The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Phil Hartman

Hey, it's Phil Hartman. You might remember him from such generation-defining comedy performances as his eight years on Saturday Night Live, his voice-acting work on The Simpsons, or his Emmy-nominated role of pompous anchor Bill McNeal on NewsRadio. Hartman (born Phil Hartmann) is widely regarded as one of the most vital SNL performers ever, versatile in both his celebrity impressions (Frank Sinatra, Bill Clinton, Ed McMahon) and outlandish characters (Frankenstein's monster, the Anal Retentive Chef). Plus, those early years of The Simpsons wouldn't be the same without Hartman giving life to washed-up actor Troy McClure or sleazy lawyer Lionel Hutz. He was also a talented character actor, popping up and stealing scenes in dozens of '80s and '90s comedies.

In spite of bringing such pure comic joy to millions, Hartman's off-screen life was beset with heartbreak and disappointment, and it ended early and abruptly in an unspeakable tragedy. Here's a look at the all-too-brief and incredibly tragic life of Phil Hartman.

Phil Hartman's baby sister had a rare disease

Phil Hartman's younger sister by three years, Sarah Jane Hartmann, was born in 1951 with a serious medical condition — which wouldn't be properly identified and diagnosed until the 1960s — called Angelman syndrome. Signs of the rare genetic disorder, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, "include delayed development, intellectual disability, severe speech impediment, and problems with movement and balance," as well as decreased head size and frequent seizures. 

Many people with Angelman syndrome, including Sarah Jane, require almost around-the-clock care, and it was her mother, Doris, who provided it for the first five years of her daughter's life (per Mike Thomas' You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman). His mother, preoccupied with the care of Sarah Jane, left the supervision of young Phil to older siblings. After about five years, Doris suffered a breakdown, and the family admitted Sarah Jane to a care facility. The Hartmanns left her behind in Canada when they moved to the U.S. in 1957.

He had a serious rift with Paul Reubens

Phil Hartman's first gig in show business didn't have anything to do with acting, comedy, or anything in the arena of scripted entertainment. Instead, Hartman got his start in the music industry. In the 1970s, he found success as a graphic designer specializing in rock 'n' roll. He created more than 40 album covers, including the striking horse-based line art for the 1979 Poco record Legend. He also made quite a few logos, including that of Crosby, Stills and Nash. 

But Hartman would get very lonely in the isolating job of drawing all day, and he'd entertain himself by doing different funny voices. "I had to find an outlet," he told Jam! Showbiz in 1996, which led him to join the Groundlings comedy troupe in 1975. It was there where he met fellow performer Paul Reubens, who created a high-voiced, man-child character named Pee-Wee Herman. Hartman helped Reubens write a 1981 stage show featuring the character (taped and aired on HBO), which in turn led to a deal to write a big-screen Pee-Wee movie. Together, they wrote Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, which begat the Saturday morning show Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Hartman frequently appeared as his salty sailor character Kap'n Karl. 

Then Hartman and Reubens cut off contact. "I still don't speak to Paul Reubens," Hartman said in 1996. "We just had a falling out and never put it back together." Reubens is similarly vague on what happened, telling Westworld in 2016, "We worked together on a lot of stuff, along with a coffee group of some of the other Groundlings: Phil, me, John Paragon ... three men and three women. We were going to go out and rule the world. That didn't work out very good. I think about Phil all the time."

NBC jerked Phil Hartman around

Saturday Night Live enjoyed one of its peaks in the late 1980s, with a cast that included Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, and Phil Hartman, who joined the show in 1986. He built up an array of impressions (such as a secretly calculating President Ronald Reagan) and characters (Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer). He was so vital to SNL that his show nickname was "The Glue" because he held the show together and was thus one of NBC's most important talents. 

Hartman planned to leave SNL (and, by extension, NBC) in 1991, but his boss, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels, convinced him to stay. A year later, he almost left the show once more to reportedly pursue a major opportunity — playing sidekick to new The Tonight Show host Jay Leno. In Mike Thomas' Hartman bio You Might Remember Me, Leno denies Hartman was offered the gig but says his show did try to convince SNL to let Hartman occasionally appear on Tonight as Bill Clinton, which SNL executives rejected. 

When Hartman finally did leave SNL in 1994, it was mostly to work on The Phil Show. NBC didn't want Hartman to bolt too far, so it pitched him on this idea of an updated and reinvented TV variety show, featuring sketch comedy and scripted behind-the-scenes banter (a la 30 Rock). When the similar The Martin Short Show flopped in the fall of 1994, The Phil Show was scrapped, forcing Hartman to sign on for a supporting role in NewsRadio a sitcom on ... NBC.

He never got to make the movies he wanted to make

Phil Hartman wasn't just a comic actor. He was also a comedy writer. He won an Emmy as part of the sketch-writing staff of Saturday Night Live, and he co-scripted Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but Hartman was never again able to get Hollywood to take a chance on his scripts. For example, he created Chick Hazard, a 1930s-style private eye character, for the Groundlings. He staged an hour-long, lavishly produced Chick Hazard show in 1984, and while HBO was interested in airing it on cable and Universal bought the film rights, neither project materialized.

According to an interview on Larry King Live with Hartman's brother, Josh Hartmann, the actor penned numerous scripts that never got made into movies — movies that likely could've turned Hartman into a leading big-screen comedy actor. One of these was Mr. Fix-It, a horror comedy he wrote in 1984 but couldn't get much traction on until 1991. In You Might Remember Me, Hartman is quoted as describing the script as "an American nightmare" about a family that lives near a toxic waste site, where a poisoned water supply makes a son and mother try to kill each other and where "the father's face is torn off in a terrible disfiguring accident in the first act." Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis tried to get studios and investors interested in Mr. Fix-It but to no avail.

Phil Hartman's first two marriages were troubled

Phil Hartman's adulthood love life was certainly active, and as is often the case, incredibly troubled: The actor was married three times. Shortly after moving to Southern California in the late '60s, a barely adult Hartman met 19-year-old Gretchen Lewis on the beach. They married in 1970 but were divorced by 1972. 

Then in 1982, Hartman approached a woman in a Los Angeles club named Lisa Jarvis (pictured). They danced, and within the week, they went out for sushi and attended a wedding in Santa Barbara together. By the end of the year, they were married and honeymooning in Santa Barbara. This marriage didn't last, either. "My sense of Phil was that he was really two people," Jarvis told ABC News. "As time goes by, you understand that his personas are his protection, and [they] are his personality." 

The couple returned to Santa Barbara in 1983 to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary, and when Hartman spurred his wife's bedroom advances, she knew it was over. And before long, the couple divorced. Hartman went on to marry a swimsuit model and aspiring actress named Brynn Omdahl, and they had their first child together, a son named Sean, in 1988. Jarvis sent the Hartmans a congratulatory card, to which an enraged Omdahl replied to with a fiery note of her own. "The gist of it was, 'Don't ever f***ing get near me or my family, or I will hurt you," Jarvis recalled.

His choice in partners led to a dispute with a friend

In addition to Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens, Phil Hartman developed a friendship with another Groundlings member better known for a character than her real self: Cassandra Peterson, aka campy comic horror queen "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark." Friends for years, Peterson (pictured) figured she could be honest with Hartman and tried to discourage him from marrying his third wife, Brynn Omdahl, in 1987. 

"She was a very troubled person with a lot of problems," Peterson told Mr. Showbiz (via the New York Daily News). According to Mike Thomas' Hartman biography You Might Remember Me, when Hartman told Peterson he was proposing, she claimed she exclaimed, "Oh, god, no!" She added that at the time, she thought "[Hartman] had to be kidding" and wondered if the couple should "live together for a while longer before taking the plunge." Peterson reported that Hartman then stormed away from her. "It's the first time — and, I think, last time — I ever saw him angry." The two performers then reportedly had a major falling out that lasted for years.

Phil Hartman's third marriage was troubled

According to individuals in the know, Phil Hartman's third marriage to model and actress Vicki Jo Omdahl — but professionally known as Brynn Hartman — was often rocky. The disparity of fame between partners caused animosity. "Phil was getting a lot of attention, and [Brynn] wasn't getting any attention," Brynn Hartman's brother, Greg Omdahl, told ABC News. "She just wanted to be more part of the spotlight than she was, you know." The actress ultimately scored just two bit parts — as a waitress in the 1994 flop North and "Venusian #1" in the sci-fi sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Phil Hartman, meanwhile, enjoyed lots of money and attention in the '90s from his work in TV, commercials, and films like Jingle All the Way. He parlayed that money into things like boats, which he'd sail for long spells off Catalina Island, away from his family. That didn't sit well with his wife, and things were often tense with her. One time backstage at Saturday Night Live, makeup artist Norman Bryn overheard the Hartmans having a loud argument in a dressing room. Later, he asked his colleague about it, and he replied, "Well, Norm, looks like the wife's gonna divorce me this time." Brynn Hartman's friend Jeannie Peterson later told People that the couple were tentatively heading for a split. "He wouldn't give her a divorce," she said. "For two years she was trying to get out of it."

His wife struggled with substance abuse

Brynn Hartman struggled with personal problems both before and during her marriage to Phil Hartman and her motherhood to their two children, Sean and Birgen. According to Brynn Hartman's brother, Greg Omdahl, she developed a drug problem in the 1980s after moving to Los Angeles. "She did too much cocaine," he told ABC News, adding, "I talked her into going through treatment." 

She reportedly sobered up and had lived a drug-free lifestyle for the better part of a decade, but eventually, she started using cocaine again. At a 1997 Christmas party at the Hartmans' home, Phil Hartman's NewsRadio co-star Andy Dick indulged in some coke, and he gave some to Brynn Hartman. "Phil was furious about it," Hartman's friend Jon Lovitz told the New York Post (via HuffPost). According to a friend who spoke with the Los Angeles Times in 1998, Brynn checked into a rehabilitation facility within the past year. That all put a strain on the marriage, and she tried to exorcise those demons by co-writing a chillingly prophetic screenplay called Reckless Abandon, about a woman who shoots her husband and then takes her own life.

Phil Hartman's tragic death

The tumultuous marriage of Phil and Brynn Hartman ended in May 1998 ... in the most horrifying and sad way a marriage can. According to a contemporary news report from the Los Angeles Times, police responded to the Hartmans' Encino, California, home after receiving a report of gunshots. They arrived to find nine-year-old Sean Hartman running out the front door. After taking him to a safe spot, authorities went into the house and removed six-year-old Birgen. 

That's when another shot rang out, later discovered to have been a fatal, self-inflicted blast from Brynn Hartman. A search of the home revealed that the earlier shots had been delivered into a sleeping Phil Hartman. According to a coroner's report from Los Angeles County (via the Los Angeles Times), Brynn had an extremely high blood alcohol level, as well as a significant amount of cocaine in her system, along with a "therapeutic" (meaning normally prescribed) dose of a common antidepressant. The coroner noted that when taken together, the effects of all three drugs can be intensified. Brynn Hartman was 40 years old at the time of her death. Phil Hartman was 49.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

What could've been for Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman turned in many memorable performances, but the world was potentially robbed of so many more. His shocking death in 1998 was obviously a devastating blow for his family and friends, and it also sent waves through Hollywood, altering or outright canceling multiple Hartman-starring projects in the works. The two recurring characters he voiced on The Simpsons — cheesy actor Troy McClure and sketchy lawyer Lionel Hutz — were immediately retired, rather than recast. The tragedy also immediately ended talks of a live-action spin-off film focused on McClure. 

On Simpsons creator Matt Groening's follow-up series, Futurama, Hartman was set to voice arrogant space captain Zapp Brannigan, and Billy West took over, performing the character in tribute to Hartman and how he thinks the late actor may have done it. Plus, Hartman's long-running sitcom NewsRadio was still in production at the time of his death, and following the fifth season premiere — which found the cast tearfully memorializing Hartman's character Bill McNeal (but really Hartman ) — Hartman's close friend and SNL compatriot Jon Lovitz replaced him in the cast as a new character.