The Simpsons' Hank Azaria Gets Into Character
The versatile actor speaks up about his favorite roles: dad, husband, all-around nice guy, and part-time Westchester resident.
To prepare for flying down to Atlanta to interview Hank Azaria on the set of his latest TV project, I conduct a little unscientific survey among some random people I encounter. So, what comes to mind when people hear this actor’s name?
“I love that guy!” is a typical response, followed by mention of his brilliant voiceover work on America’s favorite animated TV family, The Simpsons (Simpsons Wiki credits Azaria with having voiced more than 370 characters, including, Moe the Bartender, Chief Wiggum, and Comic Book Guy) or his genius portrayal of the hysterical, flamboyant manservant Agador Spartacus in the 1996 movie The Birdcage, his first big film role. And while those comedic roles might have put Azaria on the map, career-wise, they belie the range and depth of his work, which includes more serious roles, such as a resistance leader in the 2001 Holocaust TV miniseries Uprising and journalist Mitch Albom in the 1999 TV film Tuesdays With Morrie. Indeed, Azaria is nothing if not versatile.
In addition to the above, Azaria’s long career encompasses film (Godzilla, Along Came Polly), TV (Friends, Mad About You), stage (Spamalot), and even voicing characters for video games and amusement-park rides. His IMDb listing shows 17 award wins, including six Primetime Emmys, and a total of 30 nominations for Emmys and SAG awards, among others. To give you an idea of the breadth of his career, in 2015 he snapped up his fourth Emmy for his Simpsons voiceover work and received another a year later for “Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series” for his role as the shady FBI chief Ed Cochran on Showtime’s dark and gritty Ray Donovan.
“While comedic roles might have put Azaria on the map, career, they belie the range and depth of his work.”
But if the folks at IFC (formerly the Independent Film Channel, it’s now part of AMC Networks as a comedy channel whose tagline is “Always On, Slightly Off”) have their way, responses to any future polls about 53-year-old Azaria will lead off with mention of him as the star and producer of their laugh-out-loud dark comedy Brockmire, which returns for Season 2 this month. The critically acclaimed show, which originally appeared as a viral short video on the comedy website Funny or Die, stars Azaria as a raunchy, booze-marinated, loud-plaid-jacket-wearing baseball announcer trying to reclaim his position as a top Major League broadcaster after experiencing a career-destroying on-air moment a decade earlier. Explains the show’s executive producer and co-creator, Joel Church-Cooper, about Azaria’s character: “Brockmire is a libertine who enjoys everything New Orleans — where Season 2 is set — has to offer, and where at 11 a.m. he can be shit-faced drunk, and he won’t be the only one.”
Born Henry Albert Azaria on April 25, 1964, to a Sephardic Jewish family — all his grandparents hailed from Greece’s Spanish Jewish community — Azaria was raised in Forest Hills, Queens, with two older sisters. His dad, Al, worked in the garment industry and his mom, Ruth, fluent in Spanish, was a former Columbia Pictures publicist for the Latin-American market. From the age of 5 and for the next 12 summers, Azaria attended Camp Towanda, a Honesdale, PA, sleep-away camp popular with Westchester families — and where the 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer was filmed. “Hank was always an active, happy kid with lots of friends, many of whom he is still very close to,” says camp director Mitch Reiter. “He was always participating and a good guy to be with.” Though Azaria performed on the Towanda stage, he says he became obsessed with acting when he was 16 and peformed in a high-school play.
Azaria as baseball play-by-play announcer Jim Brockmire in the IFC show, Brockmire.
He went on to study drama at Tufts University in Medford, MA, from 1981 to 1985 — although he didn’t receive his bachelor’s degree until he had completed coursework from Los Angeles in 1987. (A proud Tufts alumnus, Azaria addressed its 2016 graduating class at commencement with some advice in the voices of his various Simpsons characters.) After college, Azaria received a degree from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “I knew that not many people make it, but I just figured…I don’t ever want to look back and say that I never gave it a try,” he has said about acting, adding, “I fully figured I’d be back in grad school — probably for psychology — by, say, the time I was 28.” But rather quick success out in LA with parts in Family Ties and Growing Pains “gave me enough encouragement to keep on going.” In LA, Azaria had a brief marriage to actress Helen Hunt; in 2007 he married his current wife, former actress Katie Wright (The Wonder Years, Melrose Place).
Today, Azaria’s primary residence is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but his family also has a home in the Bedford-Mount Kisco area, which they visit frequently on weekends, holidays, and during the summers. Does he bump into other celebs around town? “Yes, and I’m friends with some of them!,” he says, declining to name names. (“It’s okay to say that I’m there, but I don’t need that kind of heat,” he quips, referring to some celebs’ notorious desire for privacy).
It’s to talk about his life in Westchester that we sit down together during a day of filming Brockmire at Coolray Field, a Minor League baseball stadium in Lawrenceville, GA, about 45 minutes outside of Atlanta. The stadium is home to the Gwinnett Stripers, a professional Minor League baseball team. It’s a surprisingly blustery fall day, close to the end of an intense 24-day stretch of filming the eight episodes of Season 2.
“The actor and his family are very happy to call Westchester their sometime-home. “If I’m doing a Broadway run,” he says, “I wanted to be able to commute and not destroy myself...””
Looking tall, lean, and handsome in a navy suit with a royal-blue-and-white shirt for an upcoming scene, Azaria projects a certain warmth and affability. This fact becomes all the more ironic when, in a scene we watch being filmed — and filmed and refilmed — later that day, actor Dreama Walker, in her role as a PR person, urges Jim Brockmire to be “more likeable — someone you’d want to have a beer with.”
No beers are shared this day, but we quickly establish that the actor and his family are very happy to call Westchester their sometime-home. Like many residents, he was attracted to the county for its natural beauty, room to spread out, and proximity to Manhattan. “If I’m doing a Broadway run,” he says, “I wanted to be able to commute and not destroy myself if the family wants to be out in Westchester. Our son — he’s 8 — loves it there,” he adds, noting that their house has a pool and lots of room to throw a ball around. Favorite local hotspots for family outings include the nearby trampoline and go-kart places and a range where they hit golf balls.
In addition to frequenting the local Ben & Jerry’s, “We love Village Social in Mount Kisco,” says Azaria. The feeling is mutual, says general manager Brandon Haug. “Hank comes in with his family, and we do love having them here. They are always kind and joke around with the staff,” he says. “When I first started here, I was talking to them when I checked on the table, and after I walked away, the staff let me know who he was,” he adds. “I did not realize who it was because of his demeanor and how he carries himself.” Other favorite local eateries include the Mt Kisco Diner (“I’m a big fan”), as well as “the lovely Inn at Pound Ridge — boy, that place is delicious.”
While Hank’s son Hal participates in organized activities in Manhattan, he attended Elmwood Day Camp in White Plains for a few summers. “Hank is a very involved sort of dad, and he and his wife were great camp parents,” recalls camp director Gregg Licht. “They’re interested and loved participating in programing and activities for parents at camp and having feedback about their son.” Last summer was Hal’s first at sleep-away camp — at his dad’s alma mater. “At Visiting Day last summer, Hank told me what a gift it was for him to have his son following in his footsteps at Towanda,” recalls Reiter. “He is still very friendly, funny, and real — he never comes across as above you or full of himself.”
If there is anything about Westchester that surprises Azaria, it’s how “rural” it is. “I feel like I’m out in the country; it’s quite woodsy,” he offers. But he doesn’t see that as a negative — in fact, there are no negatives as far as the actor is concerned. “I love the East Coast, so I’m so happy to be back.” Though Hal attends a New York City school, Azaria volunteers that many of Hal’s classmates commute there from Westchester, adding, “I wouldn’t be shocked if we ended up primarily as Westchester residents, but we’ll see.”
Azaria says he and his family enjoy their part-time lives in Bedford-Mount Kisco, where they are familiar faces to the staff of Village Social.
Clearly, Azaria’s favorite role, wherever home may be, is that of dad-and-husband. Seeing his face light up when he talks about Hal and wife Katie, I can’t help but think of the sweet, funny, and poignant documentary series he produced, chronicling his own journey of fatherhood. When Azaria and Wright were exploring the idea of having children, he set off to interview his friends — including Kevin Bacon, Rainn Wilson, Mike Myers, and Bryan Cranston — and his parents, poker buddies, and parenting experts about being a dad. “I am not a ‘children’ kind of person. I don’t really like kids,” he deadpans on-camera. “I don’t gravitate toward them. They make me nervous when I’m around them,” he continues. “I didn’t particularly like myself as a child,” he adds, (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek. Azaria then confides, “I have a fear that I won’t bond somehow.”
The project changed to feature the Azarias’ own parenting story, when during the taping of an early episode, Wright, who was operating the camera, had to stop to throw up, after which she revealed to her husband — along with future viewers — that she was indeed pregnant. The sweet little bundle who instantly changed Azaria’s feelings about fatherhood is, of course, Hal. Born 10 weeks early in 2009 (weighing 2½ pounds), he spent seven weeks in a neonatal intensive-care unit. Poignant early shots of the newborn clutching Azaria’s finger through an opening in the incubator and the first time his dad held him clearly show that Azaria’s fears of not being able to bond were unfounded. “You’re so grateful when the kid is healthy,” he says. The series goes on to include shots of Hal, a charming blond cutie, at various stages throughout his young life, often clad in a hooded Tufts sweatshirt. Today, he is active and healthy and clearly the apple of his dad’s eye.
Next up for the versatile performer is Cary Fukunaga’s Netflix TV series, Maniac, opposite Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, airing in 2018. For more of Azaria — much more, it seems — tune into the new season of Brockmire, which, he suggests, may feature some of his trademark uninhibited nude scenes. “I’ll always find a way to show my ass,” he promises, adding that Hal won’t be able to watch the often-raunchy show “until he’s at least 34.” Until then, Azaria is happy to comply with his son’s request to “do the baseball-guy” voice whenever and wherever they play a game of catch.
Laurie Yarnell of Rye, a former Westchester Magazine features editor, frequently writes about notable locals, including Joseph Abboud and Georgina Bloomberg.