For all of Phil Hartman's contributions to comedy throughout the years, his work on SNL, his supporting roles in comedy movies, what very often starts out any examination of his career is the manner of his violent death at the hands of his own wife.
On May 28th 1998, Hartman was murdered by his wife Brynn Hartman after the two argued over her repeated cocaine use. Earlier in the night, the comedy actor had reportedly threatened to leave his wife if she relapsed again. Their marriage was plagued with difficulties, all of which were exacerbated by Brynn's problems with alcohol and drugs. Some reports suggested that Hartman was considering retirement as a way of maintaining the marriage, which had produced two children. Others claimed that Hartman was sullen and withdrawn behind closed doors and that Brynn was repeatedly seeking a divorce, which led to tension in their marriage on a regular basis. Brynn Hartman took her own life shortly after confessing to the murder to a close friend that same night.
Hartman's early career and life was far removed from the headlines and the kind of lurid Hollywood stories on which it ended. His career began when he decided to join the Groundlings comedy troupe on a whim at the age of 27, where he struck up a friendship with Paul Reubens. Prior to this, Hartman had been working as a graphic designer and stated in an interview with David Letterman in 1994 that being the fourth of eight children meant he was constantly seeking attention.
Reubens and Hartman created a character in Pee-Wee Herman, which eventually led to the 1985 film adapted from the television series that Reubens and Hartman wrote together. Hartman's acting skills were, in his own opinion, lacking and he considered a shift towards writing rather than performance before the success of Pee-Wee Herman. In an interview with CBS, Hartman believed that he couldn't compete as an actor. "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, an there was really no call for that. Except on Saturday Night Live."
Hartman was cast in SNL in 1986, which he felt was a means to an end and would give him the push and credibility to write his own movies. Hartman would stay on SNL for eight years, earning praise and recognition for his work on screen and his kind and generous behaviour off screen. Adam Sandler, then an SNL performer, reportedly called him 'The Glue' as he was known to help any performer stuck with a sketch and was generally a peacemaker in the cast. In a 1998 interview with People, Lorne Michaels explained the genus of the nickname. "He kind of held the show together. He gave to everybody and demanded very little."
Phil Hartman on Late Show With David Letterman in 1994. Hartman apparently came up with the bit as he was waiting in the wings to go on.
His talents, combined with a resurgent interest in sketch and improv comedy, saved SNL from certain doom and in 1991, Hartman looked to leave the show behind after seeing Mike Myers and Dana Carvey achieve success with Wayne's World, which itself began life as an SNL sketch. The television studio NBC, which controlled SNL, convinced Hartman to stay on and offered him the sidekick role on Jay Leno's Tonight Show. Such was their desperation to keep him that they even offered him a variety show, which was eventually rescinded. Hartman left SNL in 1994 to pursue acting and writing in his own projects.
From 1991 right through to his death, Hartman was a regular guest on The Simpsons and voiced Troy McClure, the washed-up actor who frequently appeared on PSAs and paid-for commercial shows. An entire episode, A Fish Called Selma, was written just for Hartman so as to sketch out his character in greater detail. Matt Groening admitted in an interview in a 1998 interview with EW that the writing staff took Hartman "for granted because he nailed the joke every time." Such was the success of his character that a live-action movie of Troy McClure was being considered, with Hartman playing the role of McClure. Such was his enthusiasm for the potential movie that Hartman was even prepared to buy the rights to the character from Groening to get it done.
Every instance of Troy McClure introducing himself in The Simpsons.
Hartman often showed up as weasely characters in comedy movies, very often with a wholesome veneer over it. In the Steve Martin-led remake of Sgt. Bilko, Hartman played his nemesis Col. Thorn, a sleazy-but-smooth US Army Officer who was out to ruin Bilko once and for all. Jingle All The Way saw Hartman paired against Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ted Maltin, a next-door neighbour with designs on Schwarzenegger's on-screen wife. His final credited role in a movie was Small Soldiers, where he again played the wasely neighbour Phil Femple.
For the scandalous and headline-grabbing way in which he died, Hartman was described as an intensely private person. NewsRadio, a sitcom which Hartman starred on before his death, dedicated an episode to him following his passing. His co-star on NewsRadio, Stephen Root, said that "few people knew the real Phil Hartman," whilst Matt Groening described him as "a master." Joe Dante, who directed Small Soldiers, said that he didn't "know anybody who didn't like him." His passing was widely mourned and The Simpsons retired all of his characters out of respect for his work.
The fallout and apportioning of blame in Hartman's violent death is one that's raged on for years and will likely continue to do so. Jon Lovitz, who worked with Phil Hartman on SNL, claimed that their mutual friend Andy Dick gave Brynn Hartman cocaine at a party five months before she shot Phil. As Lovitz told Page Six in 2007, "Andy was doing cocaine, and he gave Brynn some after she had been sober for 10 years. Phil was furious about it, and then five months later he's dead." It's not known if Lovitz and Dick are still feuding over the matter to this day.
Despite the violent manner of his death and the headlines that followed, Hartman's comedic work still shines out twenty years after his passing. His ineffable ability to produce humour from his voice, often from completely deadpan situations, has yet to be repeated on The Simpsons or in any comedy series of its kind. Indeed, it's hard to know whether or not the live-action film of Troy McClure he so hoped for would have changed the course of the series itself.
Twenty years on, Hartman's work remains as a testament to his talent.
If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol or drug issues, please contact the National Drug & Alcohol Helpline on 1800459459.
If you or someone you know is having issues with suicide or suicidal ideation, please contact The Samaritans on 116123.