How ‘The Simpsons’ replaced Hank Azaria with a gay actor for a popular gay character

Smithers and Julio in an episode of The Simpsons. Julio was previously voiced by Hank Azaria, who has been replaced by Tony Rodriguez (Photo: Fox)

As The Simpsons continues its previously-announced mission to diversify Springfield’s vocal cast, the producers have gotten extra-creative in their casting choices. Case in point: Openly gay Cuban-American actor Tony Rodriguez recently landed the job of voicing one of the animated show’s popular LGBTQ characters, Julio, with the help of the podcast, Gayest Episode Ever. In January, co-host Drew Mackie posted a viral supercut of every LGBTQ joke ever featured on The Simpsons and unwittingly started Rodriguez — a regular guest on the podcast — on his path towards joining the cast of the long-running animated favorite. 

“That Simpsons video was a passion project that I wasn’t sure anyone would actually watch,” Mackie tells Yahoo Entertainment via e-mail. “The fact that it ended up helping get one of my best friends this dream role is really beyond all of my expectations. Tony is one of my favorite comedic performers and he got this role because he knows how to make people laugh. I’m just happy to play a small role in getting more people to appreciate his work.”

Rodriguez made his official debut as Julio on the March 28 episode, “Uncut Femmes,” replacing Hank Azaria, who had voiced the character since its introduction in 2003. It’s the latest Azaria-created role to be recast or retired following the actor’s decision to stop voicing characters of color on The Simpsons, including Carl Carlson and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. 

On a recent episode of the podcast Armchair Expert, the actor publicly apologized for voicing Apu for three decades, and also called on animated shows to cease casting white actors in those roles. “If it’s an Indian character or a Latinx character or a Black character, please let’s have that person voice the character,” Azaria said. “It’s more authentic, they’ll bring their experience of their culturalization to it, and let’s not take jobs away from people who don’t have enough.”

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Speaking with Mackie and his co-host Glen Lakin on a recent episode of Gayest Episode Ever, Rodriguez discussed his strong identification with Julio even before playing the role was a possibility. “No role I ever auditioned for in my life have I felt like, ‘This is mine,'” he explains, while also emphasizing his admiration for his predecessor. “[Hank Azaria], frankly, is brilliant. Take this conversation about representation aside, he’s a fantastic performer, and I admire the hell out of him. But if these doors were creaking open with representation, I thought, ‘There’s no one else beside Hank Azaria that can play this role.”

Mackie had more modest aims when he originally posted his Simpsons supercut. “The show introduced me to a lot of elements of gay culture that I wasn’t getting anywhere else,” he wrote at the time. “That’s been good in some instances, but often it also taught me bad lessons about what it means to be a gay person, in that way that happens when you’re young and your brain just absorbs everything without really understanding it.” 

Julio was prominently featured in that supercut, and Rodriguez — who had been a frequent guest on the podcast — recorded his own in-character YouTube video where he appealed to The Simpsons writers to cast him in the role. “In the past two years, I have seen myself more in the show, and by that I mean specifically the part of Julio, who is gay, like me. He’s Cuban like me. In one episode, he’s Puerto Rican, and I’m pretty sure I’ve had a Puerto Rican in me.” That video was posted on Feb. 1 and quickly made its way into the show’s writers’ room. 

“[The Simpsons] showrunner, Matt Selman, had seen the supercut, heard the podcast and heard you say my name,” Rodriguez outlines on Gayest Episode Ever. “By that point, my video was out, and he asked the other writers of the show: ‘Does anyone know who Tony Rodriguez is?'” That’s when Rodriguez’s friend and former Upright Citizens Brigade performing partner, Christine Nangle — who wrote “Uncut Femmes” — raised her hand. “She said, ‘Oh yeah, he’d be great for this,'” Rodgriuez tells Mackie. “We didn’t know they were actively looking to recast, and we didn’t know they had been looking for weeks. Thank god you put [the supercut] out there when you did!”  

After “Uncut Femmes” aired on Mar. 28, Selman himself confirmed on Twitter that the podcast and Mackie’s supercut played a major role in Rodriguez landing the part. Funnily enough, the episode also featured another important bit of recasting: Will & Grace star, Megan Mullally, made her first appearance as Sarah Wiggum — wife of Springfield police chief, Clancy Wiggum, created and still voiced by Azaria — replacing Pamela Hayden. It was a full circle moment for Rodriguez, who jokes about his many failed Will & Grace auditions on Gayest Episode Ever. 

According to Rodriguez, Azaria had already recorded dialogue for “Uncut Femmes” well before The Simpsons produces made their decision to recast Springfield’s various characters of color. “It had already been mostly animated, so I was doing ADR [automated dialogue replacement] and timing to what was already onscreen. But one of the producers said, ‘Moving forward, you’ll be able to play.'” That note “thrilled” Rodriguez and echoes Azaria’s point about how casting actors of color as characters of color makes the show more authentic. “This is a dream show to be working, and I might be able to make [Julio] my own, in a way,” Rodriguez remarks.

That said, a little bit of Azaria will always exist in Julio. Rodriguez admits that his take on the character is inspired, in part, by the actor’s scene-stealing performance as Guatemalan housekeeper, Agador Spartacus, in the 1996 comedy hit, The Birdcage. “I was sort of playing, let’s be honest, Agador Spartacus,” Rodriguez says of his viral video “audition,” adding that he initially toned that imitation down for his actual Simpsons audition. “The notes I got back were that they wanted me to have more of the energy that I had in the video for that voice,” he says, laughing. “That’s what they wanted me to bring to my audition tape. When I did it again, that’s what I did and then I booked it!”

Asked his opinion of Azaria’s recent Armchair Expert apology, Mackie tells Yahoo Entertainment that it represents a positive step forward. “I think what was good about Hank’s statements was that he was talking people through his thought process on stepping away from roles he no longer felt it was appropriate to voice. He didn’t make it seem like the decision was made for him, and he made it clear that he didn’t want fans to be angry on his behalf that he’s no longer Apu or Julio. It’s also great that he pointed out how these sorts of changes create job opportunities for up-and-comers.”

The Simpsons airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Fox

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