Hank Azaria, Voice of <em>Simpsons</em> and Movie Star Next Door, Steals His Scenes in <em>Lovelace</em>

From Queens to Soho to L.A., and now back to the West 80s

(Illustration by Drew Friedman)
(Illustration by Drew Friedman)

When Hank Azaria arrived to meet me at the corner of Central Park West and 75th Street one morning, his look was more Upper West Side dad than movie star—sneakers and gym shorts, water bottle in hand, backpack slung over his shoulder.

It isn’t hard for him to go incognito in the neighborhood where he is attempting to put down roots with his wife, Katie, and their 4-year-old son, Hal.

That’s because Mr. Azaria has had mostly small and brilliant turns in celebrated pics—like his portrayal of porno auteur Jerry Damiano in this month’s hotly anticipated Lovelace—but his only world-shifting performances have been on The Simpsons, the series that showcases his vocal turns as the voices of Moe, Apu and Chief Wiggum but never shows his face.

He only gets recognized once or twice a day, and he couldn’t help smiling a little when a passerby called out, “Hey, man, you’re awesome!”

“Thank you, thank you,” said Mr. Azaria, sounding genuinely pleased even as he shrugged it off.

As we walked south, Mr. Azaria—a young 49 with popping biceps and a runner’s twitchy quickness—pointed to The Dakota, the park-adjacent complex famous for its exterior shots in Rosemary’s Baby and for John Lennon’s death.

“That’s my favorite building in New York,” he said as we walked by, his neck craning. “The night Lennon was shot, I was 16, and it was December of 1980, and when I arrived, there were still people putting down flowers, people were still singing Beatles songs. It was just a bittersweet New York memory.”

It’s only right to forgive the actor a  bit of New York nostalgia. Two years after renting out his modern Soho pad (originally designed by the artist Cindy Sherman) and shipping out to Los Angeles, Mr. Azaria is back in New York, renting a place on 80th Street with his family. The plan is to stay here two years, then make a final decision: stay in Manhattan, decamp for Westchester or return to L.A.

(Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)
(Photo by Emily Anne Epstein)

The move coincides, by chance, with the release of two films featuring Mr. Azaria in diametrically different roles. First, there’s Lovelace, in which he plays the director who guides the famed adult film star Linda Lovelace as she dives headfirst into the world of big-screen blue movies with Deep Throat.

Mr. Azaria  elevates what could have been a stock character with nuanced and believable aspirations to cinematographic success. Sample line of dialogue: “Tits and ass, that’s the action!” It’s a delicious performance in a movie chock full of great ones, and though the whole thing turns dark in its second half, Mr. Azaria’s enthusiastic descriptions of fellatio give the heavy film a necessary light touch.

Mr. Azaria was barely older than his son is now when Deep Throat captured the attention of an American generation fresh from the sexual revolution of the ’60s. But news of the phenomenon (it was the first porno to draw big audiences to theaters, and it made Linda Lovelace a household name) still managed to trickle down to young Hank.

“All the adults were talking about it, though I don’t know how my parents explained what Deep Throat was to me,” he said. “I had no idea what it meant.”

The other film featuring Mr. Azaria this month is a slightly less lurid offering called The Smurfs 2.

“They are very similar in tone!” he cracked as joggers whizzed by the park’s entrance. “In both movies there’s lots of sexual abuse. I disagreed with it, but the filmmakers of Smurfs, they insisted.”

Mr. Azaria can’t help but joke about playing a villain terrorizing blue-skinned cartoons, but he’s actually taking his foray into kids’ flicks pretty seriously. Our interview was supposed to be about his role in a film about the smut industry, yet it became clear that he was thinking mostly about his son Hal. Before we met, he had dropped the toddler off at summer camp. After our interview, he would wait until pickup time. He mentioned often that everything he does, to some extent, he does with his son in mind.

That was part of the reason for relocating the family to Mr. Azaria’s hometown—they settled on the Upper West Side, but only after considering buying a place in Forest Hills, Queens, where he grew up.

“I showed my wife some houses in Forest Hills, but she wasn’t going for it,” he said. “I love it up there, I love Queens, I guess because it’s home. I look around, and I know that it’s not the most beautiful place in the world, but it’s beautiful to me: Queens Boulevard, my old neighborhood, everything. I’ve been out of New York for 27 years, and you come to really appreciate the familiarity of New York. Queens is like a visual of that to me.”

(Emily Anne Epstein)
(Emily Anne Epstein)

But he didn’t seem long for his early stomping grounds. He had decided to be an actor early on, and he studied drama at Tufts University outside Boston. Upon graduating in 1985, he moved to Los Angeles, where he got one-episode gigs on Growing Pains and Family Ties, bused tables, worked hard in plays nobody came to. Then he got offered voice work on a show called The Simpsons. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

“It advanced the comedy ball forward, and [is] most likely the biggest thing I’ll be a part of,” he said. “Just like Bugs Bunny was a big part of my childhood, I imagine kids will be watching The Simpsons forever.”

Though his manic ventriloquism on The Simpsons has secured Mr. Azaria a place in the pop-culture pantheon, his onscreen performances are also memorable. He’s indelible as the fey Guatemalan housekeeper Agador Spartacus in The Birdcage. He shows up in the Michael Mann masterpiece Heat as Alan Marciano, who’s on the receiving end of a top-notch nutso Al Pacino outburst (“Because she’s got a grrrrreat ass!” Mr. Pacino screams, if you somehow forgot.)

(Emily Anne Epstein)
(Emily Anne Epstein)

And he played David, who courted Phoebe on Friends for several seasons only to get beat out by another guy when he tried to pop the question.

After a while, our walk took us down the to 60s, where a drizzle forced us to take shelter on benches under a canopy of tree branches. We started talking, but not for very long.

“It smells like dog piss,” Mr. Azaria huffed, and he was right, so we braved the rain and started walking again until we made it to the American Museum of Natural History, where Mr. Azaria began waxing nostalgic about a piece of his own history. Namely, playing Sir Lancelot in Spamalot, the 2005 hit Broadway adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Spamalot was the most fun I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m a Python freak, and I love Mike Nichols, and I was so happy to be recreating all that. All the Pythons came on stage and I literally cried. That’s the closest I’ll ever get to being a rock star. The first six months of that run, every night there was some movie star or political figure in the audience and backstage. I opened my dressing room door once and Bruce Springsteen was there.”

He said now that he’s in New York, he’s ready to hit the stage again, though he’s not sure he could handle a long-running behemoth like Spamalot.

“Broadway would be the greatest job in the world if it were six shows a week,” he said. “Eight shows a week, jumping and leaping everywhere, while you’re singing—it’s too much. I lost my voice twice, and they give you these cortisone shots. It’s basically like steroids. And you know what? They work. Twenty minutes after the shot, there was a spring back in my step. Of course, I couldn’t sleep for 48 hours.”

Our Upper West Side loop was winding down, and we were nearing his new digs on 80th Street, still full of boxes but lacking essential furniture. With his domestic life looming, conversation was drawn back to Hal, the kid currently occupied by summer camp. Though Hal is just 4, at some point he’ll be ready to take on the ultimate cartoon marathon: 24 seasons and counting of The Simpsons.

“I can’t wait to show him,” Mr. Azaria said.

There’s a chance that when that time comes, Mr. Azaria will still be in the studio recording new misadventures for the Springfield clan. “We’re definitely going another two years,” he said, “and after that, who knows?”

He's quite the characters. (Emily Anne Epstein)
He’s quite the characters. (Emily Anne Epstein)
Hank Azaria, Voice of <em>Simpsons</em> and Movie Star Next Door, Steals His Scenes in <em>Lovelace</em>