Phil Hartman

The Los Angeles Murder

Phil Hartman

"I don't know anybody who didn't like him."

A man of many comedic talents, Phil Hartman rose to fame as an actor on the Saturday Night Live comedy sketch show, playing a variety of characters over an eight year period as a much loved member of the cast. He voiced numerous characters on the Fox television show the Simpsons, starring in 52 episodes until his death, and earning himself a place as one of the funniest and most beloved comedy voice actors of the 1990’s. His private life however was fraught with drama, and the marriage to his third wife Brynn was a troubled one due to her drug and alcohol use, as well as Hartman’s apparent emotional detachment. By early 1998, the relationship deteriorated further and Hartman considered retiring from acting to save his marriage. On May 27, 1998, the couple had a heated argument before the comedian went to bed. While he slept, Brynn Hartman entered the bedroom and shot her husband several times, killing him. The reason behind the murder would never be fully explained because several hours after the crime, she committed suicide by placing the same gun in her mouth and pulling the trigger.

On May 27, 1998, Brynn Hartman, the wife of actor Phil Hartman, visited the Italian restaurant Buca di Beppo in Encino, California. There she met with producer and writer Christine Zander, a writer on Saturday Night Live. Zander would later tell police that Brynn had appeared to be “in a good frame of mind”. When returning home, the Hartman’s allegedly had a heated argument, after which Phil went to bed. Sometime after 3:00am, she arrived at the home of friend Ron Douglas, and confessed to killing her husband. Initially Douglas refused to believe her, but together they decided to drive back to the Hartman residence, arriving in seperate cars. During the journey Brynn Hartman contacted another friend and confessed again to murder. Arriving at the house, Douglas went inside and found the body of Phil Hartman, he had been shot dead. Police were called to the scene, and Douglas and the Hartman children were taken from the premises, during which Brynn Hartman had locked herself in the bedroom. Shortly afterwards, a shot rang out.

Hartman’s death had a profound affect on not only his family, but also the many colleagues with whom he had worked over the years on a number of movies, tv shows and other projects. He was described by those who knew him, such as director Joe Dante, who said “He was one of those guys who was a dream to work with. I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him.” Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons referred to him as “a master”, and rehearsals for the show were cancelled after news of his death. He was ranked by Entertainment Weekly as the 87th greatest television icon of all time, and the magazine described him as “the last person you’d expect to read about in lurid headlines in your morning paper” and “a decidedly regular guy, beloved by everyone he worked with”. Many wondered why this family man and television favourite ended up shot to death by his wife of eleven years at their family home. Despite outwards appearances of a happy relationship, the Hartman marriage was fraught with arguments, drugs and violence.

Phil Hartman & his wife Brynn at an HBO event in 1998. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

He was born on September 24, 1948, as Philip Edward Hartmann, in Brantford, Ontario. The fourth of eight children to Doris Marguerite and Rupert Loebig Hartmann, who raised their children in the Catholic faith. At the age of 10, the family moved to the United States, where they first lived in Lewiston, Maine, then Meriden, Connecticut, before settling on the West Coast. As a child Hartman did not get much affection from his parents, and would later say “I suppose I didn’t get what I wanted out of my family life, so I started seeking love and attention elsewhere.” He attended Westchester High School and he was remember as the class clown. After he graduated, Hartman studied art at Santa Monica City College, but dropped out in 1969 to become a roadie with a rock band. In 1970, he married Gretchen Lewis, but the couple divorced in September 1972. That same year he returned to school, and studied graphic arts at California State University, Northridge. He would go on to run his own graphic art business, which created more than 40 album covers for bands such as “Legend” for Poco and America, as well as advertising and creating the logo for Crosby, Stills & Nash, for which he was credited as “Phil Hartmann”.

It was reported he later dropped the extra “n” from his name to improve his i-ching number. During his time working as a graphic artist, Hartman would often amuse himself with what he described as “flights of voice fantasies”, and developed quite the talent at immitating the voices of others. In 1957, at the age of 27, he decided to explore his talents further and began to attend evening comedy classes run by the California-based improvisational comedy group The Groundlings. During one of the troupe’s performances, he impulsively decided to jump on stage and join the cast. In the late 1970’s, he made his first appearance on national television, during an episode of The Dating Game. Hartman won, but the female contestant missed the date. His first appearace on the big screen was in Stunt Rock, a 1978 Australian film directed in Los Angeles by Brian Trenchard-Smith. He completed several years of training, paying his way by redesigning the group’s logo and merchandise. In 1979, Hartman formally joined the cast of The Groundlings and would become one of the show’s stars.

During his time at the Groundlings, Hartman befriended Paul Reubens, and they would often collaborate on writing. Hartman was instrumental in helping to create Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman character, as well as develop The Pee-wee Herman Show, a live stage performance which also aired on HBO in 1981. Hartman played the character Captain Carl on The Pee-wee Herman Show, and would later return to the role for the children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Together they had cameos in the 1980 film Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, Reuben’s as Pee-wee Herman and Hartman as his character as Chick Hazard, Private Eye. After he co-write the script for the 1985 feature film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and had a cameo role as a reporter in the film, 36-year-old Hartman considered quitting acting because of limited opportunities. He was soon to leave the Pee-Wee Herman project after a creative disagreement with Reubens. He remarried in 1982, to real estate agent Lisa Strain. The marriage would three years, and Strain later told People magazine that despite his outgoing on-screen persona Hartman was reclusive off-screen and “would disappear emotionally… he’d be in his own world. That passivity made you crazy.”

Hartman during his time on SNL

Around this time he began to pursue other roles and recorded a number of voice-over roles for advertisements and television shows, for which he would become best remembered. In 1986, he successfully auditioned for NBC’s variety show Saturday Night Live (SNL). He saw this as a stepping stone towards greater things, telling the Los Angeles Times, “I wanted to do [SNL] because I wanted to get the exposure that would give me box-office credibility so I can write movies for myself.” Despite these aspirations, he would go on to star in eight seasons of the show, from 1986 until 1994. It was SNL where Hartman became known for his impressions, and would perform as over 70 different characters such as Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Eugene, the Anal Retentive Chef. His impressions included Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Barbara Bush and his best-known impression, Bill Clinton, who he first performed as on an episode of the Tonight Show.

During his many years on SNL, Hartman was nicknamed “Glue”, either by comic actor Adam Sandler or his on-screen co-star Jan Hooks. This was because Hartman was very helpful with other cast members, and SNL creator Lorne Michael explained why, “He kind of held the show together. He gave to everybody and demanded very little. He was very low-maintenance.” While working on SNL, Hartman met former model and aspiring actress Brynn Omdahl during a blind date in 1986. The next year in November 1987, the two married and would go on to have two children, Sean and Birgen Hartman. Their marriage was fraught with difficulties, and Brynn was reportedly intimidated by her husbands success, and frustration that she was unable to achieve her own. She often displayed jealousy, which exhibited itself in both verbal and physical abuse, and she even sent a letter to his ex-wife Lisa Strain, threatening to “rip eyes out”, if she spoke to him again. Neither wanted to divorce, and so Hartman considered retiring to save his marriage.

Hartman attempted to get his wife acting roles, but this failed as she became progressively more dependent on drugs and alcohol, so much so that she entered rehab several times. There were several occasions when he had to take their children out of the family home to stay with friends and family because of her drug and alcohol-induced outbursts. Hartman’s close friendship with his SNL co-star Jan Hooks presented more problems, and Brynn once joked that Phil and Jan were married “on some other level”. After Brynn’s death, it was found that she had written threatening letters addressed to Hooks, but it appeared she never sent them and they were found among her belongings. In 1989, he went on to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program for SNL, an award he shared with the show’s other writers. When several of his co-stars such as Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks and Jon Lovitz left the show, Hartman found it difficult to continue with SNL. The large cast turnover would contribute to his planning to leave the show in 1991, and his eventual departure in 1994.

By 1991, Hartman began working as a voice actor on the Fox animated comedy show The Simpsons. Many of the main cast members voiced various different character roles, and Hartman became well-known for two of the most popular characters on the show, that of inept lawyer Lionel Hutz and film star Troy McClure. Hutz was a stereotypical shady and sleazy lawyer in Springfield, described as an ambulance chaser, a derogatory term for a personal injury lawyer. He was mostly incompetent and highly unethical during all his appearances in court, but does win some of his cases when representing the Simpsons. McClure was based on the typical “washed-up” Hollywood actor who resorts to doing low-level work such as educational film, infomercials and B-movie films. Hartman would appear in 52 episodes, making his first appearance in the second season. His stint on the show had originally been intended as a one-off, however Hartman enjoyed working on the show and so the writing staff wrote additional parts for him. The showrunners were big fans of Hartman and made an episode entirely about his character Troy McClure. On the day of his death rehearsals for the Simpsons was cancelled, and both his characters were retired by the writing staff.

Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure

During his time on the Simpsons, Hartman was cast on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio in 1995, in which he portrayed the radio news anchor Bill McNeal. It would aire on NBC from March 1995 until May 1999, and focused on the lives of the staff of a New York City AM news radio station. Much of the humour involved both physical and visual jokes, with quick witted dialogue and farcical plotlines. The plot would often involve satirical takes on new stories, historical events and pop culture references. The show was different to what Hartman had done previously, and he was intrigued by the show’s writing and ensemble cast. The character of Evelyn William “Bill” McNeal was described as loud, arrogant, and free-spirited, who was frequently a thorn in the side of the news director. He will occasionally show flashes of wisdom and concern for his co-workers, and although the character appeared quite shallow on paper, Hartman gave him an infinite variety.

Hartman as Bill McNeal on the show NewsRadio

A typical example of the dry humour of his character Bill McNeal was his habit of describing painful stories from his childhood with an air of cheerful nostalgia, “Oh, I remember one time my father came home from a night on the town, which of course had turned into a week, and my mother said “John, is there anything you won’t drink?” and my father shot back, “Poison!” I’m saving it for you!” [laughs] “And I and my brother, who’s now and alcoholic himself, just about died laughing” Another character would then ask, “And this is a happy memory for you?” “Of course!,” he says “Another time I was cut from the high school football team, and my mother said, “Central’s lost a fullback, but the McNeals have gained a daughter.” [laughing] “In front of the other players, too! Priceless! [laughs] He would then add wistfully at the end “Good times, good times…”.

Hartman’s death occurred during the production hiatus, and his character was revealed to have died of a sudden heart attack. The filming of that episode, “Bill Moves On”, which aired on September 23, 1990, had to stop several times because the cast members were crying. On night of his death, Phil Hartman had been home when his wife returned from her lunch meeting with Christine Zander at the Italian bistro Buca di Beppo. He went to bed shortly after the two had a heated argument, and Phil reportedly threatened to end the marriage. For the last ten years, Brynn had managed to kick her alcohol dependency, but he saw that she was going down that slippery slop to addiction once more. He threatened that if she heard she was doing drugs again, it would be over between them. He soon retired to be and with their children in bed, she drank some more. Sometime around 3:00am, she entered the bedroom where Hartman was sleeping and shot him three times with .38 caliber handgun, once in the throat, once in the upper chest and once between the eyes. She then drove to the home of friend Ron Douglas, who escorted her back to the Hartman residence. When the police arrived at 6:20am, and moved the children out of the house, Brynn locked herself in the bedroom and committed suicide. She was found lying next to the body of her husband, with a single shot through the head.

The bodies of Phil and Brynn Hartman removed from the family home.

The cause of 49-year-old Hartman’s death was described by the Los Angels police as the result of “domestic discord” between the couple. A neighbour came forward and told a CNN reporter that the couple had marital problems, however actor and friend Steven Guttenberg said they had been “a very happy couple, and they always had the appearance of being well-balanced.” However, a friend described how Brynn “had trouble controlling her anger… she got attention by losing her temper.” Earlier in May 1998, the couple were planning a party for their son Sean, who was soon turning 10-years-old, and had wanted to make it special. They were going to book Planet Hollywood and invite his friends and classmates from his school in Encino. In mid-May, Brynn called Kathryn Alice, the mother of one of Sean’s friends, to request her address. Their sons had often visited each others homes and played together, and the mothers had become friends too. They chatted over the phone, and Brynn would confide things were tough at home. “She said she was barely hanging on by a thread,” Alice recalls. “I told her things will get better, but she said ‘I dont know'”. Although the invitation arrived by mail, the birthday party never happened.

But many wondered why a woman, who by most accounts, was a devoted and protective mother, would deprive her children of their parents. On the night of the murder, Brynn Hartman had been drinking alcohol, taking the anti-depressant Zoloft and had recently used cocaine. In the days after the killings, the press and mainstream media speculated over the problems in the couple’s often stormy relationship, suggesting that Phil was preparing to leave her, or that she had relapsed into an old cocaine addiction. People magazine reported that she had recently started drinking again after 10 years of sobriety, and as a result had checked into an Arizona rehab clinic earlier in the year. Toxicology reports would indicate that at the time of her death, Brynn Hartman had both cocaine and alcohol in her system. In 1999 a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Brynn’s brother Gregory Omdahl, against pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., the drug’s manufacturer, and against her son Sean’s Encino psychiatrist Arthur Sorosky, who had provided her with samples of the drug Zoloft. The lawsuit cited the anti-depressant and medical malpractice, and not martial problems, alcohol or cocaine, as the reason Brynn Hartman was pushed to murder her comedian husband and then take her own life.

According to court papers, Sorosky gave Brynn Hartman a manufacturer’s sample of Zoloft on March 26, 1998, just two months before the murder-suicide. The suit went on to claim that Sorosky did not give her a physical examination or note her medical history and “did not have the traditional doctor/patient” relationship with her. It was further alleged that Pfizer had consistently downplayed Zoloft’s potential side effects, including violence or suicide in some people, while engaging in an aggressive marketing campaign to encourage physicians to prescribe or dispense the medications as what was described as “panancea pills for all of the moodiness woes of the 90’s.” Sorosky’s attorney, Joel Douglas, said that his client and Brynn Hartman had a “doctor-patient relationship” and that Sorosky had prescribed the Zoloft in a proper and appropriate way. “From what I understand,” he said “with cocaine and alcohol in her system, you don’t need to look for Zoloft to understand what happened.” Both Zoloft and Prozac, along with other similar anti-depressants were blamed for hundreds of violent deaths. The family of the Hartman’s contend that the volatile behaviour Brynn exhibited was an extreme manifestation of a rare side effect.

His friend and SNL colleague, John Lovitz, was hired to replace the late Hartman on NewsRadio, and said that he took the role largely to honor the memory of his good friend. Later he would refuse to talk about the show in interviews, citing the tragic circumstances under which he joined the regular cast. Hartman’s characters on the Simpsons were not recast and never appeared on the show again. Lovitz made public his accusation that Hartman’s then NewsRadio co-star Andy Dick had been responsible for re-introducing Brynn to cocaine, which contributed to her having a relapse and suffer from a nervous breakdown. Dick countered that he did not know of her condition. Lovitz later said that he no longer blamed Dick for what happened, however in 2006, he claimed that Dick approached him at a restaurant and said “I put the Phil Hartman hex on you, you’re the next one to die”. Lovitz then had him ejected from the restaurant. Another altercation between the pair occurred the following year at the Laugh Factory comedy club in Los Angeles, where the two argued and Lovitz slammed Dick’s head into the bar. Dick had always refuted the allegations, stressing that he was not not at fault in relation to Hartman’s death.

The Hartman's with their son Sean.

The Hartman children were raised by Brynn’s sister Katharine Omdahl and brother-in-law Mike Wright, and each child would inherit money from their late fathers estate as stipulated in his will. On August 26, 2014, Hartman posthumously received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6600 Hollywood Boulevard. Deeply admired for his versatility, Hartman was a talent comedian, impressionist, screenwriter and actor, and the voice acting parts he played on the Simpsons, the seedy Troy McClure and the incompetent Lionel Hutz were much loved by fans. Commenting on his death, actor Steve Martin said he was “a deeply funny and very happy person.” Director Joe Dante said of him “He was one of those guys who was a dream to work with. I don’t known anyone who didn’t like him.” NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer said Hartman “was blessed with a tremendous gift for creating characters that made people laugh. Everyone who had the pleasure of working with Phil knowns that he was a man of tremendous warmth, a true professional and a loyal friend.”

Written by Nucleus

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