FEATURE | Phil Hartman Remembered

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Saturday Night Live (1986-94)
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Phil Hartman Remembered

KEVIN RIDOLFI | In the early morning hours of Thursday, May 28, a domestic dispute ended in abrupt silence. The lethal, unforgiving crack of a gun deep in the upscale Los Angeles home then silence. That gunshot found its mark, killing comedian/actor Phil Hartman.

Brynn Hartman, his wife of 12 years and the mother of his two children, pulled the trigger in a single, irreversible act. Mrs. Hartman, reportedly influenced by the alcohol, cocaine and an anti-depressant coursing through her body, turned the gun on herself when the police entered the house. The Los Angeles County Coroner's chief investigator, Craig Harvey, confirmed that the cocaine had been ingested within five hours of her death.

Shots rang out in the affluent Los Angeles suburb and silenced the laughs as yet another Saturday Night Live alum met a premature and tragic death. Hartman, 49, leaves two sons, Sean (9) and Birgen (6), who were removed from the residence by the Los Angeles police. Hartman's death came just five months after fellow SNL alum Chris Farley died from a massive drug overdose. John Belushi died of a similar drug overdose in March, 1982.

Hartman's death feels somehow more tragic. While all three deaths can be tied to the destructive forces of drugs and alcohol, Hartman's wasn't self-inflicted. Countless colleagues have touted the Canadian born Hartman as one of the most respected men in show business. His death came just days after NBC renewed "News Radio," the clever cult hit on which Hartman played pompous news anchor Bill McNeal.

I heard the news of Hartman's death on the radio and knew immediately that two of the best written shows on television would suffer as a result. Hartman and Company's excellent ensemble work on "News Radio" made the show a favorite of the critics and a small but solid core of fans if not the pop trend-following Nielsen families. The show was clever, intelligent and pointed: qualities all sitcoms strive for but at which most fall quite short. "News Radio," along with "Fraser," kept NBC from completely becoming a network of cookie-cutter "Friends" and "Seinfeld" clones.

"The Simpsons," another of television's true originals and the foundation of the Fox network, will feel the loss as well. Hartman, known in the industry as the man of a thousand voices, provided the voices for the animated characters of Troy McLure and Lionel Hutz. McClure, a washed-up actor, appeared in virtually every "Simpsons" episode, providing tidbits of media criticism and commentary hidden in the form of documentary titles. At their best, these fictional films pointed out the absurdity of infomercials and the like while simultaneously uncovering layers of societal debris.

While critics of "The Simpsons" may blindly criticize the crudeness of the show, millions of viewers have enjoyed the on-the-surface humor and deeper satirical wit of Troy McClure's films which include "Lead Paint: Delicious But Deadly," "Alice's Adventures through the Windshield Glass," "Designated Drivers: The Lifesaving Nerds," "Dig Your Own Grave and Save," "I Can't Believe They Invented It: Eyeball Whitener."

On Saturday Night Live no one, besides possibly Dana Carvey, had the ability to completely mimic the mannerisms and voices of his subjects. The June 13 SNL Hartman tribute made that point loud and clear. No comedian since has been able to so perfectly become President Clinton. To so completely inhabit the roll. Since he left the show none of the new wave of SNL comedians have been able to match Hartman's on-the-mark impressions.

Hartman's death wasn't tragic simply as a humane reaction to mortality, but also because he was one of the good guys. Never known as a reckless partier who lived in life's fastlane as did some of his SNL colleagues, he was a family man whose relationship with his wife (according to Steve Guttenberg) was "almost too good." In the end it turned out to be quite the opposite.

Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's West Coast President, remembers Hartman as "a man of tremendous warmth, a true professional and a loyal friend who will be deeply missed." Ohlmeyer knows, as does Hartman's fans, that the laughs have ended and the clowns have all gone home. Now only through "Simpsons" reruns and his upcoming animated movie "Small Soldiers" will his talents be remembered.

The man of a thousand voices has been silenced and the silence isn't golden.


KEVIN RIDOLFI of Pawtucket, RI, is the creator and editor of Renaissance Online Magazine. He can be reached at

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