Obituary: Phil Hartman
The first obituary I decided to write wasn’t a particularly difficult choice. As a huge fan of The Simpsons, Phil has long been one of my favourite actors. He has stolen the show in everything I have ever seen him in. The trouble with that, though, is that The Simpsons is pretty much the only thing I have seen (well, heard) him in that I haven’t looked up on YouTube first. I’m British, so bar The Simpsons and a few of his more prominent films (Small Soldiers and Jingle All the Way in particular) it is pretty hard to find any of his work on TV here. They have recently started showing NewsRadio, way, way down the listings on SonyTV, but Saturday Night Live is nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, I have watched and read everything about Phil that I can and managed to cobble together his Wikipedia page, which is probably why this is so long.
Phil Hartman was one of the most recognizable and talented faces and voices on US television. As Ken Tucker wrote “he could momentarily fool audiences into thinking he was the straight man, but then he’d cock an eyebrow and give his voice an ironic lilt that delivered a punchline like a fast slider—you barely saw it coming until you started laughing.” His sudden, tragic death at the age of 49 on May 28, 1998, stunned Hollywood, but his performances will never be forgotten.
Hartman, who chopped a second ‘n’ from his surname, was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada in 1948. One of eight children, Hartman strived for attention and frequently found an outlet in comedy. This was a trait he furthered when his family moved to California, acting as the class clown at Westchester High School.
As well as comedy, Hartman had a talent for art and it was the latter he initially focused on. A brief diversion as a roadie for a rock group saw him abandon study at Santa Monica City College, but in 1972 he began a graphic arts degree at California State University, Northridge. He single-handedly ran his own graphic arts business, to great success, producing many iconic album covers including Poco’s Legend and America’s History as well as the Crosby, Stills and Nash logo.
As successful as this venture was, Hartman still pined for the simple joy of making people laugh. He enrolled in a series of evening comedy classes staged by the Californian improv group The Groundlings. After several years of training and impromptu stage appearances, Hartman became a permanent member of the troupe and quickly became one of their most popular stars, with characters such as Chick Hazard, Private Eye.
Although his first appearance on TV was a partially victorious appearance on The Dating Game – Hartman won, but was stood up – what followed were the beginnings of his screen acting career. After voice-overs, adverts and a film debut as the ‘man with gun at airport’ in The Gong Show Movie (1980), it was the child-like eccentric Pee-wee Herman who proved the most successful venture.
Pee-wee was the result of Hartman’s friendship with comedian Paul Reubens at the Groundlings. The two developed the character, which Reubens played, and it quickly became one of the group’s most popular pieces. The two developed The Pee-wee Herman Show for HBO in 1981 which was followed by the Tim Burton directed film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, which Hartman co-wrote. The duo’s final collaboration came when the character was adapted for the children’s series Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986, in which Hartman played Captain Carl. Creative differences led Hartman to pursue other roles away from Pee-wee Herman.
Nevertheless, the character’s success persuaded Hartman to abandon plans for retirement. Film roles in Last Resort, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Three Amigos! were followed later in 1986 by the biggest break of his career, when he successfully auditioned for the cast of NBC variety mainstay Saturday Night Live.
Nothing perhaps highlighted Hartman’s madcap comic brilliance than his audition for SNL. He performed not only pitch perfect impressions of people such as Jack Benny and Jack Nicholson, but did the entire routine in German. He joined the cast and writing staff. In the show’s competitive off-screen atmosphere, he nevertheless shone as a utility player, capable of playing a variety of roles in the majority of sketches. Away from the camera he was equally revered. Considered “the glue” by Adam Sandler he, in the words of the show’s creator Lorne Michaels, “kind of held the show together. He gave to everybody and demanded very little. He was very low-maintenance.” He offered guidance towards younger cast members and aided Jan Hooks in overcoming her stage fright.
Hooks noted of Hartman: “Phil never had an ounce of competition. He was a team player. It was a privilege for him, I believe, to play support and do it very well. He was never insulted, no matter how small the role may have been.” A disciplined performer, he “knew how to listen. And he knew how to look you in the eye, and he knew the power of being able to lay back and let somebody else be funny, and then do the reactions.” He was “more of an actor than a comedian.”
Some of those roles included characters like Anal-Retentive Chef and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, but it was his impressions that really made his name. Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Swaggert, Barbara Bush, Frank Sinatra, Ed McMahon, and above all the then-president Bill Clinton were amongst his best known. A womanizing, fast-food obsessed Clinton starred in numerous sketches, most notably a visit to “mingle with the American people” at McDonald’s, where the ‘mingling’ consisted of stealing their food in between questions about Somali warlords.
Alongside Dennis Miller, Victoria Jackson and close friends Dana Carvey, John Lovitz and Hooks, Hartman was credited with restoring the show to its former glory. He was nominated for three Emmys for the show, winning one.
While many of his co-players left and enjoyed breakout success in films, Hartman stayed on, largely at the request of Michaels and the network. After eight years and a then record 153 shows, he left in 1994, returning to host the show twice. After declining Jay Leno’s offer of the sidekick position on The Tonight Show and abandoning plans for his own variety series, Hartman joined the ensemble sitcom NewsRadio.
NewsRadio, which ran for four seasons and a fifth after his death, saw Hartman excel as the selfish, lovingly repulsive radio news anchor Bill McNeal. The show was subject to frequent timeslot shifts which hampered its ratings and Hartman sparred with the network over its possible cancelation. But nevertheless it was critically acclaimed, with Hartman’s performances in the episodes “Smoking”, “The Cane” and “Pure Evil” particular gems. He was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1998, losing to David Hyde Pierce.
Hartman was prominent in adverts, for products such as Slice, McDonald’s, Pot Noodle and the Atari 2600’s Ice Hockey. Likewise, voice-overs provided him much work, with roles on Dennis the Menace (as the original Mr Mitchell and Mr Wilson), Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, The Critic, DuckTales and the lead character in the video game Blasto.
However, it was his performances on The Simpsons which were the biggest success and arguably his most globally famous role. As the regular characters Troy McClure, the washed-up B-movie star, and ultimate shyster “law-talking guy” Lionel Hutz, alongside countless other one-time characters, he entertained millions in over 50 episodes between 1991 and 1998. With vocal intonation alone, he was able to turn a mediocre line into one of an episode’s most memorable, with his performances in the classic episodes “Marge in Chains” and “A Fish Called Selma” showing just the tip of his comic prowess. His performance as smooth-talking monorail conman Lyle Lanley in “Marge vs. the Monorail” was probably his best performance:
Lanley: Hello little girl. Wondering if your dolly can ride the Monorail for free?
Lisa: Hardly. I’d like you to explain why we should build a mass-transit system in a small town with a centralised population.
Lanley: Ha ha…young lady, that’s the most intelligent question I’ve ever been asked.
Lanley: Oh, I could give you an answer, but the only ones who would understand it would be you and me…and that includes your teacher.
Lanley: Next question…You there, eating the paste.
After small roles in many films including Blind Date (1987), Quick Change (1990), Coneheads, So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), Greedy and The Pagemaster (1994) his first starring role came as lawyer Gary Young opposite Sinbad in 1995’s Houseguest. This was followed with the major role of Major Colin Thorn in Steve Martin’s adaptation of Sgt. Bilko (1996). Although none of his entries on the silver screen were themselves especially acclaimed, Hartman’s performance was often considered a stand-out. In Jingle All the Way (1996) he excelled as sleazy wife-coveting super-dad divorcee Ted Maltin, despite a muddled script and other cast members including Arnold Schwarzenegger and a pre-Anakin Skywalker Jake Lloyd. It was a role that epitomized his tendency to play the selfish “jerky guy” character, as he called it, a trait influenced by Bill Murray.
As much as his characters were jerks, this couldn’t have been further from his own personality. An incredibly down-to-earth, modest, private, family man who enjoyed nothing more than sailing, flying and drawing with his children. In 1996, Hartman described himself in an interview with the Orange Coast Magazine as “an everyday person who’s been thrust into this world and this lifestyle and this level of income, way beyond my wildest imagination.” In interviews and talk-show appearances, he came across as a shy man, who in the words of his NewsRadio co-star Stephen Root as “one of those people who never seemed to come out of character.”
Hartman was married three times, firstly to Gretchen Lewis in 1970. They divorced sometime later and Hartman married estate agent Lisa Strain in 1982. Three years later they divorced and in 1987, Hartman married the model and aspiring actress Brynn Omdahl. They had two children, Sean and Birgen.
Hartman’s death has been well documented elsewhere. Leaving speculation to a minimum, it seems evident that his marriage with Brynn became increasingly fractured, largely due to her increasing envy of her husband’s success and return to substance abuse. After the pair argued, in the early hours of May 28, 1998, Brynn shot and killed her husband. An unhealthy mix of alcohol, cocaine and anti-depressants was the likely trigger. Several hours later, Brynn committed suicide.
Tributes to Hartman swept Hollywood, and over a decade on he is still mourned deeply. NewsRadio returned for a fifth and final season, with Lovitz replacing Hartman but inevitably without the same spark. The role of Shatner-esque, incompetent ship captain Zapp Brannigan in the upcoming series Futurama was recast to Billy West. His final major works, the voice of the cat Jiji in the English dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service and tech-obsessed neighbour Phil Fimple in Small Soldiers, were released posthumously. He also left numerous unproduced screenplays and undeveloped ideas, ranging from proposed comedy horror Mr. Fix-It, to live-action Chick Hazard and Troy McClure films.
Philip Edward Hartman (né Hartmann) – Born: September 24, 1948, Brantford, Ontario, Canada; Died: May 28, 1998, Encino, Los Angeles, California, United States