A month after Hank Azaria announced that he was stepping down from voicing Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons, the actor is opening on his reasons for leaving. Azaria had voiced the character of the Springfield convenience store owner (in addition to numerous other characters) for 30 years, even winning three Emmy Awards for his voice acting performance.
But the character has come under fire in recent years for being a broad, outdated South Asian stereotype, with Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu in particular bringing attention to the character. It was the outcry, and The Simpsons‘ botched attempt to address the issue in the episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” that led to Azaria quitting the gig, the actor revealed.
In an interview with The New York Times, Azaria opened up about why he stepped down from voicing Apu in The Simpsons. “It just didn’t feel right,” the actor said, explaining the lengthy process in which he came to terms with the broad stereotypes of the character, culminating in him telling Simpsons producers last year that he was no longer comfortable voicing Apu.
“When I expressed how uncomfortable I was doing the voice of the character, they were very sympathetic and supportive,” Azaria told the Times. “We were all in agreement.”
The character has long been criticized for being a racist caricature, but it was Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu that brought the conversation to the limelight. The documentary critiqued the character for being a harmful South Asian stereotype, especially since Apu was one of the few Indian characters on mainstream TV. In the Times piece, Azaria, said that his initial reaction to the controversy “was to bristle.” But he began to grow uneasy over the character’s impact and his role in perpetuating those stereotypes. Azaria noted that he drew inspiration for Apu from the 1968 film The Party, which features Peter Sellers in brownface to play an Indian actor.
“That represents a real blind spot I had,” Azaria said. “There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting.” Azaria added:
“Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore. What happened with this character is a window into an important issue. It’s a good way to start the conversation. I can be accountable and try to make up for it as best I can.”
It is unclear if Apu will continue to be a part of the series with another actor stepping in to voice the character, or if he will be retired completely.
In a statement to the Times, Simpsons executive producers said, “We respect Hank’s journey in regard to Apu. We have granted his wish to no longer voice the character.”
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