“As an actor, I felt I couldn’t compete. I wasn’t as cute as the leading man; I wasn’t as brilliant as Robin Williams. The one thing I could do was voices and impersonations and weird characters, and there was really no call for that.
“Except on Saturday Night Live.”
In 1986, up and coming actor Phil Hartman joined the cast of NBC’s hit variety show SNL. Over the course of eight seasons, he became famous for his dead-on impressions, Bill Clinton being his most well-known.
Despite being thought of as “the least appreciated” cast member, Hartman went on to win an Emmy in 1989 for Outstanding Writing. He may not have stolen the stage quite like Chris Farley, but Hartman won the respect and admiration of his peers with grace and charm.
And he was damn funny.
Phil Hartman was one of the lesser known SNL cast members. Fans of The Simpsons will probably recognize him as attorney Lionel Hutz or Troy McClure. If you watched NBC sitcoms in the 90s, you probably saw him on NewsRadio as anchor Bill McNeil.
Hartman worked on so many projects during the 80s and 90s that, chances are, you’ve probably laughed at him whether it was his voice acting or his writing. His distinctive yet malleable voice was one of notable talent.
In November 1987, Hartman married former model, aspiring actress, and “statuesque blonde” Brynn Omdahl, after having met her on a blind date the year earlier. They had two kids together, Sean and Birgen. Their marriage, unfortunately, went through a series of pitfalls.
Hartman’s success was apparently intimidating to Brynn, who was struggling to find work of her own. Despite his efforts to land her a role, Brynn was unsuccessful and fell deep into the world of drugs and alcohol.
In and out of rehab, Hartman became increasingly frustrated with his wife’s volatile addiction and threatened to divorce her if she used again. He was ready to take the kids and leave.
Over the next few months, as Brynn continued to slip further into her dependency on drugs and alcohol, her behavior became increasingly erratic and mercurial. With Hartman more than willing to follow through with his ultimatum, Brynn’s addiction and jealous nature would soon prove to be fatal.
On the night of May 27th, 1998, Brynn went out for a couple of drinks with friends. She griped about her career woes along with a couple of drinks. A couple of hours later, she made her way to the home of friend and alleged secret lover Ron Douglas. While there, she kicked up a fuss about Hartman while tossing back a few more drinks.
Brynn arrived home sometime before 1:00am. At some point during the evening, before 3:00am, she grabbed Hartman’s Smith & Wesson .38, walked up to the bedroom where he slept, and shot him three times just 18 inches away.
Hartman died instantly.
Shortly after, Brynn returned to Douglas’ home and confessed her crime. Though he didn’t believe her at first, Douglas followed Brynn back to the Hartman home where he discovered that Brynn wasn’t just coked out of her mind. She really killed her husband.
As Brynn locked herself in the bedroom in a panic, Douglas called 911. He explained what had happened to police as best he could and revealed that the victim was none other than NewsRadio star Phil Hartman.
While locked in the bedroom, Brynn called her sister in Wisconsin, confessed once again to the murder, and said her farewells. The police arrived shortly after Douglas’ call to 911, around 6:30am. Brynn, backed into a corner of her own creation, crawled into bed with the dead Hartman, placed the .38 into her mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Sean and Birgen inherited Hartman’s estate, which was valued at $1.23 million. Hartman was cremated and his ashes were scattered over Santa Catalina Island’s Emerald Bay.
Phil Hartman’s death was a tragic loss not just for comedy, but for his friends and family. NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer said that Hartman “was blessed with a tremendous gift for creating characters that made people laugh. Everyone who had the pleasure of working with Phil knows that he was a man of tremendous warmth, a true professional and a loyal friend.”
In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Hartman the seventh greatest SNL cast member.
Hartman is a great example of talent gone too soon. Just before his death, Hartman was preparing to take on a role in Matt Groening’s then-new series Futurama as the character Zapp Brannigan. After his death, the show’s lead voice actor Billy West took over the role and purposely tweaked Zapp’s voice to match Hartman’s characteristic voice.
Stephen Root, a friend and co-star of Hartman, said of him that he was “one of those people who never seemed to come out of character.” Yet despite his natural ability to make people laugh, he nevertheless came across clearly as a man who loved his work and cared deeply for his children.
Comedy lost a legend when Phil Hartman lost his life. Thankfully, there’s a tremendous body of work behind him that we can enjoy.
So, on that note…