Saturday Night’s Children: Phil Hartman (1986-1994)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
To any 90s kid who liked watching TV, Phil Hartman was Troy McClure, Lionel Hutz, or any other of his characters on The Simpsons, but on SNL he was the older, warmer, and wiser cast member who helped pull the show out of its flailing 11th season and lead it into one of its best heydays. Whether he played a smooth-talking Hollywood type from the past, a smarmy presidential figure, or a moaning Frankenstein on a daytime talk show, Hartman brought a trademark jerky element to his characters (he called them “the weasel parade”), and his supportive reputation both on and off-camera gained him the nickname “The Glue” during his eight-year run on SNL.
One of eight siblings, Hartman was born in Ontario, Canada in 1948 and moved to the United States with his parents when he was ten years old. He graduated from California State University with a degree in graphic design and created over 40 album covers for bands like Poco, America, and Crosby Stills & Nash, among others. During his time as a graphic designer, Hartman said he “had to find an outlet” for hours of working alone, so he joined The Groundlings in Los Angeles, where he met future SNL cast mate Jon Lovitz as well as Paul Reubens, with whom Hartman created and developed the Pee-wee Herman character. Hartman co-wrote Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 and appeared as Captain Carl on Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986. He joined the cast of SNL in the same year (after turning down his first offer) alongside newcomers Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, and Kevin Nealon, and his audition tape is on YouTube:
While on SNL, Hartman was known best for his limitless arsenal of impersonations that included favorites like Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Ed McMahon, Phil Donahue, and Peter Graves. He also had several recurring characters like old-school Hollywood film star Johnny O’Connor, Chick Hazard: Private Investigator, and Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer. Two of my favorite Hartman characters are Susan the sadistic Austrian she-male and Eugene AKA The Anal Retentive Chef, whose instructional cooking, fishing, and home improvement segments were dominated by his OCD-like behavior:
Hartman was just as much of a dependable lead player as he was supportive of his fellow cast mates and writers (and fans). In Live from New York, Mike Myers explains Hartman’s nickname “The Glue”:
I sat beside him at the read-through table. They used to call him “the glue.” If he was at a read-through and in a sketch, Phil would be incredibly generous to some rookie writer by selling the hell out of this kid’s piece. He would never tank your piece. Afterwards you would just hear ‘glue, glue, glue’ from people around the read-through table. And then someone would always have to tell Phil, “They’re not saying ‘boo,’ they’re saying ‘glue.’”
After Hartman left SNL in 1994, he continued voiceover work on The Simpsons, The Critic, and The Ren & Stimpy Show (he previously had voiced for The Smurfs, The Brave Little Toaster, Animaniacs, Dennis the Menace, Darkwing Duck, and more). He also appeared in Sgt. Bilko, Jingle All the Way, and Small Soldiers and landed the role of Bill McNeal on NewsRadio from 1995 until his death three years later.
On May 28, 1998, Hartman was shot and killed by his wife Brynn while asleep in their Los Angeles home, then Brynn – who struggled with a prescription drug addiction – killed herself. Phil had long tried to get his wife into rehab, and it had only been five months since the death of fellow SNL legend Chris Farley due to an overdose, but just like that, Hartman’s reign ended. “He was a master,” Matt Groening told Entertainment Weekly in 1998. “I took him for granted because he nailed the joke every time.” Had it not been for his sudden death, Hartman was set to voice Zapp Brannigan in Futurama, and Groening named the show’s lead character – Philip J. Fry – in his honor. He was also set to appear in indie film The Day of Swine and Roses alongside longtime friend and cast mate Jon Lovitz, which would have begun production three months after his death.
In Live from New York, Alec Baldwin tells a story about a sketch he was in with Phil:
In the end, when the chemical factory is exploding and killing everybody in town, I’m offering Victoria a chance to ride off on my motorcycle with me. Phil Hartman beseeches me, he says the line “Take me with you,” and it was just the way he said the line, I always remember that as one of the times I almost cracked up on-camera. He just grabbed me and with this incredible yearning, this incredible panic, said, “Take me with you.” I thought I was going to piss in my pants in the middle of the show.
I can be sitting there in one of those NPR sketches saying “wiener” and “balls” and “lick my balls” and “sweaty balls,” and I don’t think that’s funny; I appreciate that other people do. But Phil Hartman could walk up to me and say, “Take me with you,” and he had that little sob inside the line, you know, and I thought I was going to pass out. It was all I could do to keep from laughing.
Thanks for everything, Phil.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.