All of the character actors that have been profiled thus far as a “Character Actor of the Week” have been of the B to C list variety in the harsh ranking that is celebrity. It is rare for this type of actor to reach a high level of fame, as so few have. Hank Azaria is one such character actor that has been in the public eye for over twenty years and has a resume that should be the envy of his peers.
My first two memories of Mr. Azaria’s work occurred at the same time, on two of the Fox Network’s Sunday night television shows. Unbeknownst to a young Alan Smithee at the time, the first would occur on The Simpsons, where Azaria continues to play several iconic characters. The second was on a short lived show called Herman’s Head (also starring Yeardley Smith, or the voice of Lisa Simpson), which somehow lasted 70 episodes. Hank played the best buddy, Jay, a womanizer type similar to Richard Kline’s Larry on Three’s Company- a typical skirt chaser.
Over the years, much praise has been laid at the feet of The Simpsons, all of which is totally spot on. By bringing these animated characters to life, the creators deserve much of the credit, but the actors do the brunt of the heavy lifting, turning them into the cultural icons they eventually become. Azaria, an under the radar voiceover artist, plays over fifteen characters on the show, including the surly bartender, Moe and convenience store owner, Apu. Azaria’s range exudes in the drastic differences each of these characters possess, as they are two of the show’s most popular supporting cast members. And although we define him as a character actor, his roles are so vital that the show would suffer greatly if Azaria departed.
In 1996, Azaria’s portrayal of an overly homosexual housekeeper in the hit comedy The Birdcage brought him rave reviews. His Agador Spartacus character stole virtually every scene of the film with his over-the-top mincing, an especially tough role when competing for laughs with Improv powerhouse Robin Williams and the equally brilliant Nathan Lane. A prime example of Azaria cutting his comedic chops is evident when Agador has to pretend that he is the proper butler for Williams and Lane. Clearly the character is not used to wearing dress shoes, so while playing it up he is literally falling down all over the place, perfectly mixing physical comedy with his delivery of gut-busting lines. In fact, his performance contributed to the film winning the Screen Actors Guild Award in 1997 for “Outstanding Performance by a Cast,” even though he personally lost “Outstanding Role by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role,” for which he was nominated.
Azaria has not completely limited his roles to comedies. In 2003, Azaria shared a small, yet noteworthy role in the biopic “Shattered Glass,” portraying Michael Kelly, editor of The New Republic. Azaria more than holds his own while sharing screen time with dramatic actors Peter Saarsgard and Chloe Sevginy. The dramatic approach continued as Azaria took to Showtime for the highly acclaimed series “Huff,” which tells the story of a psychiatrist whose live changes abruptly when his fifteen year old patient commits suicide in his office. Behind the scenes, Azaria flourished as one of the show’s producers and the role garnered Azaria both an Emmy and SAG nomination. With supporting roles in films like Pretty Woman, Heat, America’s Sweethearts, Along Came Polly, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and Year One, and television appearances on shows like Family Ties, Growing Pains, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Mad About You, and Friends, Hank Azaria is one of the most varied character actors of our generation.
The storied street of Broadway has also been graced by Mr. Azaria. He took to the stage in 2004 to play Sir Lancelot in Monty Python’s hit play Spamalot. Hank was a member of the original cast which helped make the play the juggernaut it has become today. Much like on the Simpson’s the script required Azaria to play multiple roles. He stayed with the show for a full year to record sellout crowds and Tony nominations.
Hank Azaria is a busy man, a true work horse. During his twenty plus years on the show Azaria could have remained a regular on The Simpsons and been a success, but the guy just loves to work and experiment with different genres. Hank Azaria embodies the fact that one cannot simply rest on their laurels, evidenced by his upcoming roles in The Smurfs (2011) and Happy Feet 2 in 3D (2011). And although his marriage to Helen Hunt may have been short-lived, the longevity of his career as a character actor appears to be endless.
- Alan Smithee