Tuesday, September 20, 2016

In Character: Hank Azaria

One of the things I love most about Hank Azaria is his unpredictably. You never know what he’s going to do. If he’s playing an out-and-out comedic character, Azaria’s dramatic skills may sneak in a heartfelt moment. If you’re watching a more serious Azaria performance, there’s a good chance his comic timing will show itself. 

A maestro impressionist and voice artist, Azaria has proven his chops in so many different fields. He’s as fun to watch (and listen to) today as he was 25 years ago. Actually, given his recently Emmy win for guest starring on Ray Donovan, I think it’s fair to say that Azaria is only getting better. 

Five Essential Roles
Quiz Show (1994)
Albert Freedman
Quiz Show was Azaria’s big film break, and it ultimately proved he had serious dramatic chops. NBC producers Albert Freedman (Azaria) and Dan Enright (David Paymer) may not have started the infamous cheating scandal on the popular game show, Twenty One, but they were certainly the men responsible for keeping it in play. It was Freedman and Enright’s job to feed the answers to contestants, and when the contestants no longer generated big ratings, Freedman and Enright were in charge of finding a new golden boy for America to fawn over. Azaria’s part in Quiz Show is a small one, but it speaks to the actor’s strengths that he established himself as a dramatic force, even in such a supporting role.

The Birdcage (1996)
Agador has got to be Azaria’s most gloriously outlandish live action character. As the hilariously flamboyant Guatemalan housekeeper for Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane), Azaria’s antics simply know no bounds. His accent, his walk, his insane reasoning, it all helps Azaria steal every scene he’s in, which is damn impressive, given the cast of The Birdcage. Agador was initially a very small role, but once director Mike Nichols saw what Azaria was doing, he let Azaria open Agador up, resulting in of the funniest film characters from the ‘90s. It’s utterly impossible to not enjoy yourself while watching Azaria ham it up in this film.

Shattered Glass (2003)
Michael Kelly
Now for something completely different. Michael Kelly is one of my favorite “straight” characters Azaria has played. No accent, no wild humor, just a very fine, very honest portrayal of a great American journalist. As Stephen Glass’ first editor at The New Republic, Michael does what all great editors do: he supports and defends his writers at all costs. Unfortunately, Michael didn’t know he was supporting the work of a pathological liar like Stephen Glass.  Like many of the readers of The New Republic, Michael was duped by Glass, only to discover Glass’ deceit later. Azaria isn’t in Shattered Glass much, but his time on screen is well earned and honest. He just feels like this guy.

Huff (2004-2006)
Dr. Craig ‘Huff’ Huffstodt
Azaria’s work in Huff edges up against the best work he’s ever done. The short-lived show (Showtime canceled it before its second season concluded) was about an L.A. shrink, Huff (Azaria), navigating through life’s problems with his family, clients and best friend. Though I’ve only seen the first season, the acting in the show was excellent. Azaria and Oliver Platt were both nominated for Emmy’s for their work, and Blythe Danner won the Supporting Actress Emmy two years in a row for playing Huff’s overbearing mother. And damn, how heartbreaking it is to see a young Alton Yelchin play Azaria’s son with such gentle compassion. 

Tonally, Huff is a hard show to nail down (which I love). While technically a drama, the show is nearly as funny as it is moving. Its tone is reminiscent of Six Feet Under, which is to say, Huff was a gamble season-to-season, episode-to-episode. But from the pilot episode, it’s clear that Azaria and Co. were all in. Everyone had a lock on their respective characters, which bled confidence into the show. I understand why Showtime pulled the plug, but it would’ve been great to see where Huff went.

Ray Donovan (2014-2016)
Ed Cochran
Ed Cochran is well on his way to becoming the director of the FBI when he comes across Ray Donovan (Liev Schriber). Cochran is tasked with taking Ray and his crooked father, Mick (Jon Voight) down, which proves to be a big goddamn mistake. Ray Donovan is a man undeterred. You mess with him, he takes you down. Ed Cochran learns this in a heavy (but often hilarious) fashion during the show’s second season. We all have skeletons in our closet, and if you mess with Ray Donovan, he brings ‘em right the hell out. I don’t want to give too much away (because I wish everyone would watch this great show), but thankfully, the writers have found room for Cochran in the show’s later seasons. Ray Donovan is one of my favorite shows, and every time Azaria pops up in it, he breathes new life into the series.

The Best of the Best
The Simpsons (1989-present)
32 Various Characters
For the first time in my In Character series, I’m hailing an animated voice performance(s) as an actor’s best work. But when we’re talking about Hank Azaria’s astounding, nearly 30 year work on The Simpsons, how can I not choose it as his best? And I have to include all 32 (!) characters as Azaria’s best, because how the hell can one pick a favorite among Moe, Chief Wiggum, Apu, Comic Book Guy, Disco Stu, Professor Fink, Duffman, and many more? The collective voice work by every performer on The Simpsons is one of the main reasons the show has been running so long, and Azaria deserves a ton of credit for bringing so many of the show’s classic characters to life.

If you’re a fan of The Simpsons or Hank Azaria or both, give Scott Feinberg’s great podcast, Awards Circuit, a listen. On the August 24 episode, Azaria went into great detail about the amount of work it takes to voice each episode. He also admits who is favorite character is, and, of course, voices a few of the famed characters during the conversation. It’s a great chat, one that makes you appreciate Azaria’s entire body of work that much more.

Other Notable Roles
in Dodgeball
Pretty Woman (1990)
Herman’s Head (1991-1994)
Friends (1994-2003)
Heat (1995)
Mad About You (1995-1999)
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
Great Expectations (1998)
Cradle Will Rock (1999)
Mystery Men (1999)
Mystery, Alaska (1999)
Tuesdays with Morrie (1999)
Fail Safe (2000)
Along Came Polly (2003)
Dodgeball (2004)
Run, Fatboy, Run (2007)
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
Lovelace (2013)


  1. Haha great number one choice. I haven't watched The Simpsons in years, but the classic seasons still make it one of my all time favorite shows and that wouldn't be possible without him. Moe is probably my favorite character on the show.

    "I'm better than dirt. Well, most kinds of dirt, not that fancy store-bought dirt... I can't compete with that stuff."

    Anyway, as far as performances outside of the ones you mentioned here i have to go with Heat. His reaction to Al Pacinos "GREAT ASS!" outburst is just priceless.

    1. Thanks man! I haven't seen The Simpsons in a long time too, but I love that Azaria is still killing it on that show.

      Know what's funny about that moment in Heat... Azaria had no idea Pacino was going to do that, so Azaria's "....Jesus" reaction is Hank Azaria, not his character. I love that.

    2. Haha yeah i heard that too. Must have been a crazy experience to have Al Pacino screaming in your face about great asses like that out of nowhere.

  2. You're right about him being so unpredictable. I never thought of it that way. He was hysterical in The Birdcage, it's been so many years since I've seen Quiz Show. I barely remember it, I'll have to rewatch.

    1. I'm so glad you're a fan of his work! I love him in The Birdcage. It's so hard to believe that Agador and the NBC exec from Quiz Show were played by the same guy.

  3. YES! I LOVE THIS POST! Agador is my favorite character of his; my mother and I constantly quote him from that movie :) He's such a chameleon, and is so brilliant in everything thing he does!

    1. haha nice! I recently rewatched The Birdcage with my mom too and we laughed our asses off the whole time at Agador. Brilliant in that movie.

  4. Hank Azaria is a mixed bag for me. When he's good roles such as Agador, some of the characters in The Simpsons, Quiz Show, Dodgeball, and Shattered Glass. He can be great. I just wish he made better choices as he's been in some seriously horrible films and do some really bad performances like the fucking Smurf movies. He was wasted, well what great actor wasn't, in Godzilla and just flat-out idiotic in America's Sweethearts.

    1. It's true, he has been in some bad movies, which is always a shame. But all told, I'm a fan of his overall work.

  5. HE is so great, I've not seen him in much, yet I know his name and his face and his voice so well.

  6. I love this guy! I actually mostly know him from his sweet and funny episodic role on Friends. I am gonna start Roy Donovan soon, maybe even this weekend.

    1. He was really good on Friends, wasn't he? I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on Ray Donovan once you dig into it. Paula Malcomson is soooo good in it.

  7. I had no idea he was on The Simpsons. Too funny. I will always remember him most as David, the sexy bumbling scientist on Friends. Not necessarily his best role, but it really stuck with me.

    1. And what's really interesting about his work on Friends is that he was only in 5 episodes. Feels like he was in a lot more.