This week’s entry: Phil Hartman
What it’s about: We can (and probably will) argue forever about when The Simpsons went into decline. But the closest thing to a consensus answer we’ll ever get is, when the show lost Phil Hartman. Whether playing panicked sleazy lawyer Lionel Hutz, oblivious movie star Troy McClure, or scene-stealing one-offs like the smooth-talking huckster who convinces Springfield to build a monorail, Hartman managed to embody the soul of the show with only two to three appearances a year.
He had had plenty of practice. In eight seasons of Saturday Night Live, he earned the backstage nickname “the Glue,” for being a supporting player that made everyone around him better, and in a show designed to reward scene-stealers. Except he was also a scene-stealer, playing everything from absurdist gags like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and soap opera character Frankenstein, to his definitive Bill Clinton impression. Twenty years after his death, his absence is still felt.
Biggest controversy: Hartman’s death is still shocking to this day. By all accounts, Hartman was exactly the mild-mannered family man his public persona suggested. He had been married twice briefly, in the early ’70s and early ’80s, but his third marriage, to model-turned-actress Brynn Omdahl, seemed on the surface to be more successful. The couple had two kids and were together longer than he was with his previous wives combined. But Omdahl was resentful of her husband’s success relative to her own lack thereof, and she had problems with drugs and alcohol, which worsened through the years. On May 27, 1998, the two had an argument, in which Hartman threatened to leave her if she resumed using drugs after her latest stint in rehab, and later that night, after he had gone to sleep, Omdahl shot him dead. She confessed to a friend, but by the time the police arrived, she had shot herself as well.
Omdahl was drunk and high on cocaine at the time of the murder, and had also been taking the antidepressent Zoloft. Her family tried to sue the drug’s manufacturer and find it at fault (we assume unsuccessfully, though Wikipedia doesn’t specify). Hartman’s former SNL costar Jon Lovitz publicly blamed Hartman’s then-NewsRadio costar Andy Dick for re-introducing Omdahl to cocaine, which Dick doesn’t seem to have denied, only insisting he didn’t know about her mental health issues and denies being at fault in relation to her or Hartman’s death.
Strangest fact: Comedy was Hartman’s second career. He studied graphic arts in college, and ran his own design studio, where his work included dozens of album covers (he had previously left college for a few years to be a roadie). Wikipedia lists Poco and America as bands that used Hartman’s cover art, and he also designed the logo for Crosby, Stills & Nash. Hartman usually worked alone, so in 1975, at age 27, he started taking improv classes with The Groundlings, designing a new logo and merchandise in lieu of payment. While watching a performance, he jumped onstage unannounced and joined in on a sketch. While this would get you thrown out of most theaters, Groundlings welcomed Hartman as a cast member, where he quickly became a star. Most notably, he co-created castmate Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman character (and would co-write and appear in Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure).
Thing we were happiest to learn: Hartman found the perfect venue for his talents. After Groundlings led to a string of minor film roles, Hartman auditioned for Saturday Night Live, reasoning that his real skill was “voices and impressions and weird characters,” and that “there was really no call for that. Except on Saturday Night Live.” He was far from a sure thing, as at the time he was the second-oldest cast member the show had ever had (Garrett Morris was a few months older when the original cast debuted, and for sticklers, George Coe, now best known as the voice of Woodhouse on Archer was in three episodes of SNL’s first season). But he quickly proved that, beyond impressions and weird characters, he was also a terrific straight man, and was great at bringing out the best in everyone around him. Hence, the Glue.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Apart from his violent death, we were unhappy to learn that like so many actors, Hartman had a disappointing final role. While his final movie appearance that made it to theaters was 1996’s Schwarzenegger/Sinbad Christmas chestnut Jingle All the Way, his last film was the following year’s HBO-produced The Second Civil War, in which Hartman plays the president, who invades Idaho when governor Beau Bridges refuses to take in refugees. The satire of anti-immigration sentiment had a solid cast that included James Earl Jones, Denis Leary, Dan Hedaya, and James Coburn, and had Joe Dante in the director’s chair, but it was only theatrically released in France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Portugal before going direct to video in the U.S.
Far more appealing are the projects Hartman had in the works at the time of his death. Besides posthumously released work on the English-language dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service and a supporting role in Small Soldiers (also directed by Dante), he had been planning on costarring with Lovitz in an indie film called The Day Of Swine And Roses, and was slated to have a recurring role on Futurama as Zapp Brannigan, a pompous blowhard directly in Hartman’s wheelhouse. (Billy West, who voiced several of the show’s leads, took over the role.)
Also noteworthy: Hartman’s post-SNL career had a few interesting roads not taken. He nearly left SNL after the 1991 season, when frequent collaborator Jan Hooks and others did. (Legendary film critic Pauline Kael had called the duo “two of the best comic actors” she’d ever seen.) Jay Leno, who was just taking over The Tonight Show for the first time, offered Hartman the sidekick role (which he had previously lampooned with his impression of Johnny Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon), which eventually went unfilled. Lorne Michaels convinced Hartman to stay on, in no small part because they needed someone to play Bill Clinton, an impression which became Hartman’s signature character on the show.
When he did leave SNL in 1994, NBC offered him his own SNL-style variety show, The Phil Show, but then abruptly decided variety shows weren’t popular and withdrew the offer. Hartman later said he was relieved, because he, “would’ve been sweatin’ blood every week.” Instead, he signed onto NewsRadio, citing the show’s strong writing and ensemble cast (which included Dave Foley, Maura Tierney, and the aforementioned Dick.) He claimed his character, pompous newsreader Bill McNeal, was based on himself, minus “any ethics and character.”
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: TV critic Ken Tucker once praised the depth Hartman brought to McNeal, “turning him devious, cowardly, squeamish, and foolishly bold from week to week,” when the character as written could have simply been a knockoff of Ted Baxter. Baxter, Ted Knight’s character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was the prototypical know-nothing blowhard newsman, whose clear influence can be seen in everyone from Kent Brockman to Ron Burgundy. Mary Tyler Moore is rightly hailed as one of the best TV comedies of all time. Running from 1970 1977, it managed to be both the quintessential workplace comedy and one of the first and best single-woman-in-the-big-city shows. For the uninitiated, the show’s worth reading up on on Wikipedia, but even more so worth seeking out on your favorite streaming service.
Further down the Wormhole: While Hartman’s impression of Bill Clinton may have been his best-known SNL character, he also played a terrific Ronald Reagan in a memorable sketch where Hartman plays the Gipper as a doddering grandfatherly figure when the public is around, and a megalomaniac masterminding the Iran-Contra affair behind closed doors, sometimes pinballing between the two personas from one line to the next. Reagan, of course, was our 40th president, who came into office after a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980. One of the states he flipped was South Carolina, which has not returned to voting for a Democrat. But the South Carolina Republican Party was founded by a remarkable figure who surely wouldn’t recognize his party’s modern incarnation. We’ll hear the story of how Robert Smalls went from slavery to the House Of Representatives next week.