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Hank Albert Azaria was born April 25, 1964 and is an American film, television and stage actor, director, comedian and voice artist. He is noted for being one of the principal voice actors on the animated television series The Simpsons. He performs the voices of Moe Szyslak, Chief Wiggum, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and numerous other characters.
He became more widely known through his appearances in films such as The Birdcage, Godzilla, and Along Came Polly. He starred in the drama Huff, playing the titular character, to critical acclaim, as well as appearing in the popular stage musical Spamalot. Originally more of a comic actor, in recent years Azaria has taken on more dramatic roles including Tuesdays With Morrie and Uprising. Married to Helen Hunt from 1999 until 2000, he has won four Emmys and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Azaria was born and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, the son of Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish parents from Thessaloniki, Greece.His father, Albert, ran several dress-manufacturing businesses, while his mother raised him and his two older sisters, Stephanie and Elise.Before marrying his father, Azaria's mother had been a publicist for Columbia Pictures, promoting films in Latin American countries, as she was fluent in both English and Spanish. Both of his parents loved all forms of show business, which spurred him on to become an actor.Azaria graduated from The Kew Forest School in Forest Hills, and later studied drama at Tufts University until 1985, before training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.There he met Oliver Platt, with whom he became best friends; Azaria noted that "Oliver was a better actor than I was in college, and he really inspired me." Together the pair starred in various college stage productions including The Merchant of Venice. Azaria originally hoped to become a full-time theater actor so he and Platt set up their own company: "Big Theatre". Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter was the only thing they ever performed.Azaria's first job was a commercial advertising Italian television when he was seventeen years old. Before leaving New York, Azaria worked for several years as a bartender. He soon realised that television was a better calling and moved to Los Angeles.
Azaria has described his career as being very gradual, in that he has not skipped any of the usual "career steps".After moving to Los Angeles, where he was trained by acting teacher Roy London, he began working as a stand-up comedian, becoming popular at local comedy clubs.He made his first television appearance with a two-line role in an episode of the 1986 Peter Boyle series Joe Bash, though his part was edited out before the show's broadcast. Still, the role won him admission to the Screen Actors Guild, and enabled him to appear in an episode of Family Ties.
He became most famous for his voice work on the animated television show The Simpsons, a show that continues to the present. He joined the show at age 25, having previously performed only one voice over, as an animated dog in the Fox pilot Hollywood Dog. The first voice he performed was that of town bartender Moe Szyslak, replacing Christopher Collins who had voiced the character in several previous episodes. Having known him from the failed pilot, casting director Bonnie Pietila called Azaria and asked him to audition for the voice of Moe. At the time he was doing a play, in which he performed the role of a drug dealer, basing his voice on Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. He used that voice in the audition, and was told by Matt Groening and Sam Simon to make it more gravelly, ultimately becoming the voice of Moe. Groening and Simon thought it was perfect and took Azaria over to the Fox recording studio. Before he had even seen a script, he recorded several lines of dialogue as Moe for the episode "Some Enchanted Evening". Azaria did not expect to hear from the show again but they continued to call him back, first to perform the voice of Chief Wiggum, and then Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, until eventually during the second season he was doing numerous voices. At that point he was given a contract and made a permanent member of the cast. As well as Moe, Wiggum and Apu, Azaria provides the voices of the Comic Book Guy, Carl Carlson, Cletus Spuckler, Professor Frink, Dr. Nick Riviera, Lou, Snake, Kirk Van Houten, the Sea Captain, Superintendent Chalmers, Disco Stu, Duffman, the "Wise Guy" and numerous other one-time characters.
In addition to Moe's voice being based on Al Pacino, many of Azaria's other recurring characters are based on something else. He took Apu's voice from the many Indian and Pakistani convenience store workers in Los Angeles that he had interacted with when he first moved to the area, and also loosely based it on Peter Sellers' character Hrundi V. Bakshi from the film The Party. Originally, it was thought that Apu being Indian was too offensive and stereotypical, but due to Azaria's reading of the line "Hello, Mr. Homer" his character stayed. Azaria, however, disputed this on LateNet with Ray Ellin, claiming that Apu was always intended to be stereotypical. Chief Wiggum's voice was originally a parody of David Brinkley but when Azaria was told it was too slow he switched it to that of Edward G. Robinson. Officer Lou is based on Sylvester Stallone, and Dr. Nick is "a bad Ricky Ricardo impression." The "Wise Guy" voice is "basically Charles Bronson," while Carl is "a silly voice [Azaria] always did." Two of the voices come from his time at college: Snake's is based on Azaria's old college roommate, while Comic Book Guy's voice is based on a student who lived in the room next door to Azaria's, who went by the name "F". Professor Frink is based on Jerry Lewis's performance in the original The Nutty Professor, and the Sea Captain's is based on English actor Robert Newton's portrayal of many pirates. Azaria based his performance for the one-time character Frank Grimes, from the episode "Homer's Enemy", on actor William H. Macy. He counts Grimes as the hardest, most emotional performance he has ever had to give in the history of The Simpsons.
His friends refer to him as "the freakish mimic" due to his ability to copy almost anybody's voice instantly after he has heard it. As a child he believed that everyone could do such a thing, until he realised that it was a rare talent. Azaria was glad to have found the "ultimate outlet" for his skill, in The Simpsons. Matt Groening has stated that Azaria possesses the ability to turn unfunny lines into some of the best in an episode, while former writer Jay Kogen stated: "Just when I think I know [Azaria's] bag of tricks, he's always got a new thing he does to surprise me." Throughout the run of The Simpsons, Azaria has had to sing in character several times, a task which he describes as easier than singing normally. Azaria's work on the show has won him several awards, including three Emmys for "Outstanding Voice-Over Performance". He was also nominated for the award in 2009, but lost to co-star Dan Castellaneta. Azaria, with the rest of the principal cast, reprised all of his voice roles from The Simpsons, for the 2007 film The Simpsons Movie.
Up until 1998, Azaria was paid $30,000 per episode. Azaria and the five other main The Simpsons voice actors were then involved in a pay dispute in which Fox threatened to replace them with new actors and went as far as preparing for casting of new voices. However, the issue was soon resolved and from 1998 to 2004, they received $125,000 per episode. In 2004, the voice actors intentionally skipped several table reads, demanding they be paid $360,000 per episode. The strike was resolved a month later ,with Azaria's pay increasing to something between $250,000 and $360,000 per episode. In 2008, production for the twentieth season was put on hold due to new contract negotiations with the voice actors, who wanted a "healthy bump" in salary to an amount close to $500,000 per episode. The dispute was later resolved and Azaria and the rest of the cast received their requested pay rise.
Once The Simpsons was "going steadily" and Azaria had enough money to live on, he stopped working on commercials as he found them "so demoralizing" and he always sounded sarcastic whenever he read for them. When recording the part of "Jell-O Man" for a Jell-O advert, he was told to make the voice he offered "more likeable and friendly so that children like him." After pointing out that "Jell-O Man" was a fictional character, he left and never recorded for an advertisement again.
With the continuing success of The Simpsons, Azaria began taking on roles, such as an appearance in the 1990 film Pretty Woman playing a police detective investigating the murder of a prostitute. From then he became a regular on the show Herman's Head playing Jay Nichols, alongside The Simpsons co-star Yeardley Smith. He regularly recorded for The Simpsons and filmed Herman's Head during the same day. He won praise as television producer Albert Freedman in the 1994 Academy Award nominated film Quiz Show, and in the same year, he made his first appearance on Friends, playing the recurring character David, one of Phoebe Buffay's boyfriends. His first appearance was in the show's tenth episode, before the character left for Minsk. He came back in the show's seventh season, before making several appearances in the ninth, which culminated in him proposing to Phoebe. She rejected him, and David left for good. From 1996, he had a recurring role in Mad About You as Nat, the dog walker. Azaria earned an Emmy nomination for both roles. He continued his voice-over work as Venom/Eddie Brock in Spider-Man: The Animated Series for four years, and in the animated feature Anastasia, as Bartok the bat, reprising the role in the direct-to-video sequel Bartok the Magnificent.
In 1996, Azaria played gay Guatemalan housekeeper Agador Spartacus in the film The Birdcage. He was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award, and critically branded "the most hilarious performance in the film." For the role he used a Guatemalan accent, and made himself sound as effeminate as possible. He had chosen two possible voices, a "fruity" one and a tougher voice. After advice from a drag queen, he chose the fruity voice. Three weeks into production, he realized he sounded exactly like his grandmother, which aided his performance. Azaria appeared in several films, often as minor characters. After appearing in Heat and Grosse Pointe Blank, he was featured in the 1998 film Godzilla as photographer Victor "Animal" Palotti. He went on to appear opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, as Walter Plane, in the 1998 adaptation of Great Expectations, and co-starred in Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. He also starred in both Disney's Mystery, Alaska, and Universal Pictures's Mystery Men, in 1999, and appeared as Professor Groteschele in Fail Safe, a show that was a live broadcast. Other appearances include the films America's Sweethearts, Along Came Polly, and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, the latter two with Ben Stiller. For his role of Claude in Along Came Polly, Azaria donned a wig and worked out "for seven or eight weeks," to get into the physical shape the part required. He appeared as a smooth-talking American named Whit in David Schwimmer's directorial debut Run, Fat Boy, Run. During production he became good friends with co-star Simon Pegg, performing The Simpsons voices on request, frequently distracting Pegg when he was supposed to be filming. He worked with Stiller again on 2009's Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in which Azaria played the villainous pharaoh Kah Mun Rah, utilizing a Boris Karloff accent. Although the film received mixed reviews, critics praised Azaria's performance. Perry Seibert of TV Guide wrote that "thanks to Azaria, a master of comic timing. His grandiose, yet slightly fey bad guy is equally funny when he's chewing out minions as he is when deliberating if Oscar the Grouch and Darth Vader are evil enough to join his team."
Azaria appeared as Mitch Albom alongside Jack Lemmon in the 1999 television film Tuesdays With Morrie, winning an Emmy for the role. Azaria described it as the "best work [he has] done." It was one of the first dramatic roles Azaria had taken, as for much of his career he has been primarily associated with comedy. His next dramatic role was in the television film Uprising playing Mordechaj Anielewicz. Azaria was confused at his casting and frequently asked the producer and director Jon Avnet as to why he was selected. "I know [Avnet] liked the fact I was Jewish, and he knew I could do accents well. He cast me and David Schwimmer in [Uprising], and we were both sort of mystified. He had some instinct that he wanted people who were more known for being funny. He never explained it satisfactorily to me; I don't understand why." His parts in Tuesdays With Morrie and Uprising affected him, causing a depressive state which he countered with Monty Python DVDs.
Azaria starred as psychiatrist Craig "Huff" Huffstodt in the television series Huff, for which he also served as a producer. Azaria loved the role, and was pleased how Huff turned out, and by the second season began "to extend character emotionally," and "he really is beginning to unravel." After reading the pilot script he sent it to best friend Oliver Platt, who took the role of Huff's best friend, Russell Tupper. The show ran for two seasons from 2004-2006, garnering seven Emmy nominations in 2005 including a nomination for Azaria for "Best Actor in a Drama Series". Despite the awards, the show continually received low ratings and Showtime chose not to commission it for a third season. Azaria directed an episode of the show's second season, and expressed his wish to move into directing.
Azaria wrote and directed the 2004 short film Nobody's Perfect, which won the "Film Discovery Jury Award for Best Short" at the US Comedy Arts Festival. In January 2007, he was confirmed to be directing Outsourced, a film about two American workers who journey to get their jobs back, after their factory is moved to Mexico. However, in 2009, Azaria told Empire he was now focusing on making a documentary about fatherhood.
Azaria has appeared in several theater productions. In 2003 he appeared in London's West End as Bernard in Sexual Perversity in Chicago, along with Matthew Perry and Minnie Driver. In 2004, Azaria began appearing as Sir Lancelot, the French Taunter, and other characters in Spamalot, the musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which opened in Chicago in December 2004 before moving to Broadway. The show was met with critical acclaim, receiving fourteen Tony Award nominations, including a "Best Actor in a Musical" nomination for Azaria. Azaria described it as "the most fun that I've ever had in my entire life." Reuniting with The Birdcage director Mike Nichols and being a huge Monty Python fan, he saw it as an opportunity he could not pass up. He took a break from the show in June 2005, with Alan Tudyk filling in for him, to work on Huff, but returned in December 2005. Continuing his theater roles, in late 2007 he starred in Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention, playing RCA head David Sarnoff.
Azaria has been dating former actress Katie Wright since 2007, and the two have one son, Hal, together that was born on June 6, 2009. In the early 1990s, Azaria was engaged to actress Julie Warner. In 1994, Azaria began a relationship with actress Helen Hunt and they married in a traditional Jewish ceremony at the couple's home in Southern California on July 17, 1999. The two had appeared together in Mad About You and the episode of The Simpsons "Dumbbell Indemnity". After a year of marriage, Azaria moved out of their home and began staying in a Bel-Air hotel. After a six month separation Hunt filed for divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences". The divorce was finalized on December 18, 2000.
Azaria remains best friends with Oliver Platt and is godfather to Platt's son George. Politically, Azaria makes contributions that support the Democratic Party, enjoys the music of Elvis Costello, and would be a therapist if he were not an actor. He considers The Godfather trilogy to be what inspired him to become an actor, and counts Peter Sellers and Walt Frazier as his heroes.