Hank Azaria will always be associated with The Simpsons, and rightfully so. But the titanic achievement of voicing so many Springfielders shouldn’t obscure his live-action resume. He’s starred in dramas, comedies, and TV movies. He’s won two Emmys (and earned six nominations) for playing flesh-and-blood characters. In short, he’s established himself as one of the most consistently excellent actors on television.
At the moment, he’s giving the best performance on Hello Tomorrow!, Apple TV+’s retro-futurist drama about a con man named Jack (Billy Crudup) who sells timeshares on the moon. As Eddie, Jack’s co-worker, Azaria’s matter-of-fact energy grounds the show’s superficial fizziness, making him the most human presence in a story full of heightened characters. That low-key wit is nothing like his brashness in Brockmire or his tough-guy swagger in Showtime’s Ray Donovan, and it proves once again he’s got serious chops.
His range is on full display in the following five performances. None of them are alike, which collectively makes them even more impressive.
It’s rooted in a character voice that Azaria started developing as a kid, but his performance is so much more than an accent. As Jim Brockmire, a disgraced baseball announcer who has to pull himself back up through the minor leagues while battling addiction and learning to be a better person, he’s both charming and sarcastic, witty and crude. It’s especially fun to watch him spar with Amanda Peet, whose character owns both a bar and the bottom-rung team that Brockmire’s stuck announcing for. They’ve got the romantic spark of smart people who turn each other on with their minds, and Azaria is a natural at that kind of flirting.
Every antihero needs an adversary, and Azaria was a fantastic thorn in Liev Schreiber’s side for several seasons of Ray Donovan. When Ed Cochran first appears, he’s the smug head of the FBI’s Los Angeles bureau, but after Ray (Schreiber) uses a sex scandal to destroy his life, he becomes a scheming, seething revenge machine. It’s startling to see Azaria be so vicious, considering he’s usually a funny guy. That might have helped him win a Guest Actor in a Drama Series Emmy for the Season 3 episode “One Night in Yerevan,” where Ed concocts a plan to punish Ray for costing him his career.
It would’ve been easy for Azaria to go over the top as David, a funny-nerdy scientist who falls for Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow). Instead, he used the character’s sweet awkwardness to create a delightful counterpoint for Phoebe’s daffy enthusiasm. Even better, their mutual attraction was so strong it forced both of them to get uncharacteristically blunt, which led to funny moments like Phoebe demanding to be kissed and David deciding to make an impromptu marriage proposal. The role earned Azaria an Emmy nomination for Guest Actor in a Comedy Series, and it proved he could handle low-key, shy-guy comedy just as well as the broader stuff on The Simpsons.
Azaria has said he never learned how to work with Bob Lowry, who created this Showtime drama about a psychiatrist going through a midlife crisis. Still, for the two seasons it aired, he turned in a nuanced and often quite heartbreaking performance. He may have won an Emmy for his role in the treacly TV movie Tuesdays With Morrie, but this is the show that best showcases his knack for playing regular, troubled guys trying to figure things out. His scenes with Blythe Danner (as Huff’s mother) and Paget Brewster (as his wife) are especially strong, because we can see him trying to balance his frustration and his affection for the two most important women in his life.
Nat Ostertag, the good-hearted dog walker on Mad About You, is the closest Azaria has come to playing a flesh-and-blood character who would be at home on The Simpsons. He’s got an exaggerated accent, a cockeyed worldview, and a flair for silly expressions. (“You’re like a wise old tree!”) That makes him the perfect fit for the snappy rhythms of this particular sitcom. But as wacky as his performance is, Azaria always leads with Nat’s heart, particularly his affection for the Buchman family pooch. That makes him the kind of goofball that anyone can love.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: Hank Azaria, Brockmire, Friends, Hello Tomorrow!, Huff, Mad About You, Ray Donovan, The Simpsons