Date: May 20, 1994
Finding His Own Voice: After doing "The Simpsons" and "Herman's " actor
Hank Azaria is stepping out with a new Robert Redford film.
By: Melinda Greenberg
You might say I've followed Hank Azaria's acting career for a long time,
ever since I first saw him in the performance he calls his "crowning
It was 14 years ago in a high school production of "Camelot," at the Kew Forest School, the small private school in Forest Hills, N.Y., we both attended. Mr. Azaria, who recently turned 30, starred as King Arthur, opposite my older sister, Debbie, as Guinevere. (Lancelot, by the way, was played by a senior named Freddy Trump, "The Donald's" nephew.)
Even in his purple tights, doing a bad Richard Burton imitation, it was easy to see Mr. Azaria had charisma and talent. Watch this guy, many of us thought, he's going places. He made his final mark on the school the following year playing Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls."
The youngest of three children born to a Sephardic family living in Forest Hills, he was raised in that tradition and grew up understanding Ladino, or Spanish-Hebrew. Both sets of grandparents came from Salonika in northern Greece, long a center of Sephardic life.
Fast forward to the present. Mr. Azaria has made it. He's currently a regular cast member on two Fox Television series, "Herman's Head," on which he plays Jay, Herman's philandering best friend, and "The Simpsons," on which he provides the voices for several of the "regulars"on the critically acclaimed, animated series.
And in September, he will be featured in the new Robert Redford film, "Quiz Show," about the television quiz show scandals of the 1950s.
Mr. Azaria has been a regular on "The Simpsons" since the middle of its second season. The show, which first appeared in a series of 30-second shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show," debuted as a half-hour sitcom in January 1990. The series ended its sixth season (including one summer one) this week.
Mr. Azaria, who said he honed his comic voice techniques imitating teachers in high school, provides the voices of Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart owner; Moe, the bartender; Police Chief Wiggums, and various other male characters.
There are only three male regulars in the cast, so each week Mr. Azaria does about 10 voices. Celebrity guest stars, including Dustin Hoffman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito and James Earl Jones, have added their voices to characters on the show.
Doing the voices comes easy to Mr. Azaria, he said.
"You can either do it or you can't," he said in a recent telephone interview from his Hollywood home. "If you can, it's so easy it's like falling off a log. If you can't, it's like the hardest thing in the world."
His work on "The Simpsons" landed him the job on "Herman's Head," a series about a magazine employee whose various inner selves speak to him, which is now in its third season. He's become accustomed to juggling his work schedule between the two shows. For "The Simpsons," he and the other cast members read through the script on Thursdays and the producers rewrite it until Monday morning, when the actors return to record the episode.
"For the actors, it's fun," he said. "For the producers, it's a hellish job."
Mondays on "Herman's Head," he and the cast read their scripts and then film later in the week. Between the two, he ends up spending a great deal of time with Yeardley Smith, who co-stars with him on "Herman's Head," and who does the voice of Lisa Simpson.
"I see Yeardley more than probably anybody else I know," he said with a laugh.
Mr. Azaria doubts "Herman's Head" will be returning to Fox's fall lineup, but he hopes to remain with "The Simpsons," while focusing more on his film career. A 1985 graduate of Tufts University, where he studied drama, he made his film debut about five years ago in "Cool Blue" with Woody Harrelson, although the feature never went into theatrical release.
He also appeared in "Pretty Woman," playing a nervous Hollywood cop investigating a murder scene.
"Quiz Show" marks his graduation to the big time. The film stars Rob Morrow from "Northern Exposure," David Paymer, an Academy Award nominee for best supporting actor in "Mr. Saturday Night" -- in which Mr. Azaria's ex-fiancee, Julie Warner, played Billy Crystal's long-suffering wife -- and Ralph Fiennes, who received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in "Schindler's List."
Getting the role of a television quiz show producer represents the "greatest thrill" in Mr. Azaria's career. "The whole process of getting this movie was so exciting," he said. "I had a real strong feeling about it even though it was way against the odds. But it took several months from the time I first read for the casting person's assistant to when I finally got it. By the time I got the part, I was ill from all the stress."
Working with Mr. Redford proved to be a daunting experience. "Forget about being directed by him," he said. "I had to get over just looking at him. And you have to call him 'Bob.' It took a week for me to call him 'Bob.' I ended up calling him 'Mr. Red Bob.'"
Although he is eager for the film to open this fall, Mr. Azaria is afraid to place too much hope in one role.
"Nothing could come out of it, and I'm right back where I started from," he said. "Or people could enjoy the movie and for some reason don't remember me. Or they could hate it. It's too unpredictable."
Getting to this point in his career has not been easy. Mr. Azaria has gone the frustrated actor/bartender/waiter route. He knows he's in an insecure business and that hustling from audition to audition is par for the course.
"I'm hoping the new film will bring me up to the next level," he said. "I would like to get offers instead of having to scramble for everything. Or at least be thought of and considered for roles instead of having to bang the door down."