Probably best know for his time of Saturday Night Live, this well known and well loved actor/comedian, Phil Hartman was taken from this world far too early at the hands of one he should have felt safe with.
S1E3: The Death of Phil Hartman
Released: September 24, 2020
Bag of Bones Podcast
Episode 3- The Death of Phillip E. Hartman
September 24, 2020
She already had cocaine and the prescribed anti-depressants in her system before she went out drinking.
She met a friend at a local bar close to her home. “She seemed content,” her friend would recall.
She left that bar and drove to another friend’s home. She drank more, complained to him of her failing career, told him of her husband’s neglect… and sometime before three a.m. she went home. Her husband was furious with her intoxicated behavior and an argument ensued waking the children.
Calming the nine year old son and six year old daughter and sending them back to bed, comedian Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live fame went back to bed himself, not wanting to participate any more in the argument.
He lay on his bed with his ankles crossed and closed his eyes, tuning out the world. A short time later, his wife Brynn came in their bedroom and with her own gun, shot her husband in the forehead, the throat and the chest.
It was May 28, 1998 and Phil Hartman was dead.
Phillip E Hartman was originally born in Canada but his family moved to California when he was ten. He was the fourth of eight children and he was usually quiet and kept to himself.
As he got older, he would become the class clown and try on voices such as John Wayne and other mimicking and cutting up with his friends. He enjoyed making his friends laugh, but a career in the industry hadn’t crossed his mind… yet.
He went to work with his brother’s band as a “rodie” for a time and then with another brother as a graphic artist for which he went to California State University to study. He created album covers for bands including America, Crosby, Still and Nash and hi favorite, Poco.
His work had kept him pretty isolated and he felt the need for some social interaction. He went to the Los Angeles improve club called The Groundlings, and when they asked for volunteers from the audience, Phil jumped up from his seat and went to the stage.
“I had to do this,” he says, “just to get to some extrovert into the equation.”
He was instantly invited to become a part of the group. Founding Member of the Groundlings, Tracy Newman has said of Phil, quote “I never saw an audience member come up with that kind of excitement or energy. It was like a hurricane hit that stage.. in a good way.” End quote
His first movie role was in 1978’s Stunt Rock, an Australian film, his first starring role in a movie was 1995’s Houseboat along with Sinbad and his first television debut was as a guest on the popular game show, The Dating Game. Interesting fun fact: He was chosen by the bachorette but never showed up for their scheduled date.
He threw himself into the improve group, learning and refining his comedic skills, And it was there he met other comedians such as Jon Lovitz and Paul Ruebens- better known as Pee Wee Herman. Ruebens was on the verge of his Pee Wee persona and Phil collaborated with him perfect his character with his scripts for his live show and also created the part of Captain Carl which became a recurring role and Phil was happy to revive it several times over the years. He also helped co-write some of the Pee Wee Herman screenplays, which really helped get his name out to open new doors for his career.
His friend Jon Lovitz saw the mastery and potential in Phil’s talent and helped Phil get the audition for Saturday Night Live. They stayed friends and at Phil’s passing Jon was honored to be his replacement in the series News Radio for one season before the show was cancelled. And it was at Jon’s home on the day of Phil’s death that friends gathered to pay homage to their friend, still in shock that he was gone.
By the time he was invited to the Saturday Night Live cast in 1986, he already had two failed marriages under his belt.
But he soon fell for swimsuit model Brynn Omdal, ten years his junior and they married in 1987. Phil was known to call her his “dream girl.”
Brynn was born Vicki Jo Omdal in Minnesota, April 1958 she had moved to Los Angeles as many do, to become an actress. She was hoping that her new husband would put her on the fast track to her own career, but soon resented Phil’s success. Her own unfulfilled ambitions were to become a main source of arguments in their marriage.
Phil’s career and life really took off in the eighties with a vibrant run on SNL, his new marriage, movies such as Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Three Amigos and Blind Date, commercial offers, and the birth of his first child. A boy. Sean. He closes out the eighties with a shiny new Emmy for his writing on SNL.
Considered a success by anyone’s standards, but his own, Phil worked hard and took every opportunity to entertain.
He became well known for his celebrity impressions of Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan Ed McMahon and Barbara Bush. The cast would lovingly referred to him as “The Glue” that held the SNL cast and show together. They would say that there wasn’t anything you could throw at him that he couldn’t pull off.
He enjoyed playing the “seedy villain” roles and called his character repertoire as “the weasel parade”, still being allowed to be the bad guy but making the audience laugh.
His life at home, however was rocky. And while he loved being a father, a second child, a girl, born in 1992, the marriage was wearing him down. He would choose to steal away on one of his many boats or in his plane as he used nature to center himself. “Nature worship” is what he called it and said, “Its almost a religion to me.”
By the time the nineties were underway, there wasn’t too many places you didn’t see or rather hear, Phil Hartman. He was everywhere. He was being paid a small fortune to promote everything from cheese burgers to Cheetos. He was a popular guest on the late night talk shows. He liked being the side characters in his movie choices. He jokes saying, “That way if the movie fails, I’m not the one they blame.”
Director Joe Dante has said, “He was one of those guys who was a dream to work with. I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him.”
His voice is heard on video games, commercials and cartoons such as the Smurfs, Dennis the Menace, Disney’s Duck Tales and even Scooby Doo. But his voice is probably most recognized as a frequent guest on the animated series, The Simpsons. While his most popular roles were those of Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, he actually voiced nineteen characters over nine seasons and “appeared” in fifty three episodes. In his honor, the characters that he immortalized were never to appear in another episode again following his death.
The cracks in his marriage started to show as she became more resentful of his success. He confides to a friend that he has succumb to pretending that he’s asleep to avoid the endless fights with his wife.
He did his best to promote his wife’s career by taking her with him to his interviews and talking her up to the casting directors of shows When he left SNL in 1994, planning on doing his own sketch comedy, he would be the executive producer and head writer. He encouraged the writers to give her a part, but they weren’t convinced of Brynn’s comedy skills. And, honestly, It was Phil Hartman the world wanted. Since the variety show didn’t happen, talks were in the works of another sitcom for Phil and again, he encouraged the writers to include a role for his wife.
When that opportunity fell through, Phil, not unhappy about the turn of events not looking forward to the demanding roll of producer, decided that he “just wanted to be an actor” and took the roll in a new series NewsRadio in 1995.
NewsRadio continued precariously for four seasons never really knowing if it was going to be picked up again the next. It was, indeed grabbed for a fifth season, but Hartman died before the production began. Enter Jon Lovitz attempting to take the helm. Hartman was posthumously nominated for the Emmy in 1998.
The arguments continued and despite going in and out of rehab, so did the chemical abuse. One of the arguments following an angry outburst at their daughter while Brynn was drunk, Phil threatened to end the marriage not wanting drug abuse in the house with their children.
She enrolled once again in a rehab center but left the program early.
Brynn Hartman had low self-esteem. She was convinced that her husband was cheating on her and hired a private investigator to follow him for over two years convinced there had to be someone. She ended up with stacks of photos of her husband enjoying life on his boat and visiting his beloved Emerald Bay.
After her death several threatening letters were found in her possession that she had intended sending to his former cast-mates and to his ex-wife.
They both fiercely loved their children and adored the role of parenting and so they tried to keep the marriage together, however, it was in far more trouble than the couple let on.
Phil had a habit of hiding behind his humor so many were shocked to hear of the discontent underneath. Her anger and their arguments became physical with her throwing things and slapping him. He was known to have to remove the children to the safety of friends and family to protect them from her outbursts.
When she turned forty, her son’s doctor prescribed Zoloft to her to help with her bouts of depression.
And that only helped her fits of rage to escalate when she mixed the drug with alcohol and her drug of choice- cocaine.
The night of the murder, Brynn fled the scene with her two small children one floor above and drove to her friend Ron Douglas’ home.
“I killed Phill and I don’t know why,” she told her friend. He didn’t believe her knowing that she’d been drinking so he took the gun from her and followed her back to the home in Encino, CA.
Once he saw the body of deceased Phil Hartman, he immediately called 911.
While Ron is on the phone with the police, Brynn has locked herself in her bedroom with Phil’s body. She is making calls of her own. Ron can hear her screaming into the phone confessing the shooting in the other room.
She makes one final call to her sister and sobbed hysterically into the phone, “Tell my kids I love them more than anything and I always loved them, and Mommy doesn’t know what happened, she’s just very sorry.”
At around 6:30 am as the police have escorted Sean and the friend Ron from the home, they return to find six year old Bergin hiding in the corner of a bedroom under a blanket. They take her outside to safety and hear a single gunshot from inside the home.
They force through the door of the bedroom and see Phil’s body and beside him, his wife, bleeding from a single gunshot to the head.
The children were sent to Brynn’s sister and her husband in Wisconsin where they grew up.
Phil was honored by SNL with a special tribute to his eight seasons on the show. The Simpsons retired the characters Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz. Canada honored him with a star on their Walk of Fame in 2012 and Hollywood honored him with a star on August 26, 2014. The Canadian Comedy Awards created an award in his honor and bestowed to quote “an individual who helps better the Canadian comedy community.”
Television critic Ken Tucker compliments Hartman’s style by saying, quote, “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 punch like like a fast slider- you barely saw it coming until you started laughing.”
Don Ohlmeyer of NBC spoke at his wake saying, “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.”
The loss of Phil Hartman is still felt on the sets of Saturday Night Live, but those who knew him and worked with have said that their lives were made better by doing so.