Explaining the lengthy process behind stepping down from the role, Azaria said he told producers of The Simpsons last year that he was no longer comfortable voicing Apu.
“When I expressed how uncomfortable I was doing the voice of the character, they were very sympathetic and supportive,” Azaria told The New York Times. “We were all in agreement.”
The star – who also voices several other Simpsons characters, including Moe Szyslak and Chief Wiggum – also revealed that he became uneasy after realising he had based Apu on a character in 1968 film The Party portrayed by a white actor in brownface.
“That represents a real blind spot I had,” Azaria said. “There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting.”
“What happened with this character is a window into an important issue,” Azaria said. “It’s a good way to start the conversation. I can be accountable and try to make up for it as best I can.
The actor continued: “I love this show. And the character of Apu was done with love and pride and the best of intentions. My message is, things can be done with really good intentions and have negative consequences.”
The controversy surrounding the character – best known for his catchphrase “thank you, come again!” – intensified in 2017 following the documentary The Problem With Apu, written by and starring comedian Hari Kondabolu.
Kondabolu argued that the shopkeeper was reinforcing negative stereotypes and highlighted how Apu was voiced by a white man with no experience of such discrimination.
It is not currently clear if Apu will be voiced by another actor or dropped altogether from the show.