If you followed comedy during the 80s or 90s, you certainly knew the work of comedian Phil Hartman. From his wide array of characters portrayed on “Saturday Night Live” – Ed McMahon, The Anal-Retentive Chef, Brian’s Dad, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton – to his voice work on “The Simpsons” and his many other roles in TV and film, Hartman was perhaps the most versatile and ubiquitous comedian in the decades leading up to the new millennium.
Known for his smarmy pitchman voice, his unflappable winning smile, and expert comedic timing, Hartman’s fame showed no signs of dissipating as the 1990s drew to a close. That all changed in an instant, however, on the night of May 28, 1998, when Hartman’s third wife, Brynn Omdahl Hartman, shot and killed him in his sleep before eventually taking her own life.
Phil Hartman was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada on September 24, 1948. He didn’t initially set out to become a comedian. In the early 70s, Hartman worked as a roadie when he met and married his first wife, Gretchen Lewis, whom he divorced after only two years of marriage. He then returned to school and graduated from California State University-Northridge with a degree in graphic art, which he used to design album covers for some of music’s most iconic bands, including Steely Dan’s “Aja” album and rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Celtic-style logo.
It wasn’t until 1975, when Hartman started attending comedy classes with the L.A. troupe known as The Groundlings, that his love for the stage awakened. During one of their performances, Hartman volunteered to join the cast on stage, launching his storied career. He was an instant natural.
“I never saw an audience member come up with that kind of excitement and energy…it was like a hurricane hit that stage, and I mean in a good way,” comedian and founding member of the troupe Tracy Newman told ABC News in 2019.
The Groundlings were so impressed with Hartman’s performance they invited him to tour with them while still taking their classes. During this time, he met Paul Reubens and helped create Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman character. Hartman co-wrote the script for “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985, and also played the character of Captain Carl on Reubens’ show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” In the early 80s, he married and divorced his second wife, Lisa Jarvis, who later described Hartman as “really two people” in an interview on “20/20.”
“He was the guy who wanted to draw and write and think and create and come up with ideas. He was the actor [and] entertainer, and then he was the recluse,” she said.
By age 36, Hartman began contemplating ending his acting career, as he was unable to get many parts. But after “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” became a success, he reconsidered and began taking small roles in films and accepting work as a voice actor. His big break came in 1986, when Lorne Michaels hired Hartman as his latest cast member on “Saturday Night Live” for its 12th season, joining the likes of future comedy legends Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, and Dennis Miller.
“Whatever he was going to imagine or say was nothing you could imagine or think of,” castmate Jon Lovitz told a biographer of Hartman, according to Biography.com. “He could do any voice, play any character, make his face look different without makeup. He was king of The Groundlings.”
Hartman became known for his impressions of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, as well as his original characters like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and his voice work for SNL’s fake commercials. While on SNL, Hartman started voicing popular side characters on “The Simpsons,” including Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz.
About a year after he joined ‘SNL,’ Hartman married his third wife, formerly Brynn Omdahl. In 1988, the couple had a son, Sean. After the birth, Hartman called his ex-wife, Lisa Jarvis, to say he was now a father. Jarvis wrote the couple to congratulate them and offered to babysit if they ever needed it. Years later, Jarvis told ABC that Brynn responded to the card with threats.
“I got a letter that was hair-curling, fury, rage and [a] death threat from Brynn,” Jarvis told ABC. “The gist of it was, ‘Don’t ever f–ing get near me or my family or I will hurt you. I never want to hear from you…never, ever, ever come near us or you will really be sorry.'”
Brynn’s anger issues were well known. She originally moved to L.A. to become a model and actress, but struggled to get work and became addicted to cocaine. She was sober when she met Hartman, but still had bouts of anger and jealousy. Brynn’s drug and alcohol addictions kept her in and out of rehab throughout their marriage, and, when combined with her antidepressant medication, resulted in violent outbursts.
Hartman’s lawyer and close friend, Steven Small, told the Los Angeles Times in 1998, shortly after Hartman’s death, that Brynn “had trouble controlling her anger.”
“She got attention by losing her temper,” he said, noting the two had separated multiple times. “Phil said he had to…restrain her at times.”
Small told the Sun Sentinel that same year that when Brynn started to argue with Hartman, he would attempt to defuse the situation by going to bed.
“They had a pattern of arguing at night and he would go to sleep and everything would be OK in the morning,” Small said. “I think he felt safe going to sleep, and he just shouldn’t have. I think she just lost control.”
It was during one of these episodes that Hartman lost his life.
On May 28, 1998, Brynn had dinner with a friend, went home, and started a fight with Hartman. As usual, Hartman went to bed to get away from Brynn and let her calm down, but that night, she grabbed a .38 Smith & Wesson from the couple’s gun safe and shot Hartman in his head and chest while he slept, killing him instantly.
Brynn drank more alcohol and called her friend Ron Douglas. She was hysterical, and claimed Hartman left a note saying he’d be back later and that he was not in the house. Douglas said she should go back to sleep, but she instead drove to his home, drunk and screaming. Douglas invited her inside, all too aware of how she would respond if he challenged her in this state.
Once inside, Brynn collapsed on the floor. Douglas worried she had overdosed, but once he was able to get her to wake up, she ran to the bathroom to throw up. During this time, Brynn told Douglas multiple times that she killed Hartman, even showing him the gun. Douglas, however, didn’t believe her.
When Brynn was able to drive home, she asked Douglas to follow behind her. Back at the house, the two went upstairs, where Douglas found Hartman’s dead body. He called 911. Brynn’s friends came to the house and removed the couple’s two kids, 9-year-old Sean and 6-year-old Birgen. When the police arrived, Brynn locked herself in the bedroom and sat on the bed next to Hartman’s body. She called her sister, but when police knocked on the door, she hung up and took her own life.
Sean and Birgen went to live with Brynn’s sister and her husband following the deaths of their parents. Sean became an artist and musician, while Birgen built her own business. The Associated Press reported shortly after Hartman’s death that the children would receive three separate payments from Hartman’s estimated $1.23 million estate. The first payment was made after each received their bachelor’s degree, the second payment came when they turned 30, and the final payment will be made when they turn 35.
For so many comedy fans, the tragic loss of Phil Hartman can still be felt today. He was revered by his contemporaries, loved by his fans, and earned his place in the comedy hall of fame. His eight seasons on SNL are still considered some of the best in the history of the show.
While many A-list comedy stars got their start on SNL – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Mike Meyers – they all relied on versatile ‘wingmen’ who could hold their own in any sketch. Phil Hartman was as reliable a wingman as they come.
The views expressed in this piece are the authors own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.