Hank Azaria announced in January he would be stepping away from voicing Apu on “The Simpsons” following years of controversy over his stereotypical portrayal, and the actor says in a new interview with The New York Times that he was unaware one of the major inspirations for Apu was racist to begin with. Azaria tells The Times writer Dave Itzkoff that he based Apu not only on Indian and Pakistani clerks he heard in New York City but also on Peter Sellers’ character in Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy “The Party.” The movie stars Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, an unknown Indian film actor who mistakenly finds himself invited to an exclusive Hollywood party. Sellers dons brownface in the film. The character inspired such prolific characters as Azaria’s Apu and Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean.
“That represents a real blind spot I had,” Azaria told The Times “with some disappointment” about basing Apu on Sellers controversial turn as an Indian actor. “There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting.”
The backlash against Azaria’s Apu role grew significantly over the last several years with the release of Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary “The Problem With Apu.” The film includes Kondabolu’s interviews with high profile Indian-American actors and performers who speak out against the racist and stereotypical nature of the Apu character. Azaria says he listened to the backlash and decided it was no longer appropriate he stay with the character.
“Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore,” Azaria said. “It just didn’t feel right. 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.”
Azaria said another factor that informed his decision to step down from voicing Apu was considering what it would be like if a prominent character in pop culture mocked his own Jewish culture. “If that character were the only representation of Jewish people in American culture for 20 years, which was the case with Apu, I might not love that,” the actor said.
The future of Apu on “The Simpsons” remains uncertain. Producers have not announced whether they will replace Azaria with a new voice actor. Azaria will stay with “The Simpsons” and continue to voice other characters on the series.