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Phil Hartman:

Comedy As Tragedy

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Phil Hartman. Image provided by Reel to Real.
The Legendary Funnyman Created A Career Of Comedic Brilliance That Was Interrupted By A Useless Act Of Domestic Violence


By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 21, 2015 — When we interviewed Phil Hartman, about a year before his tragic and unexpected death in 1998, the “average Joe” talked about his status as a working “second tier” actor. He had no idea at the time he would become a household name for all the wrong reasons.

His wife, Brynn, shot him to death while he was sleeping in his Los Angeles home before she turned the gun and killed herself. Tragically, their two young kids were left behind. It’s a case of domestic violence that still resonates and sadly, wrote the final epitaph before Hartman turned 50.

Hartman was born on Sept. 24, and would have been 67 in 2015.

If he worked at your place of business, he’d probably be labeled by fellow workers as a “suck-up” or brown-noser.” He’s the ultimate corporate climber who will say and practically do anything it takes to make it into the boardroom. Meet Phil Hartman, who makes a living portraying comic characters with the backbone of an amoeba and the guile of Machiavelli.

In a handful of films, including Greedy, Houseguest, Sgt. Bilko, and Jingle All the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hartman has etched out a persona that is more slippery than a greased hog. On film, he’s the kind of guy who will make a move on your wife-or worse yet-your daughter! If his smarmy big screen roles aren’t enough proof, catch an episode of the NBC sitcom NewsRadio, where Hartman plays Bill McNeal, the shrewd and self-absorbed on-air personality.

But in the heady pre-millennial days before his passing, Hartman was too busy working to worry about stereotypes. In fact, he showed up in so many places we half expected him to be part of a genetic cloning experiment. In addition to his movie roles and regular Wednesday night gig on NewsRadio, Hartman regularly popped up on the screen pitching burgers for the Golden Arches, guesting on Leno and Letterman, hosting Saturday Night Live, and delivered his dead-on impersonation of Bill Clinton at personal appearances.

With his propensity for playing shallow characters in mind, we set out to discover if Phil Hartman was anything like his on-screen roles. We caught up with the 48-year-old comic actor in his makeup chair at Hollywood’s Sunset-Gower Studio, site of NewsRadio. A cosmetician was brushing on the last dabs of flesh-tone makeup on his forehead. Wasting no time, we began the interview on the run as we climbed a flight of stairs and settled into Hartman’s second-floor dressing room. As we were soon to discover, the real Phil Hartman is down-to-earth and grounded, nothing like his on-screen image. Regarding his frantic work schedule, Hartman admits that his blistering professional pace is purely by design.

“Don’t get me wrong!” he says in a rapid-fire staccato that sounds like pebbles bouncing off a corrugated tin roof, “I’m grateful for my financial success and the fun and stimulation of working with creative people every week. But I’m aware of the fact that I’m 48 and very few people in comedy have careers after age 50. I think there’s a notion in our society, and it may be valid, that people aren’t as funny when they get older.”

It’s hard to believe that the man who so convincingly portrays arrogant and slimy comic characters would harbor this concern. But like other actors, Hartman suffers from a common malady — the uncertainty of not knowing when, and more importantly, if, that next job will come. Hartman says his self-doubt peaked a few years back when he watched the careers of former Saturday Night Live colleagues, Dana Carvey and Mike Myers take-off like a rocket with Wayne’s World.

“There was a time about three years ago when I became depressed because I was being left in the dust by some of my contemporaries. As soon as I realized that I was doing O.K., I snapped out of it because I’m too smart and too centered to allow myself to be derailed by something as delusional as comparing myself to others.”

In fact, Hartman said he was “all-right” with his second-banana status in the entertainment industry, and although he was hopeful meatier roles would come, he came to grips with the possibility that he may remain Phil Hartman the character actor, not Phil Hartman, the leading man.

“I have no illusions about my stature in show business,” he tells us. “I’m kind of at an intermediate level of celebrity where pretty much everybody knows who I am, but I haven’t had the big breakout role that will take me to the next level. Sooner or later it will happen. I have offers that come in now that are very enticing, but I have to turn them down because of my commitment to NewsRadio.

Like the “average Joe” characters he often depicted, Hartman was too realistic to minimize his incredible good fortune of appearing in a series.

“It’s tougher than a week of trout fishing, but doing a sitcom is not as tough as what the average person does out there in the job market every day,” he says. “We have this show down to about a 35-hour week. They treat us right, they feed us and the checks clear. Where they put our show in the ratings is something for the generals,” he continues. “Let them fight the war. Our job is just to go out, do good shows and make people laugh.”

Aware of the temporary nature of show business success Hartman studiously avoided the trappings that come with a starring role on TV. His dressing room, barren except for a couch, some scattered chairs and a lamp, was occupied by a man who knew another actor’s name would one day be affixed to “his” door. His dress was, (like his manner) decidedly blue collar: a plaid shirt, blue jeans and brown shoes – all without a designer tag in sight.

Hartman came by his appreciation for hard work honestly, perhaps because there were no proverbial silver spoons in sight during his youth. One of eight children, Hartman was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Raised in Connecticut and Southern California, he studied graphic design at California State University in Northridge and went on to create album covers for leading recording artists while participating in various comedy workshops.

“I had another career before I became an actor,” he explains. “I had a job in the real world as a graphic designer. I struggled and fell behind on my mortgage. I empathize with what people have to do to make ends meet. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about money anymore. I have a nice cushion. With the possibility that the balloon could one day burst, I could live off of my investments and go back to oil painting, which was my original ambition.”

Hartman’s comedy career began in 1975 when he joined The Groundlings, a Los Angeles improvisational comedy group. In 1978, he began working with fellow Groundling Paul Reubens on projects involving Reubens’ character, “Pee Wee Herman.”  In 1986, Hartman took his repertoire of comic characterizations to Saturday Night Live. For the next eight seasons he established himself as the show’s “utility player” and the nation’s number one Clinton impersonator.

Hartman’s biting mimicry, which tended to dig deep into Clinton’s character, did not exactly put him on the White House “A” list for state dinners. In fact, Hartman said, a few invitations to perform at White House functions were squelched by Clinton staffers.

“George Bush invited Dana Carvey to the White House because he was just doing silliness,” he said. “I’m going after personal stuff and that can be hurtful.”

As additional proof, he tells us that during an appearance on Larry King Live he received an autographed photo from the President with the inscription: “To Phil Hartman, you’re not the President, but you play one on TV and you’re O.K. – mostly.”

“I really interpret it to say, ‘you’re all right, but I definitely have my eyes on you because you cross the line.’ Yes, I do cross the line. If somebody was out there doing jokes about me, I wouldn’t be inviting him to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom!”

The interview continued unabated despite the fact that we had to feed our recording device with another tape. It’s obvious that we have gone beyond our publicist assigned time allotment. We dutifully inform Hartman of this. “Don’t worry about it, take all the time you need,” he insists.

As for the future, Hartman said, “I’m looking for roles that allow me to do what I do best. I think that involves creating a character that is distinct from myself. I see myself as a character/comedian. I’d rather create a character by putting on a new mask.”

Another project on Hartman’s burner was not to be: a new version of the Three Stooges with Hartman has the bowl-cut, eye-poking Moe.

“Is there any merit to this project at all?” he rhetorically asks. “First of all, for the ‘90s, the Stooges are so politically incorrect. What’s redeeming about this project is that those numbskulls never held a grudge. They expressed their hostility by beating each other silly and then moved on. Emotions were always expressed and then cleared like an Etch-a-Sketch.”

It’s not exactly Hamlet, but the mere discussion of The Three Stooges appeared to have unlocked a door to the breakout role Hartman dreamed about.

“It’s clear to me now,” he exclaimed with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I don’t want to be Jim Carrey. I want to be Moe Howard!”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at or
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