Happy Birthday!

(September 24, 1948 – May 28, 1998)

There are those sad moments in life when simply learning the news of a far-away tragedy manages to fire off enough chemicals to your brain that the moment becomes vividly etched on your memory forever. There are big cultural touchstones (9/11), and those more personal (the devastating phone call at work about the sudden passing of a loved one). It both does and doesn’t surprise me that 12 years on I can still tell you exactly what I was doing when I heard that actor Phil Hartman died.

I was playing Turtles in Time on my ol’ Super Nintendo, in my old room at my parents’ house, mere days back from finishing my freshman year of college. My buddy Nate called me with the idiotic news that Phil Hartman had been murdered. No, fool, people like Phil Hartman don’t get murdered. Turn on the TV, Nate said. So I did, and sure enough all the local channels were splashed with the news. Phil Hartman had been shot in his sleep by his nutso, cocaine-addled wife. It was likely the shock of just how Hartman died that made that initial discovery so awful. The sadness of his loss would come later.

Actors and entertainers pass into the undiscovered country weekly; one of the most viewed threads on our forum is “The Dead Celebrity Thread,” after all. Such is life. Hopefully they have lived long, full lives, but many die suddenly before their time too. Such is also life. Yet, Hartman’s passing continues to tug at me, all these years later. It is not just the thoughts of all the great performances I am missing out on, though I do think often of that, but also that I can see Hartman’s memory drifting out to sea as the years go by.

I worry that younger generations will have little cause to seek out and embrace Hartman, or worse, little ability to do so. The nature of Hartman’s talent and career make it impossible to nail his greatness with a single work. I want you to get into Jack Lemon? Simple, I show you The Apartment. John Belushi? Animal House. Prove to you that Steve Martin used to make great comedies? The Jerk. But Hartman wasn’t the kind of performer who got roles like that. He wasn’t Jack Black in High Fidelity; he wasn’t a scene stealer. Big comic actors are like hot sauce, they stand out and often they can be too much for certain dishes. Hartman was a subtle spice. He made anything and everything better. His truest talent, sadly, was that you might not have realized this was even happening. He was generally an enhancing flavor, and unfortunately, these are the kinds of performers that become generational anomalies, that eventually only older people talk about as time goes by. Those of us who spent eight years with Hartman on SNL, who saw him shine in bit roles in tons of crummy movies – we had the time to learn to fully appreciate him.

So, in honor of what should have been Hartman’s 62nd birthday, I’d like to pay this meager tribute to the man in the hopes of keeping memory of his understated glory alive just a little longer.

Phillip Hartmann was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada (he would later drop one “n” from his name), the fourth child in a family of eight siblings. Like many middle-children, Hartman admitted later in life to feeling attention starved – the breeding grounds for an entertainer. Yet, Hartman did not actually pursue comedy or performing until he was nearly 30. He studied graphic arts at California State University, in Northridge, and while still in school Hartman started his own graphic design company, that produced album art for bands like America and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

It was during this period that he finally got bitten by the comedy bug. It started simply, as evening improv classes, a way for him to socialize and get away from his desk. But he got hooked. Then in 1975 he joined LA’s famous comedy troupe, The Groundlings, where he met another struggling comedian, Paul Reubens. The two quickly became friends and together they developed the character that would eventually make Reubens famous, Pee-wee Herman. What started as a small stage show quickly turned into an HBO special in 1981 (where Hartman played the character of Captain Carl), and the success of the HBO special lead Hartman and Reubens to pen a feature film. Hartman was actually getting ready to call it quits in showbiz and return to graphic design until Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure proved to be a smash hit, opening some new doors for Hartman.

The biggest door was opened when Saturday Night Live’s creator/producer Lorne Michaels came knocking. Hartman, whose endgame was writing movies for himself to star in, initially saw SNL as simply a way to boost his profile. Being on SNL wasn’t exactly everyone’s dream at that point. Though the program had managed to produce a few stars in the 80’s, such as Eddie Murphy, it was still largely a pale comparison (both culturally and critically) to its glory days in the 70’s, with casts routinely being overhauled for failing to gel. Hartman unwittingly found himself part of an SNL renaissance, when the show shifted back towards a true, even ensemble, and many insiders considered him the substance most responsible for that gelling.

“The Glue,” was Hartman’s nickname on SNL. Supposedly bestowed on him by Adam Sandler, the affectionate moniker referred to his colleagues’ belief that Hartman was often what held a mediocre sketch together. Generally given the thankless tasks of playing dads, bosses and announcers, Hartman could effortlessly and invisibly anchor anything. Even though he had one of the longest tenures in SNL history, he had very few re-occurring characters. He was a consummate utility player. It is really hard to describe how amazing Hartman’s work was on SNL if you weren’t watching it weekly. You can’t just show someone a random Phil Hartman sketch and expect them to fall all over themselves, because it was what Hartman did in his smallest roles, in lousy bits, sketch after sketch, week after week, year after year, that made him indispensable. As someone who does stage comedy I can tell you a big problem is often that you have all these talented people who start flying off in different directions, trying to nail laughs. Having someone like Hartman, who is comfortable not going for big laughs, truly is glue. These people exude a calming gravitational pull that somehow tethers all the players into place, purely through their presence. This was Hartman.

One of Hartman’s greatest gifts was his voice. Beyond SNL, he lent his signature pipes to everything from advertisements, to the English version of Kiki’s Delivery Service, to the air conditioner in The Brave Little Toaster, to shows like Ducktales, Tailspin, The Smufts, and then of course there was a little show called The Simpsons, which when it is all said and done, will likely be Hartman’s most enduring legacy. While it was very sad to see the characters go, I thought it was very cool of The Simpsons staff to permanently retire Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz after Hartman passed, even though they very easily could’ve gotten a soundalike. It wouldn’t have been the same.

When Hartman finally left SNL after eight seasons (in a now bittersweet closing moment that found him and Chris Farley alone on stage, bathed by a spotlight), Hartman was originally going to get his own variety show, but NBC ultimately decided that format was dead. So Hartman (thankfully I think) ended up taking the supporting, yet focal role of blow-hard anchor Bill McNeal on News Radio. While the show never got big numbers, McNeal was the kind of career culmination part that Hartman had been building towards. Despite being incredibly laid back and friendly in real life, Hartman had a real talent for playing slimy jackasses that you loved nonetheless. McNeal was the exact character Hartman fans wanted to see him doing.

Live-action film work was an area that Hartman never quite got so lucky in. During his SNL run he popped up in a lot of films, though always in bit parts and cameos: Blind Date, Three Amigos!, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, How I Got Into College, Fletch Lives, So I Married An Axe Murder. He did manage to snag a few larger supporting roles as his star rose, but the films were neither hits nor beloved cult treasures: CB4, Houseguest, Small Soldiers, Jingle All The Way, and a secret guilty pleasure of mine, Greedy.

When Hartman died suddenly in 1998 part of the sadness was that his roles were continually getting bigger, and in bigger films. It seemed like he was closing in on that film that you could show someone to make them love him after only one viewing. It was sad when Chris Farley died, but he was a star on his way down. Hartman was on his way up. It was too soon. I was curious to see what he might do when News Radio ended. I had heard he was going to have a regular voice on the then up-coming Futurama (the character of Zap Brannigan was created specifically for him). I wanted to see Hartman pop up in a serious film; I always thought he’d kill playing a desperate loser in a Tarantino film. Though I think his strike zone would always remain in supporting roles, I would have liked to see him headline a project. Really, I just would have liked to continue to see him period. But, as Mr. Vonnegut said, so it goes. We still got our memories.

Happy birthday, sir.

I leave you with these presents. One of my favorite Simpsons moments ever (which is saying something).

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And here’s one of my favorite Hartman SNL characters, one that I frankly always thought was too subtle for the program.

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“This way it won’t leak onto the other garbage.”

Maybe celebrate Hartman’s bday by buying his SNL Best Of DVD.