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Culture

Phil Hartman's Mr. Potato Head Blues

The SNL comedy actor who died at age 49, when his wife, Brynn, shot him in the head.

by Lary Wallace
08 October 2014, 9:00am

Screenshot from a 1-800-Collect commercial, uploaded to YouTube by user Jasonfreakinbang

If you're just looking at photos, it’s easy to forget just how versatile Phil Hartman was. But in the moment you’re actually watching him, he seems as plastically protean as a human can possibly be. Because although the characters Hartman played on Saturday Night Live during his remarkable run—1985 to 1994—ranged from Bill Clinton to Frank Sinatra, Phil Donahue to Donald Trump, Eugene the Anal-Retentive Chef to Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Ed McMahon to Charlton Heston, he never looked like anybody up there so much as Phil Hartman himself. All Hartman needed from the costume department before resembling Clinton, reports Mike Thomas in his terrific new biography You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, was “little more than a suit, a lush silvery wig, and some basic makeup that highlighted the tip of his nose and lightened his eyebrows.”

With so little altered physically, it’s easy, when watching him in action, to intuit the transformation occurring in every behavioral realm. Hartman himself was perfectly cognizant of this phenomenon, calling himself a “Mr. Potato Head.” As he described it: “When you are so average looking, when they put a wig on you and some glasses, if you alter your face and your voice in any way, you can look a lot different.”

That said, every one of the eight characters listed above has something in common with the others, and it’s something they all have in common, as well with Troy McClure, Hartman’s most prominent character on The Simpsons and Bill McNeal, the character he played on NewsRadio: they all have an oblivious-seeming self-importance. For most, it’s the dominant trait (Sinatra, Heston, Trump, McClure, McNeal, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer); and for others, it’s an animating trait that rarely conspicuously demonstrates (Clinton, Donahue, McMahon, Eugene the Anal-Retentive Chef).

I believe Hartman was so adept at parodying this particular human characteristic—this oblivious-seeming self-importance—because it was light-years removed from who he actually was, and so there was nothing easier or more natural than to show how ridiculous such preening earnestness can be. The Phil Hartman presented in You Might Remember Me—product of the distilled testimony of friends, family, colleagues, and others close enough to know—is a one-time surf bum and graphic design illustrator who landed on SNL at 38 and never stopped feeling as lucky as he really was; a man of many pursuits and passions who managed to make his living from comedy without making comedy his life. 

In his office at SNL in the early days, he had an oil-painting easel along with an electric guitar and amplifier. At home, in a self-fashioned writer’s den, were his guitars and some artwork, as well as a computer for playing a flight simulator (in preparation for a pilot’s license, which he eventually obtained). He’d smoke cigars in there, or he’d go out to the ocean and do it there. Hartman loved the ocean. He’d just sit there grooving on the waves, a beer or a scotch in hand, maybe some wine. He collected boats and sports cars avidly, and could often be found—or, as was often his intention, not found—sailing or motoring away out there, at one with the sea. He liked to fire up a joint, too, breathing in deep this fortuitous life he’d earned for himself, really holding it in and then letting it out in a cool blue stream. He knew about gratitude, and he was cool-headed and generous in a way that held the cast together at SNL, where they called him “the Glue” and where his talents were given full respiration and appreciation by all.

This is the man who died at age 49 on May 28, 1998, when his wife, Brynn, shot him in the head. 

***

Phil Hartman was in a vulnerable place psychologically when he first met Brynn Omdahl, in 1984 or 1985, at a party for a Hollywood producer. Indeed, writes Thomas:

...he may well have been at his most vulnerable state in years. His marriage to Lisa [Strain] had collapsed, his triumphant run during the Olympic Arts Festival had failed to boost his career, and acting jobs were scarce. In light of his anguish over personal and professional shortcomings, the attention from and affections of a statuesque blonde would have gone a long way toward bolstering Phil’s deflated self-image.

And Phil, for his own part, was doing what he could to bolster Brynn’s own self-image. Once he became successful through SNL, he was always doing what he could to line up auditions and make connections on Brynn’s behalf. But her cocaine and alcohol addictions, along with whatever vague psychoses were set loose, had rendered her behavior erratic and self-destructive, long before that night when she instantly made her self-destruction total.  

Hartman and wife, Brynn Omdahl. Screenshot via Paparazzi Paradise on YouTube

Thomas gives the details, and they can still baffle and bewilder, even at a remove of 16 years. Thomas tells this part of the story in the present-tense, to convey a greater immediacy, but the facts are so dramatic on their own, they hardly need such narrative enhancement. 

She did it while he was asleep. It was 3:00 AM. Against the advice of his closest friends, he’d been tolerating her madness for years, and early that evening he had threatened, once again, to leave her if she failed, once again, to get off drugs and alcohol. Phil went to bed, Brynn took some cocaine. She used a .38 to shoot him three times, twice in the head. Then she went to the house of a friend, who literally didn’t believe her when she told him what she’d done. He accompanied her back to the house, saw the scene for himself, believed it, and called the police. When the police arrived, she had locked herself inside the bedroom, hysterical. She refused to come out. She lie down beside Phil and shot herself in the head too. 

So much of it makes sense in retrospect. It’s telling that what Phil did after an epic argument was go to bed and sleep, an act perfectly consistent with, and symbolic of, the way he’d always walked away from, and shut his eyes to, domestic problems that were just too bothersome to deal with. To his loved ones, he was distant and unresponsive. Julia Sweeney, a fellow SNL cast member and a close friend from all the way back in their pre-fame days, goes so far as to say the seemingly unsayable:

The day he died, I felt a lot of compassion for [Brynn]. Because I had just gotten out of a relationship a couple of years before that with a very passive guy who was making me crazy with his passivity. And I could see how someone [like that] could make you go crazy. And I don’t even do drugs. I can only imagine how I would be if I was also doing drugs. That doesn’t make it right, but [it’s like], “Say something to me! Why aren’t you talking to me? Don’t look down! Or just say what you’re thinking about right now! Just talk to me. But don’t shut down when I’m upset.”

Even with his kids, he could be disengaged—physically, emotionally, or both. At work, he was all discipline and preparation, but in his personal life he would let loose ends just dangle, until finally they frayed and unraveled. He’d received fair warning that Brynn was potentially violent when Lisa, his second wife out of three, received a letter from her consisting of “four pages of the most vitriolic vituperation, threatening my life, telling me if I ever came near her child she’d kill me, calling me every name in the book, telling me I’d better keep my hands off her husband or she’d come and rip my eyes out. Just insane. She never knew me. She never met me. She never knew anything about me.” It was Lisa who would later warn Hartman not to let Brynn continue keeping a gun. “You are crazy if you let her have a gun,” she’d tell him. “Nothing’s ever going to happen,” is what he’d say.

***

Given this consistently passive attitude of Hartman’s, along with his relatively late-in-life acting success and his stoner/surfer/illustrator background, it’s easy to assume stardom was something he just fell into one day while walking along the beach. One of the many public services Thomas provides with You Might Remember Me is to disabuse us of this notion. 

He’d been dabbling in comedic acting since his days at Westchester High School, in Los Angeles, where his family had migrated from Canada and Connecticut, and where Hartman could really crack-up his classmates with his impersonations of John Wayne and Lyndon Johnson. Hartman managed to stay out of Vietnam, just barely missing the draft and attending Santa Monica City College. In 1969, he dropped out to live the rock ‘n’ roll life as a roadie.

After designing album covers, advertisements, and logos for bands as famous as America and Crosby, Stills & Nash, Hartman took his hobby for vocal impersonations to the Groundlings—a legendary LA improv venue and de facto farm team for SNL—which “provided,” Thomas writes, “a creative sanctuary where Phil could try out new characters and new premises to see what worked and what tanked.” He hadn’t been there long before catching a case of ambition, which led to constant, often fruitless, auditions. “You can only go on so many hundred cattle call auditions, and suffer so much rejection,” he once said, “before it takes its toll.”

Hooking up creatively with Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, is one of the more professionally beneficial moves Hartman made in these years. Reubens was the Groundlings’ shining star, and was considered for SNL long before Hartman. (The job went to Gilbert Gottfried.) Once Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) took off, followed by the very popular Pee-wee’s Playhouse on Saturday mornings, Hartman was right along for the ride, as one of Reubens’ most valuable writers and the actor who played Captain Carl. In the meantime, Jon Lovitz, also a close friend, had become yet another Groundlings player to get the nod from Saturday Night Live while Hartman continued to struggle and strive. Finally, when Reubens was invited to host the show, he insisted on bringing along Hartman and one other writer to help craft his material—a practice the show’s staff typically resents but that they assented to in this case because of the singularly strange and specialized nature of Reubens’ Pee-wee character. 

Hartman’s time preparing this episode at Studio 8H functioned as the SNL audition he’d never had, and then he auditioned for real, and then he made the show. After what has to be one of the two or three most sustained, consistent, versatile runs in the show’s history, during which he saw many of his more conspicuous (if less talented) colleagues get mega-rich off of mediocre movies, Hartman left the show, burned-out and in search of other opportunities. He starred for four seasons on News Radio, did some okay things in movies, continued performing brilliantly on The Simpsons, and then was murdered.

With endurance and serendipity given the chance to once again conspire on behalf of his career, he could have starred in the kind of breakout dramatic role that comedic actors have been pulling off ever since Billy Wilder had the genius to cast Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944). Phil Hartman’s understanding of pompous pretentiousness came mostly from deduction and observation, but he understood it all the same. And so, in one of the greatest of all SNL commercial parodies—of Calvin Klein’s late-80s Obsession ads—he must have known he was dabbling in autobiography when he stared deeply into the camera, haughty and vain, and said with all the contrived portent he could muster from that European accent: “I wonder which was the greater transgression: loving her, or abiding her immaculate madness? Poor frightened creature. What was it we could not give her, or she understand?”

You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman is out in hardcover from St. Martin's Press. 

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