After over 30 years of voicing a Black character on The Simpsons, white voice actor Harry Shearer is stepping away from the role. According to a representative at Fox, Shearer’s portrayal of the Black character Dr. Hibbert during last night’s season-32 episode “Diary Queen” marked the final time he will voice the character. Starting with the February 28 episode “Wad Goals,” Kevin Michael Richardson — who’s had voice roles on The Simpsons since 2009 and also has voiced parts on Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and American Dad — will take over the role of Dr. Hibbert permanently. Shearer had played Hibbert since the show’s second season in 1990, up through the show’s currently airing season 32; prior to last night’s episode he voiced the role in the episode “Podcast News,” which aired in November 2020. Shearer declined to comment on the recasting through a representative for the show.
The recasting of white voice actors playing characters of color gained new attention following the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, but the conversation about who gets to voice Simpsons characters has been happening since at least 2017, when the debate around Hank Azaria voicing the Indian character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was highlighted in Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu. Despite pushback on Kondabolu’s criticism from Simpsons creator Matt Groening (and a response on the show itself), Azaria decided to step down from the role in February 2020. “Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of,” he told the New York Times, “I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore. It just didn’t feel right.”
In June 2020, prior to the current season, the Simpsons producers released a statement: “Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters.” Since then, characters like Azaria’s Carl Carlson (now voiced by Alex Désert) and Tress MacNeille’s Kumiko Albertson (now voiced by Jenny Yokobori) have been recast. Shearer, however, is previously on record as disagreeing with the show’s stance on recasting POC roles voiced by white actors. “I have a very simple belief about acting,” he said in an August interview on Times Radio. “The job of the actor is to play someone who they’re not.” Shearer added that he thinks “there’s a conflation between representation, which is important,” adding, “People from all backgrounds should be represented in the writing and producing ends of the business so they help decide what stories to tell and with what knowledge … The job is playing someone I’m not.”