little crazy-making. We shot for a long time, five months, and at a certain point you start thinking it's a form of insanity to have a relationship with an imaginary, 20-story lizard. It becomes the main relationship in your life after awhile, and you start thinking, `I've got to move on from this!' "

He has, to a sportswriter role in the hockey comedy "Mystery, Alaska," co-starring Burt Reynolds and directed by "Austin Powers"' Jay Roach. And in Tim Robbins' multi-character production of "The Cradle Will Rock," Azaria is Marc Blitzstein, the writer-composer of the controversial title musical, an Orson Welles stage production that was the only American play ever shut down by the government.

Not on the horizon, though, is any kind of big-screen collaboration with the recently Oscared Hunt.

"Hank's a really funny guy, for sure," Hunt says. "We've discussed working together more extensively, but it just hasn't been a priority. The priority is just to do our work and have our private life be separate. It's not a yes or a no thing, though; we aren't looking for something particularly to do together, and we wouldn't rule it out."At least their busy schedules prevent professional jealousy from creeping into the couple's relationship, which can often be a hazard when one actor achieves the phenomenal success enjoyed by "As Good As It Gets" star Hunt.

"Luckily, it's not an issue," Azaria says.