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Fall 2004
Tufts graduates Oliver Platt (left) and Hank Azaria in a scene from their new television series !Huff.
Photo by Showtime Networks Inc.
It's Showtime!
Former classmates and friends find themselves starring together in a new television series.

When Oliver Platt met Hank Azaria at Tufts in the early ’80s, it was love at first laugh. Hank walked into the Balch Arena Theater one day—“this goofy guy from Queens,” recalls Platt, A83, who was already an established star on campus. “He was incredibly precocious and bright, with an encyclopedic compendium of comedy routines.” Azaria, A87, was equally amused, but for different reasons.

“At that age, you imagine a leading-man guy to be a young Brando,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting this big, hulking, really talented comedian. Even back then, his personal style and charm were very original. He was hilarious.”

Now, after more than two decades’ friendship and equally credentialed résumés, Platt, 44, and Azaria, 40, are working together for the first time, co-starring on Showtime’s bold new drama, !Huff. Set to air on November 7, the show is slated for the 10 p.m. timeslot on Sundays.

Azaria stars as Dr. Craig “Huff” Huffstodt, an earnest psychiatrist whose world collapses when one of his patients, a 15-year-old boy, commits suicide in his office. Platt plays Russell Tupper, Huff’s lawyer, best pal, and ex-running buddy from their single days. Rounding out the exceptional cast are Paget Brewster as Huff’s understanding wife, with Blythe Danner as his manipulative mother-in-law and Anton Yelchin as his sensitive teenage son.

Azaria “was on a very short list of people we thought would be perfect for the role,” says Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment for Showtime Networks Inc. “He has such charisma, and he’s equally real in the way he delivers funny and dramatic stuff. He’s eminently watchable.”

As part of the deal, Azaria was also named a producer. When he pitched his old Jumbo compadre to Greenblatt, “I thought, ‘He’s perfect,’” Greenblatt says. “I didn’t know they were college friends. Their relationship on-screen is like their relationship in real life. They’re very much in sync, creatively. They have fun.”

Given Platt’s and Azaria’s past experience with broadcast-network TV, Greenblatt figured he didn’t have a shot at either actor. Azaria’s NBC sitcom Imagine That crashed and burned after two episodes in January 2002. Ditto for Platt’s Queens Supreme, on CBS in January 2003. Platt’s NBC drama Deadline lasted five episodes in fall 2000. Azaria and Platt were both dubious, to put it mildly, at first. What convinced them to re-enter the ring was the artistic freedom and absence of ratings pressure offered by premium cable.

“I had tremendous hesitation,” says Azaria, who’s won three Emmy Awards for voicing such characters as bartender Moe Szyslak and Chief Clancy Wiggum on Fox’s animated The Simpsons. “I almost guarantee that I will never work in broadcast TV again.

“You can’t put the same level of truth or harshness or reality in a broadcast show. The best performances you’re going to see are on cable.”

Platt, an Emmy nominee for his guest role as intense White House counsel Oliver Babish on NBC’s West Wing, agrees.

“I’d be extremely gun-shy about a broadcast-network series. If you’re lucky enough to accidentally make a good show, but you don’t put up decent numbers right away, you’re off the air. I believe all the intelligent material is on cable these days.”

After just five of 13 ordered episodes were produced, Showtime’s Greenblatt renewed !Huff in July for a second season, an unprecedented four months before its debut. Showtime only produces two or three original series each year, so each takes on heightened importance. Unlike broadcast networks, cable doesn’t have the luxury of tossing shows that aren’t working and replacing them at midseason. Besides, Showtime’s crazy for !Huff, according to Greenblatt.

Azaria’s and Platt’s characters are almost mirror opposites of their real-life personas. Huff is a devoted husband and father. Azaria, briefly married to actress Helen Hunt, is currently not dating. Tupper is a lone-wolf sex addict and drug abuser, in addition to being a great lawyer. Platt has been married for 12 years and has a son and two daughters. (Azaria is godfather to his son, George, born in 1997.) During production, Platt commutes from New York to L.A. rather than relocate his family to the West Coast.

Tupper “is not a bad guy,” Platt insists. “Actually, he’s scared and lonely. You could say he’s following his bliss. I’ve known people who are incredibly good at what they do, but are given to all kinds of compulsive behavior. The main facilitator of their denial is their talent.”

Believe it or not, Azaria was the psychology major (along with drama.) For Platt, a drama major from Windsor, Ontario, “all I ever wanted to do was be a working New York stage actor.”

Tufts’ drama department “very much prepared me in a real-world way,” says Platt, a career diplomat’s son who was raised in China, Japan, and Washington, D.C. “They made us do everything—act, direct, design sets, work backstage. It really got you ready for the collaborative nature of acting.”

Azaria’s Tufts experience became a drama in itself. A self-described “very good student,” his grades dropped after he fell in love with acting. “I lost my concentration for academics. My heart was into pursuing acting and theater. I missed classes, got incompletes,” he says. “I was a mess. But I showed up for rehearsal on time.”

Azaria marched with his graduating class in 1985 but was two credits’ shy of a diploma. A year later, after moving to L.A., he was complaining to his mother “about how there was nothing going on” in acting.

“She said, ‘I don’t think anything will be going on until you get your degree,’” he recalls. “I asked her to remove ‘the mother’s curse’ on my head, then took classes at UCLA and completed my drama major.”

The diligence paid off. In 1999, Azaria was given Tufts’ Light on the Hill Award.
Dr. Huffstodt is his first psychiatrist. “I have a fascination with shrinks,” says Azaria, who’s been in therapy, on and off, for 15 years. “They listen to people’s innermost secrets all day long. There’s a whole science devoted to how people think and feel. It’s the most mysterious thing in the world to me.”

Platt, however, is no stranger to smarmy lawyers, having played them twice in feature films, A Time to Kill (1996) and Indecent Proposal (1993).

“I’m not sure if I’m attracted to the role or the roles are attracted to me,” he says. “A good lawyer role is usually a pretty good role. And a dissolute lawyer on cable is so dissolute.”

After production on !Huff wrapped in early September, Platt flew to Venice to begin work on the big-screen Casanova. Heath Ledger stars as the legendary lover in director Lasse Hallstrom’s “loose, postmodern” adaptation. Platt co-stars with Sienna Miller and Jeremy Irons.

For Azaria, his next project is Mike Nichols’ Broadway version of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, expected to debut in February 2005. (In Nichols’ film The Birdcage (1996), Azaria won raves for his scene-stealing performance as Guatemalan houseboy Agador “Spartacus.”)

“Mike called in January and asked if I wanted to do this,” Azaria remembers. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”

Azaria is loyal to those loyal to him. Astute viewers will notice that the diploma hanging in Huff’s office is from Tufts. Azaria swears it wasn’t his idea. “Somebody very clever did the research. I was quite charmed by it.”