"What happened with this character is a window into an important issue," Hank Azaria said

Hank Azaria is elaborating on his decision to step away from voicing the character of Apu on The Simpsons.

Last month, Azaria told Slashfilm that he would no longer play Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who has become a controversial character on the Fox television franchise, as many have argued that the character should not be voiced by a white actor.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Azaria said the decision was made after a years-long process of examining his own feelings and listening to other opinions, many of whom said they had been offended by Apu.

“Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore,” Azaria, 55, told the outlet. “It just didn’t feel right.”

Controversy has surrounded the character since the release of a 2017 documentary called The Problem with Apu, in which writer Hari Kondabolu argued Apu perpetuates racial stereotypes through mannerisms and an exaggerated accent. Apu has been a character on the Fox television series since 1990.

Hank Azaria and Apu
Credit: Gary Gershoff/WireImage; FOX

“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.”

Azaria also shared that he drew inspiration for Apu from Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy film The Party, in which lead actor Peter Sellers applies blackface to play an Indian actor.

“That represents a real blind spot I had,” Azaria admitted. “There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting.”

In a statement to NYT, The Simpsons’ producers said they granted Azaria’s wish to depart the series but did not reveal what that means for Apu on the show.

“Apu is beloved worldwide. We love him too. Stay tuned,” the statement said.

Fox had no comment when reached by PEOPLE.

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Hank Azaria
| Credit: Slaven Vlasic/Getty

The Simpsons addressed the controversy surrounding Apu on the show itself, during a 2018 episode that featured a scene of Marge reading a favorite childhood book with daughter Lisa. However, she suddenly found the story about a tyrannical slaveowner much more racist than she remembered and tried to edit it to fit modern standards of political correctness.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asked.

“It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Lisa responded, looking directly at the camera before the shot zoomed in on a photo of Apu with the message, “Don’t have a cow.”

“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge said before Lisa added, “If at all.”

Credit: Fox

The response drew even more criticism. However, Azaria said in April 2018 on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that he had “nothing to do with the writing or voicing” of the scene.

“I think that if anybody came away from that segment feeling that they should lighten up or take a joke better or grow a thicker skin … that’s certainly not the way I feel about it,” he continued. “That’s definitely not the message that I want to send out.”