Harry Shearer questions 'The Simpsons' decision over white actors voicing non-white characters

Ben Arnold
·Contributor
·3-min read

Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr Burns on The Simpsons, has said that actors should be able to play 'someone who they are not', and not necessarily characters of their own ethnicity.

It follows the announcement, from the makers of the longest-running animated show on TV, that it would no longer hire white voice actors to play non-white roles.

The decision affects Shearer directly – as well as voicing the likes of Mr Burns, Principal Skinner, Reverend Lovejoy, Ned Flanders and Waylon Smithers, he also plays Dr Julius Hibbert, Springfield's African American doctor.

Harry Shearer attends the 35th anniversary screening for "This is Spinal Tap" during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre on Saturday, April 27, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Harry Shearer (Credit: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Speaking to Times Radio, he said: “I have a very simple belief about acting. The job of the actor is to play someone who they are not. That’s the gig, that’s the job description.”

Asked if he would suffer financially from not voicing Dr. Hibbert, he joked that 'we don’t get paid by the voice'.

Mr Burns, as voiced by Harry Shearer (Credit: Fox)
Mr Burns, as voiced by Harry Shearer (Credit: Fox)

In June, Fox Television confirmed its future plans for The Simpsons and other shows like Big Mouth and Central Park.

“Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters,” it said.

Last year, actor Hank Azaria announced that he would be stepping down from voicing Apu, the proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart, who he has played since the show's first season in 1990.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 24:  Actor Harry Shearer arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of 20th Century Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" held at the Mann Village Theaters on July 24, 2007 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Actor Harry Shearer arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of 20th Century Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" held at the Mann Village Theaters on July 24, 2007. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

“I think the most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel, how they think about this character, and what their American experience of it has been,” he said on an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

“In television terms, listening to voices means inclusion in the writers’ room. I really want to see Indians, South Asian writers in the room. Not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take. Including how it is voiced, or not voiced.

Hank Azaria, a cast member and executive producer of the IFC comedy series "Brockmire," poses for a portrait during the 2020 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Hank Azaria (Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

“I’m perfectly happy and willing to step aside. Or help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what The Simpsons does, it not only makes sense, it just feels like the right thing to do to me.”

The move came after US comedian Hari Kondabolu brought the issue to the fore in his 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu, in which he dissected the issues with the character and its depiction of racial stereotypes.

Apu in The Simpsons (Credit: Fox)
Apu in The Simpsons (Credit: Fox)

It's not yet known whether Apu and Dr. Hibbert will remain in the show to be voiced by other actors, or be written out, though last year, show creator Matt Groening, who now works as an executive and consultant on the show, appeared to confirm that Apu would remain.

Azaria also told Slashfilm: “All we know is I won’t be doing the voice anymore, unless there’s some way to transition it or something.

“We all made the decision together – we all agreed on it. We all feel like it’s the right thing and good about it.”