Arts and Culture

Hank Azaria opens up about speaking Ladino and his latest TV role

Hank Azaria plays a baseball announcer in the IFC series "Brockmire." (Erica Doss/IFC)


(JTA) — Actor Hank Azaria is known for his portrayal of an array of characters — most notably voicing Moe, Chief Wiggum and Apu on “The Simpsons.”

While he may be best known for his work on the long-running animated classic, Azaria, of course, has had a successful career in TV and film, with roles as varied as journalist Michael Kelly in “Shattered Glass” to the title role in Showtime’s “Huff” to voicing the villain Gargamel in “The Smurfs” movie.

His friends call him “the freakish mimic.” And Azaria, 52, has a comfort zone, of sorts.

“I certainly feel most at home with Jewish characters,” he recently told JTA in a telephone interview.

There was producer Al Freedman in the Academy Award-winning film “Quiz Show”; Mordechai Anielewicz, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, in the TV movie “Uprising,” and the tortured composer Marc Blitzstein in “The Cradle Will Rock.”

“These are real people who resisted power, and I feel a responsibility to portray them as honestly as I can,” Azaria said. “And yes, there’s a certain pride in portraying your own heritage. But I’m a character actor who plays every nationality and all walks of life.”

That’s a talent he has certainly demonstrated on “The Simpsons.” Almost from its beginning 28 years ago, Azaria has been one of the show’s most prolific voice actors, with over a dozen characters in his wheelhouse. That remarkable range has earned him four Emmy nominations and two wins.

His “Simpsons” voices are an important part of his arsenal. At a 2016 commencement speech at Tufts, his alma mater, he provided sage advice in the voice of several characters, including Chief Wiggum (“If a cop even thinks you’re going to throw up in the back seat, he will immediately let you go”) and Comic Book Guy (“Life is like the ‘Star Wars’ movies. Some of it is great. Some of it sucks. But you have no choice but to sit through all of it”).

Mimicking people and accents is something he’s been doing since childhood. Azaria was raised in New York City, in the borough of Queens, and his parents were descendants of Sephardic Jews from Salonika, Greece. Ladino was spoken around the home.

“I understood it and still do, and there was a time in my teenage years I was pretty fluent,” he said.

Though his family was “aggressively unobservant,” Azaria said — “the closest I came was Friday night services at camp” — he was tutored as a bar mitzvah.

Did hearing a foreign language at home facilitate his mimicking abilities?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “It was one of many accents I heard. What affected me more was New York City, being in a melting pot.”

“My sisters grew up in the same environment, but neither [do voices]. Either you’re born with the ear and vocal cords or you’re not. I thought everybody could do Bugs Bunny.”

While Azaria may be best known for his off-screen voices, Azaria’s latest project is “Brockmire,” a new live-action sitcom on IFC in which he plays the title role.

Azaria created the character for a “Funny or Die” video six years ago.

“One of my favorite [of the voices in my head] was the generic baseball announcer voice I heard in the ’70s growing up,” he said. “It wasn’t distinctive like Phil Rizzuto. It was this generic announcer voice you associate more with hacks or how they sold Ginsu knives or Ronco products.”

“I found that voice fascinating. I wondered if that guy talks like that all the time, and that was the comic basis for the character.”

The short “got such a good response on ‘Funny or Die,’ we thought ‘this thing’s got legs,'” he said.

Azaria and writer Joel Church-Cooper first tried to develop it as a film, but ultimately decided it “might actually work better as a cable series that gave us the freedom to curse and to be really salty with the whole thing.”

The show begins with a flashback. Ten years earlier, Jim Brockmire handled play-by-play duties for the Kansas City Royals. He was the youngest announcer ever in Major League Baseball and had the admiration of his peers.

Then he returned home unexpectedly and found his wife in, well, a very delicate situation with several neighbors. What made it worse — as Brockmire describes in a drunken, obscenity-laden and very funny on-air meltdown —  the group included his next-door-neighbor, Bob Greenwald, and “I was just at his son’s bar mitzvah.”

Amanda Peet with Hank Azaria in a scene from “Brockmire.” (Erica Doss/IFC)

Unable to find work in the States post-freakout, Brockmire has spent the past decade roaming the globe, finding announcing assignments where he can, notably calling cockfights in Manila. He’s been lured back to the U.S. by Jules (Amanda Peet), who owns the failing Morristown (Pennsylvania) Frackers, a minor league team named for the energy extraction method that gives the town its pungent aroma.

Jules feels if she can save the team, she can save the town. Meanwhile, computer illiterate Brockmire is unaware that his meltdown went viral — that “keeping it Brockmire” had become a synonym for “keeping it real.”

Azaria inhabits Brockmire like a second skin. While the character might not be Jewish, he does get some Jewish-themed quips: After a long home run, for example, he notes, “That ball can’t be buried at a Jewish cemetery because it just got tattooed.”

While the show is frequently raunchy, it resonates emotionally and intellectually. The fracking company that lent Jules money to buy the club wants her to fail so it can use the stadium as a wastewater pit. And when Jules discovers she’s pregnant, the topic of  abortion also is addressed. For sports fans, there’s also the surprise pleasure of cameos by play-by-play announcers like Joe Buck and ESPN commentators.

At its core, though, Brockmire is a story about relationships: There is Brockmire’s growing bond with the team’s young African-American social media intern Charlie (Tyrel Jackson Williams), who knows nothing about baseball or life, as well as Brockmire’s inevitable romance with Jules — two people who have made relationship mistakes in life, but may be on the verge of getting something right.

Amid the laughs, it’s hard not to get vested in the three characters — and apparently IFC agrees.

When I spoke to Azaria, before the show’s premiere, he told me the network had paid for the creative team to write a second season’s worth of scripts. A week later, IFC announced it had renewed the series.

Brockmire‘ airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on IFC.