You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman
You might remember Phil Hartman from the many characters he played on “Saturday Night Live,”such as Caveman Lawyer, Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra. Or maybe his work on “The Simpsons,” where he voiced the inept lawyer Lionel Hutz and fading D-list actor Troy McClure. Perhaps you remember him from the sitcom “Newsradio,” where he played conservative radio host Bill McNeal. Or maybe you remember the tragic circumstances in which he died, having been murdered by an alienated wife who then took her own life. But no matter where you remember him from, chances are you do remember him.
Phil Hartman was a talented comedic actor with a seemingly unending range of roles to play when it was all taken away late one night in his Encino, CA home. What happened that tragic night? What led the beautiful wife and mother of two to cause such a violent end? To try to understand how it ended, one must first look at where it began.
Phil was born in 1948, the fourth child of Doris and Rupert Hartmann (Phil chose to drop the second “n” in his last name once he started performing) of Brantford, Ontario, with four more children following after him. The Hartmanns had to struggle to make ends meet and dreamed of moving their large brood to California for a better life. Trying to be noticed in such a large family --- one that included his ill sister, Sarah, who needed constant care --- was always Phil’s goal, and that desire carried through to adulthood. From an early age, he learned that if he made people smile and laugh, he had the attention of the room: “…his younger years were spent vying for the attention and affection of their tough and entrepreneurial mother and to a lesser degree their traveling salesman father.”
"...a well-researched portrait of a talented and capricious star, one who left us too soon.... This is not a sanitized portrait, either. According to those who knew him, he was complex and complicated and certainly not perfect."
After the family’s southern migration, Phil attended school and drifted through many different careers. His older brother had begun to manage bands, and Phil started doing graphic design, responsible for the cover art for many artists of the day, including Poco’s Legend album and the logo for Crosby, Stills & Nash that is still used today as a stage backdrop when they tour. Phil skirted the perimeter of performing, but because of his hard-scrabble childhood, he always wanted to make sure he had a paycheck coming in. He could have made a nice living as a graphic artist, but still yearned for that inexplicable high that comes from making a room of strangers laugh. In the mid-’70s, Phil joined the fledgling L.A. improvisational group The Groundlings, which had vaulted Laraine Newman to “Saturday Night Live” and, years later, would do the same for Jon Lovitz, Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell and even Phil himself --- eventually. From this place of creativity, Phil made friendships that would last his lifetime. He also forged creative partnerships with fellow improv performers like Paul Reubens; with Reubens, he helped to create “The Pee-wee Herman Show” and later co-wrote the screenplay for the feature film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
But his was no overnight success story. Phil did his time in the Groundlings. Many years were spent watching his colleagues leapfrog over him to more notable gigs. But he truly loved performing and quickly became the Groundlings’ lead attraction. His friend and Groundlings costar Tracy Newman said of Phil’s talent: “It’s the confidence that makes a person charismatic most of the time….And the way confidence plays out is with commitment onstage. People are drawn like moths to the flame. They’re drawn to the brightest light.” Finally, that bright light convinced SNL producer Lorne Michaels to summon Phil to Studio 8H at Rockefeller Plaza to join the cast in the mid-’80s.
It didn’t take long for Michaels and the rest of the cast to realize Phil’s contribution to the show: “Because of his steadying influence on SNL and his rock-like presence in sketches that helped her (co-star Jan Hooks) to deal with bouts of near-crippling stage fright, Hooks nicknamed Phil ‘The Glue.’ Or simply, as some began referring to him, ‘Glue.’” …“He knew how to look you in the eye, and he knew the power of being able to lay back and let somebody else be funny.’ Perhaps just as important, she says, he was never greedy for screen time and no role was too small. That attitude, which initially worked to his advantage, would also become a detriment.”
In addition to SNL, Phil started doing voice-work on “The Simpsons,” where his characters, Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure, were as beloved as they were funny. (It’s from McClure’s character that the phrase “You might remember me…” originates.) But after eight productive seasons on SNL, Phil decided to move on. During that time, he married his third wife, Brynn, and had two children. He was interested in doing movies, perhaps starring on his own show, and being based back in L.A. with his family. The more work and accolades he got, the more his beautiful, young wife felt lost in his shadow. She tried acting classes and asked her famous husband to get her work in his projects. Phil’s brother remembers his sister-in-law’s ambitions: “Brynn came to L.A. to be a star…and she got sucked down the black hole of broken dreams. She was in search of a path to stardom…” The more insecure she felt, the deeper into despair she plunged, aided by alcohol, prescription drugs and cocaine, which most feel played a large part in the tragic events of May 28, 1998.
Mike Thomas, a longtime arts and entertainment staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of THE SECOND CITY UNSCRIPTED: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater, offers a well-researched portrait of a talented and capricious star, one who left us too soon. And in light of the recent deaths of actors like James Gandolfini and Robin Williams, with Phil, we’re also left to wonder what other amazing things he would have accomplished had he lived. This is not a sanitized portrait, either. According to those who knew him, he was complex and complicated and certainly not perfect. But overall, the need to please and to perform and entertain people won out, and that’s what we should remember Phil Hartman for the most.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on September 26, 2014