May 20, 1998
Source: The Orange County Register
By Barry Koltnow
MOVIES: The actor figures that his prominent role in 'Godzilla' spells the end of his relative anonymity.
When Hank Azaria walks by a telephone booth in New York City, he cringes. When he sees a bus coming down the street, he shudders. When he looks up at a billboard, he is filled with dread.
Almost every telephone booth, bus and billboard in the Big Apple has been plastered for weeks with posters for the $120 million summer action film "Godzilla," which opened last night and eventually will be shown on more than 7,000 screens.
Because the hype has been so intense, Azaria, who plays a television news cameraman chasing, and then being chased by, the giant reptile, knows it is just a matter of days before millions of people know his face.
For a guy better known for being Helen Hunt's real-life love interest than for his own movie roles, this kind of sudden recognition can be a bit unsettling.
"I have felt like Clark Kent for the last few weeks because I pass all those posters and nobody knows I'm connected to the movie," the actor said during a recent trip to Los Angeles.
"Let's face it, all the advance hype has been about the monster and his size. It hasn't been about Hank Azaria and Matthew Broderick. It's about Godzilla.
"That's been fun," he added. "I've enjoyed the last remaining days of anonymity. It's been fun to watch something so huge take over our society for a while, and know I'm a part of it."
Azaria stops to consider what he just said about the end of his anonymity, and a look of genuine concern replaces the smile on his face.
"Actually, I'm not sure what's going to happen. To this point in my career, I have been the very definition of semifamous. I figure about one in seven people on the street recognize me. And not necessarily from my movies. Some people think they went to college with me. Some people think I cleaned their drapes last week. I have that kind of face.
"If that recognition number suddenly increases to two or three out of seven, I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't think I'm going to like it. I have seen enough of fame to know that it is no picnic. It's great for business; it's definitely a step up for getting good roles and for getting treated great in restaurants and hotels.
"But, as for your personal life, it is a big step down. I don't really think fame is worth it, but I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to be in this movie."
MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES
Azaria, 34, said he was always good at mimicry, even as a child growing up in Forest Hills, N.Y., but he did not even entertain the thought of making a living in show business until the 11th grade, when he starred as King Arthur in a high school production of "Camelot."
He said he liked acting and he liked the sound of applause.
He began studying acting the next summer and, while he entered Tufts University as a psychology major, he eventually switched to drama.
Once he graduated, he moved to New York City and could not find work for a solid year. Rather than starve to death, he moved to Los Angeles, where he toiled as a bartender and caterer while auditioning for acting roles. It took him three years to land a plum role supplying voices for "The Simpsons." He is the voice of a multitude of characters, including the convenience-store owner and the police chief.
"I actually quit the business three different times before 'The Simpsons' came along," he said. "I was serious each time I quit. I swear I was.
"But what brought me back each time was the realization that there was nothing else I could do. I was sick of trying to get acting work, but I wasn't good at anything else. I was an actor and that's all I knew.
"What 'The Simpsons' did for me, besides pay my bills, was to allow me the luxury of waiting for good roles. I never had to settle for anything during the nine or 10 years I've been with 'The Simpsons.' "
Azaria got a role on the TV show "Herman's Head" and was supposed to star in his own series, but the show never made it onto the network schedule. He currently plays Nat, Murray's dog walker on the hit TV series "Mad About You," which stars his Oscar-winning girlfriend.
Despite the steady TV work, Azaria seems more suited to the big screen. After a few small film roles ("Pretty Woman," "Heat") Robert Redford cast him as a television producer in "Quiz Show," the 1994 drama about the 1950s quiz-show scandals.
"That movie stamped my film passport," Azaria said. "That's the movie Mike Nichols saw when he was casting 'The Birdcage.' "
Azaria played Robin Williams and Nathan Lane's Guatemalan houseboy in the comedy and stole every scene he was in. Although he received rave reviews, it turned out to be a mixed blessing.
"What hurt me was that I had to spend a full year after that film came out making the rounds in Hollywood to let everyone know that it was just a character," he said.
"People didn't realize that it was the same guy from 'Quiz Show.' They thought that that was all I could do and all I was sent were these silly comedies. Fortunately, I had 'The Simpsons' so I didn't have to take what was being offered."
When he was offered the role of Animal in "Godzilla," he said, he had to weigh the positives against the negatives of being in a summer blockbuster that would be heavily hyped because it was the much-anticipated followup to "Independence Day" for director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin.
"These kinds of films can be an amazing payday, but I would never have done it just for the payday," Azaria said.
"I wouldn't do it for the money if it meant that I was going to disappear in the movie. I knew it was going to be five months of hard work and I wanted the experience to be worth the time and hard work.
"But I read the script and knew it could be a lot of fun. Believe me, I know this is not a Scorsese movie. I know this is just a fun popcorn movie. And I know I'm not the star of this movie. The big lizard is the star of this movie. But I was looking for a fun experience and that's what it was. Now I'm looking forward to it coming out in all those theaters."
Azaria took a deep breath before adding: "Well, I think I'm looking forward to it coming out in all those theaters."