On this day in 1998, the comedian and actor Phil Hartman, famous for his work on Saturday Night Live and NewsRadio, is shot to death by his troubled wife, Brynn, in a murder-suicide. He was 49.
Born on September 24, 1948, in Ontario, Canada, Hartman was raised in Connecticut and Southern California, and later became an American citizen. Early on, he found work designing record album covers (he created the official logo for the rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) but made the leap to acting in 1975 when he joined the L.A. improvisational acting group, the Groundlings. With his fellow Groundlings alum, Paul Reubens, Hartman wrote the screenplay for the successful comedy Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Along with Reubens, Hartman had helped create the zany man-child character of Pee Wee Herman, though Reubens received most of the credit. From 1986 to 1990, Hartman portrayed Kap’n Karl on the Saturday morning children’s TV series Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
Also in 1986, Hartman earned a spot on the long-running NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. In his eight years on the show, Hartman became known for his spot-on impersonations of a variety of celebrities, notably President Bill Clinton. He also made frequent guest appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In 1989, Hartman shared an Emmy Award for his writing contributions to Saturday Night Live. He went on to set a record for the most appearances (153) as one of the show’s regulars.
Hartman joined the cast of the TV sitcom NewsRadio in 1995. He played the egotistical anchorman of an AM radio news station in New York City through four seasons of the show’s five-year run. The ensemble cast also included Dave Foley, Maura Tierney and Andy Dick. Hartman also notably provided the voices for a number of characters, including the has-been actor Troy McClure and the incompetent lawyer Lionel Hurtz, on the acclaimed animated series The Simpsons. In addition to his TV work as an actor and pitchman (for MCI, McDonald’s and Cheetos, among others), Hartman appeared on the big screen in Blind Date (1987), Jingle All the Way (1996) and Small Soldiers, released after his death.
Off-screen, Hartman was popular among his Hollywood colleagues and known for being completely different from some of the more unlikable characters he had portrayed. The murder-suicide, which shocked fans and friends alike, occurred early on the morning of May 28, 1998, at the couple’s home in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino. According to news reports, Brynn, Hartman’s third wife (two previous marriages ended in divorce) had a history of drug and alcohol problems. The couple had two children.