Commencement 2016: Biographies - Hank Azaria
As an Emmy Award-winning actor, you have made us laugh through characters such as Apu, Mo, and Chief Wiggum. But your extraordinary gifts have carried you well beyond the long-running Simpsons comedy series. In television, film, and theatre, you have channeled your talents into characters who are extravagant and introspective, heroic and dangerous. Your versatility has brought you success as a director and producer. Out of exacting discipline, deep humility, and an enviable wit, you have conjured performances that brighten our lives with humor as they deepen our understanding of humanity’s frailty and resilience. An alumnus, in true Tufts fashion you have also given back to the community by supporting the educational aspirations and accomplishments of underserved youth in Los Angeles. We are proud to recognize your accomplishments today by awarding you the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
The first time HANK AZARIA, A87, walked on stage, he was six and delivered a couple of lines in Red River Valley for an elementary school production. A regular in plays through high school, he had a good idea of what he wanted to do with his life—and it didn’t involve being in an office.
Such was the auspicious start to Azaria’s remarkable career on stage and in film and television. Azaria, winner of five Emmys and a Screen Actors Guild Award, is aptly considered a “voice artist extraordinaire” for bringing to life beloved characters on The Simpsons, including Comic Book Guy, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Moe Szyslak, and Police Chief Clancy Wiggum, among many others.
His work on The Simpsons is just one aspect of his impressive career, which more recently has encompassed directing and producing. Noted for his versatility and nimble authenticity, Azaria can “jump between broad comedy and heavy drama,” noted a writer in Backstage, a trade journal for actors. “Adding to his appeal is his tendency to take small roles that would normally fade into the background, and to consistently create characters people care about.”
Born April 25, 1964, in Queens, New York, Azaria attended Tufts from 1981 to 1985, when fellow thespians included Oliver Platt A83. He marched with his graduating class in 1985, but was two credits shy of a diploma. Two years later, after moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television, he earned the remaining credits at UCLA, officially making him a member of the class of 1987.
At first, he landed small roles on the television sitcoms Family Ties and Growing Pains. He got a big break when he was hired in 1989 as a voice actor for a new animated series, The Simpsons, now the longest-running scripted series on television. Over that run, Azaria has won four Emmys for his vocal dexterity.
Not content with a sole focus on The Simpsons, Azaria steadily took on more television work, such as guest-starring roles on Mad About You (Emmy nomination) and Friends (Emmy nomination), which led to larger roles on Huff, Ray Donovan, and Tuesdays with Morrie (Emmy award). The actor’s film credits include The Birdcage (his flamboyant, scantily dressed houseboy stole the scene from stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane), America’s Sweethearts, Quiz Show, Along Came Polly, Shattered Glass, and Grosse Pointe Blank.
Azaria headlined the miniseries Uprising, the true story of the revolts in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II; he played Mordechai Anielewicz, who helped organize the single largest Jewish armed resistance against the Nazis. He will star in the upcoming independent film Oppenheimer Strategies and in HBO’s The Wizard of Lies as Frank DiPascali Jr., Bernie Madoff’s right-hand man.
Azaria also created the Jim Brockmire character, featured as part of Funny or Die’s Gamechangers series. Now he will star in a new half-hour comedy series, The Jim Brockmire Story, to be aired on IFC beginning in early 2017. On stage, Azaria shines in both goofy, over-the-top roles and serious ones. He made his Broadway debut in Spamalot, for which he received a Tony nomination. He also starred in the hit West End production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago in 2003. He is appearing in the world premiere of Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder at New York’s Public Theater.
He’s worked behind the camera, too. He co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the short film Nobody’s Perfect, which debuted in 2004 at the Sundance Film Festival and won Best Short at the 2004 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. More recently he directed and produced the AOL documentary series Fatherhood, which includes his interviews with experts and friends, among them famous dads Kevin Bacon, Mike Myers, and Rainn Wilson. Azaria is also a champion of education and its power to change the trajectory of the lives of young people. He is a cofounder of Determined to Succeed, a nonprofit that provides highly motivated students from low-income families with comprehensive year-round academic enrichment and social-emotional support from middle school through college graduation. Students of the program have gone on to top colleges and universities, including Tufts. Azaria returned to Tufts in 1999 to receive the Light on the Hill Award, the highest honor that undergraduate students bestow on alumni.
Tufts will award Azaria an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.