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Phil Hartman and His Tragic Murder, Explained


Phil Hartman and His Tragic Murder, Explained


Summary

  • Phil Hartman’s comedic brilliance shone on
    SNL
    , captivating viewers with unforgettable characters and impersonations.
  • Before
    SNL
    , Hartman helped create Pee-wee Herman with Paul Reubens, showcasing his talent and creativity.
  • Despite personal turmoil, Hartman’s legacy as a beloved comedian and family man continues to be celebrated.



Celebrated comedian, actor, and writer Phil Hartman captivated audiences for eight years during his sensational tenure on Saturday Night Live, delivering laughter and joy with his impeccable impersonations and zany original characters. Before making it big on the trailblazing sketch show, Hartman worked closely with fellow comedy great Paul Reubens, helping him create his iconic alter ego, Pee-wee Herman.


Hartman performed alongside stars like Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, and Chris Farley during his time on SNL. He then branched out and appeared in films like Coneheads, and So I Married an Axe Murderer and in the TV shows The Simpsons, DuckTales, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. After a Primetime Emmy win for writing and bringing endless joy to devoted viewers, Hartman departed the series in 1994 to pursue new ventures.

While his Hollywood career was thriving, Hartman’s personal life was in turmoil. His marriage to wife Brynn was plagued by jealousy, alcoholism, and drug use, all of which culminated in a devastating murder-suicide that rocked the world in 1998. This is the story of Phil Hartman and the tragic family murder of a beloved comedian.


Hartman’s Humble Beginnings


Before he was dazzling audiences from Studio 8H with his side-splitting impersonations and quirky characters in Saturday Night Live, Hartman was honing his craft as a member of the sketch comedy troupe The Groundlings. During his time with the improv group, the funnyman met and became close friends with future comedian extraordinaire Paul Reubens. Together, the duo would write material and create Reuben’s bowtie-sporting alter ego, Pee-wee Herman, in the early 1980s.

Hartman & Reubens Team Up

Hartman subsequently helped develop the stage show The Pee-wee Herman Show, taking on the role of Captain Carl and reprising the character for the children’s television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse beginning in 1986. After a creative disagreement with Reubens, Hartman left the project and landed small parts in films like Three Amigos and Jumpin’ Jack Flash before he branched out and auditioned for the sketch comedy show that would put him on the map and make him a bona fide superstar: Saturday Night Live.


Phil Hartman Was a Saturday Night Live Sensation

After being recommended to audition for the television juggernaut by SNL stars John Lovitz and Laraine Newman and Jumpin’ Jack Flash director Penny Marshall, Hartman officially joined the comedy series for its 12th season, which began in the fall of 1986. The comedian later revealed his motives behind becoming a featured player in the trailblazing program, telling The Times that year:

“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.”


The Heart & Soul of the Comedy Show

During his unforgettable tenure on Saturday Night Live, Hartman performed over 70 different kooky characters, including the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Eugene, and the Anal Retentive Chef. His spectacular gift for impersonations also helped make him one of the season’s most buzzed-about players, as he hilariously imitated celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, the latter of which would become his most iconic.

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Hartman quickly became a staple on SNL and was constantly helping his fellow cast members thrive. He was given the endearing nickname “Glue” by on-screen collaborator and costar Jan Hooks because of his selfless nature, and he was always encouraging the crew. SNL creator Lorne Michaels would later elaborate on the meaning behind the nickname, telling People:

“He kind of held the show together. He gave to everybody and demanded very little. He was very low-maintenance.”


Phil Hartman’s Blossoming Hollywood Career

While still bringing laughter and joy to audiences week after week, Hartman was branching out in both television and film, most notably providing various voices for characters in the enduring animated series The Simpsons and in programs like DuckTales, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Tom & Jerry Kids. He also landed prominent roles in movies such as The Brave Little Toaster, Coneheads, and So I Married an Axe Murderer, and in 1994, he earned an Emmy nomination for his exceptional work on SNL.


Hartman Says Goodbye to SNL

Hartman was growing restless at the NBC show as most of his former cast members had departed the series, namely friends like Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, and Jan Hooks. The comedian did not feel his brand of humor was in line with the newcomers joining SNL, such as Adam Sandler, and believed it was “getting less sophisticated.” According to Popular Timelines, Hartman would later say he felt “like an athlete who’s watched all his World Series teammates get traded off into other directions…It was hard to watch them leave because I sort of felt we were all part of the team that saved the show.”

In 1994, Hartman officially departed Saturday Night Live after eight seasons and a Primetime Emmy win for his work on the show, and he quickly set his sights on showing off his range as a performer. He landed the role of radio news anchor Bill McNeal in the sitcom NewsRadio in 1995 and appeared in films including Houseguest, Jingle All the Way, and the Studio Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service. Hartman’s Hollywood takeover seemed imminent, yet devoted fans of the charismatic comedian were unaware that his private life was plagued by darkness.


Phil Hartman’s Struggles Behind Closed Doors

In 1987, Hartman tied the knot with former model and acting hopeful Brynn Omdahl after meeting her the year before on a blind date; the marriage was his third, and together they had two children, Sean and Birgen. Brynn was allegedly intimidated and jealous of her husband’s success in Hollywood and resentful of his friendly relationship with his ex-wife, Lisa Strain. The real estate agent would later reveal to People that Hartman was extremely reclusive off-screen and that he “would disappear emotionally … he’d be in his own world. That passivity made you crazy.”

The rest of this article contains details regarding Hartman’s death that some readers may find disturbing.


A Tempestuous Relationship

Brynn reportedly exhibited verbally and physically abusive behavior behind closed doors and even threatened to “rip [Strain’s] eyes out” if she continued communicating with her husband. As a result of Brynn’s animosity over his blossoming career, Hartman debated retiring in hopes that it would save their marriage. Though he tried to help his wife land acting roles, her struggles with addiction became too much to handle, and she went to rehab multiple times for alcohol and narcotics. Hartman even had to physically remove their children and send them to stay with family members because of Brynn’s violent outbursts as a result of her addiction.

Hartman remained close with former SNL cast member Jan Hooks, a friendship that sparked an intense jealousy in Brynn; she had even written threatening letters to the actress demanding she stay away from her husband, but Brynn never sent the notes. Hartman’s NewsRadio costar Joe Rogan also encouraged the comedian to divorce Brynn after he confided in him over his marital troubles. Yet, he refused because “[Hartman] loved his kids and didn’t want to leave.” Following the heinous crime that would take place in 1998, Rogan said in an interview:


“She definitely had coke problems. She was a weirdo. She was a loser, that’s what she was. She was a loser and she was married to a winner. She was an actress and she was a failure and he was an actor and he was a big success and you know how that can be…”

Phil Hartman’s Death Was a Devastating Tragedy

Hartman’s troubling marital issues tragically reached their boiling point on May 27, 1998, when Brynn returned home after having dinner with producer Christine Zander. According to the former SNL writer Zander in the People interview, Brynn had two Cosmopolitans, “didn’t talk about any problems,” and was “in a good frame of mind. She seemed content.” When Brynn returned to the Encino home she shared with Hartman, the couple got into a heated argument that resulted in her husband walking away and going to bed for the evening.


Hartman’s close friend Steven Small told People this was a common pattern for the pair, revealing after the shocking murder: “He had made it very clear that if she started using drugs again, that would end the relationship. She had to get amped up to get his attention, and when she got amped up, he would simply go to sleep. He would withdraw. And in the morning he’d wake up, and everything would be fine.” Sadly, neither Brynn nor Hartman would be alive the next morning.

An Unfathomable Crime Committed

At around 3:00 a.m., Brynn entered the bedroom where Hartman slept and shot her husband three times with a .38 caliber handgun: once in the upper chest and twice in the head. After the horrific act, Brynn fled the scene of the crime and went directly to the home of her friend Ron Douglas, whom she immediately confessed to. Douglas did not think Brynn was actually being serious, and they both drove back to the Hartman residence, where Brynn called another friend and once again confessed. When Douglas saw Hartman’s body in the bedroom, he immediately called 911 at 6:20 a.m.


During this time, both Douglas and the couple’s children were removed from the premises by police, and Brynn locked herself in the same bedroom where she murdered her husband. As law enforcement attempted to secure the home, they heard a gunshot from inside and, upon entering the room, found the bodies of both Hartman and Brynn, who had committed suicide. The adored comedian was just 49 years old when his life was heartbreakingly cut short, leaving behind shocked and devastated loved ones and fans.

Phil Hartman Left an Everlasting Legacy


The gut-wrenching death of Phil Hartman rocked the entertainment industry, and those close to the adored comedian, and tributes by both fans and friends poured in. Funny man Steve Martin told CNN that Hartman was “a deeply funny and very happy person,” while actor and fellow Groundling member Steve Guttenberg said, “This is a guy who was always laughing, always having a great time. It’s just terrible.” After his passing, The Simpsons retired Hartman’s characters in his honor, and his final theatrical film, Small Soldiers, was also dedicated in his memory.

Hartman’s Star Still Shines

In the years since his untimely death, Hartman’s legacy and comedic contributions continue to be praised and celebrated, as the great performer was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014 and was named one of the ten greatest Saturday Night Live cast members by Rolling Stone. Hartman and Brynn’s children Birgen and Sean were just six and nine years old when their parents died, and they were raised by Brynn’s sister Katharine and her husband after the tragedy.

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Hartman’s daughter Birgen showed up to honor her father for the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special celebration in 2015, while his son Sean has kept a low profile in the 26 years since his death and is now a musician and artist. Birgen took to social media in 2016 to honor Hartman on Father’s Day, posting a touching tribute to her beloved parent, who was taken far too soon:

Phil Hartman and his legacy as a beloved comedian, actor, and family man will forever carry on, and the senseless crime that took his life will remain one of Hollywood’s most dark and devastating moments. In the direct aftermath of his murder, NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer released a touching statement about Hartman’s impact on the world and the impact he left behind, expressing that the unparalleled performer was,


“Blessed with a tremendous gift for creating characters that made people laugh. Everyone who had the pleasure of working with Phil knows that he was a man of tremendous warmth, a true professional and a loyal friend.”

Phil Hartman’s time on Saturday Night Live can be seen on Peacock.

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