The Very Image of a PR Exec?


One wag once said that the business of public relations could be defined as having sex on the sidewalk.

If so, that explains why the fictional PR firm peopled by such image-pushers as Alex (Hank Azaria) and Helen (Kathryn Hahn) is a one-way street of broken hearts and loneliness — yielding to some funny turns.

Azaria is at the intersection of many of them as the distraught, divorced and alienated Alex, whose one-night stand with co-worker Helen has its hellish aftermath in NBC-TV's Wednesday-night newbie, "Free Agents."

But it's no one-night stand for actor Azaria's professional life, overflowing with long-term commitments and continuing accolades. The Tony Award nominee (Spamalot) with a lotful of Emmys to his credit (including Tuesdays With Morrie) has had a distinctive voice for years.

Of course, much of that has to do with The Simpsons, for which he has been vocally bellying up to the bar as Moe — the series beer server whose voice is modeled on Al Pacino — among other characters. It is more than a hoo-ha of an insider's joke; otherSimpsons voices have called on Azaria friends and family.

But who did he study when he got the accent right for the hip-swaying houseboy Agador Spartacus in The Birdcage?

He is Spartacus? More like his bubba: yes, concedes the 47-year-old son of Greek Sephardim, he did channel her a bit for the role.

"I actually worked on a Guatemalan accent and had it narrowed down to two different versions of the voice, and then picked one," he recalls. "Then, not long into rehearsing, I realized I sounded exactly like my grandmother. She was a very loving, maternal, sweet woman."

But then, so was, uh, Spartacus: "My character inBirdcage was so fey and so feminine that it gave me a very specific way to be sort of mothering and girly."

But he's also been a "man's man" on screen, including his heroics as Mordechai Anielewicz in the 2001 telefilm Uprising about the Warsaw Ghetto.

"I had never been so face to face with the reality" of World War II, he recalls of that film shoot. "As an actor, I had not been through something so depressing and grueling. It can't help but affect you."

Hollywood noticed the impact: Keeping his talent on a short leash — he played a dog-walker on Mad About You, meeting and then hooking up with star Helen Hunt — has never been their concern; his protean parts attest to an actor whose accent on variety isn't only verbal.

Azaria has gone from Phoebe's sweetie on Friends to the macho menace who steals away Ben Stiller's bride (Debra Messing) on their honeymoon in the film Along Came Polly.

Now along comes Alex, the PR exec who can't control his own image — unless he thinks future female bedmates will get excited by his crying jags while talking and lamenting about his ex-wife.

Godzilla — Azaria also starred in that — didn't cry out in that much pain. "Alex might have to work on sticking up for himself and being his own advocate," Azaria reasons of the depressed news release of a man who finds love is always having to say he's sorry.

As it says on any PR media alert, "For contact, call …" But the body and emotional contact Alex needs is no mere call away.

But, maybe within desk distance — in the guise of colleague Helen, the widow who can't help loving dat (deceased) man of hers?

"They spin other people's lives very effectively," Azaria says of the PR pros he and Hahn portray, "but really can't do it so well for their own lives."

Azaria is no Bill O'Reilly, but he has his own no-spin zone: He's happy to not be a "free agent" and is proudly in a relationship that has made him a dad.

Based on his own youth, can Hank offer a handkerchief hand-off to Alex? Or better yet, could Huff, the psyched-out TV psychiatrist Azaria portrayed earlier this millennium in a milestone series, couch some tough love with some kind words?

Reasons Azaria: "I think Huff would say that Alex is certainly in touch with his emotions; he's definitely feeling the sadness he's going through."

That and a dose of Prosac might get him through — along with the real/not reel advice offered by the actor: "This too shall pass."

After all, as Moe might intone, keep crying in your beer and pretty soon you won't be able to see what you're drinking — and, hey, what's the point of that?


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