Writer/designer/comedian/actor Phil Hartman died at home in his sleep early last Thursday morning from two bullets to the head and one to the body. He would've been 50 in September. The bullets were apparently fired by Hartman's wife, Brynn Hartman, 40, who then killed herself four hours later. Brynn Hartman had a history of alcohol and cocaine abuse, but no history of violent crime.
Born September 24, 1948, in Brantford, Ontario, into a family of eight children, Hartman grew up in Connecticut and L.A., where he pursued a career in graphic art. (Hartman designed several album covers, including Steely Dan's Aja, as well as a logo for Crosby, Stills and Nash.) In 1975 he took up with the Groundlings comedy troupe, where he befriended Paul Reubens, with whom he eventually co-wrote the 1985 feature film Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Later, Hartman played Captain Carl on Pee-wee's Playhouse.
In 1986, Hartman joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, where he quickly became known for his disturbing, dead-on impressions of Ed McMahon, Phil Donahue, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Jesus Christ and dozens more. Hartman's McMahon was especially popular; there was a time, for a few months in late 1990 or thereabouts, that you couldn't walk 10 minutes down the street without hearing someone testing out his own “Yes, sir! You are correct, sir!” Over the next few years, Hartman developed a sort of sociopathic-ad-man fundament upon which he built such characters as Gene the Anal-Retentive Chef/Fisherman/Carpenter, Cirroc the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and game-show host Bill Franklin. After leaving SNL in 1994, Hartman appeared in numerous films, television programs and radio advertisements, most recently playing stiff 'n' smooth radio host Bill McNeal on NBC's NewsRadio and providing the voices of Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, Esq., on The Simpsons.
Perhaps most fascinating of all Hartman's talents was his mystical ability to ever-so-subtly reveal – with an oblique gaze, a meta-Shatner pause – his enlightened, ironic take on the intersection of fiction, documentary and personality. When we watched Hartman do Sinatra, we also saw Hartman doing Hartman doing Sinatra. Even when appearing as “himself” – an ex-SNL cast member playing off fellow ex-SNL-er Al Franken on recent Glendale Federal Bank radio spots, for example – Hartman came across as both pitchman and comedian impersonating pitchman, as both advertiser and victim in an America simultaneously attracted to and disgusted by advertising.
Hartman is survived by his mother, two children (who were home at the time of the murder and suicide), five sisters and two brothers.