News Nostalgia: Let's Talk About The Death of Phil Hartman
May 28th, 1998 was a grim day for fans of comedy. While the deaths of Saturday Night Live alum are always sad, this one was more shocking than most – it wasn’t a personal addiction to drugs or an illness that killed Phil Hartman – it was his wife, Brynn.
Phil Hartman was born in 1948, and him and his family moved to the United States from Canada when he was ten years old. After college, Hartman joined the comedy group The Groundlings in 1975, which is where he met fellow comedian, and later Pee-Wee’s Playhouse co-star, Paul Reubens. From there, he went on to Saturday Night Live. Being a cast member for eight seasons, Hartman was known for his impressions, and ability to always keep a straight face on camera. In 1989, he even won an Emmy for his work on the show. After Saturday Night Live, he moved on to the sitcom NewsRadio, playing Bill McNeil.
Phil met Brynn (born Vicki Omdahl) on a blind date in 1987, after going through two divorces (he was married to Gretchen Lewis in the 70’s and Lisa Strain in the mid-80’s.) The pair had two children, Sean and Birgen, and seemed quite happy to those who surrounded them. However, Brynn – a former model who had tried to enter the acting world but wasn’t as successful as Phil – started using drugs again after a decade of sobriety, which caused a lot of trouble behind closed doors.
Brynn became jealous of Phil’s booming career, and Phil – while always the life of the party on camera – was sullen and withdrawn in his private life. Brynn had been in and out of rehab, but often didn’t stay longer than a few days. Besides alcohol, she also used cocaine, and was prescribed an antidepressant as well. The combination of the three often caused a very unstable reaction.
On the evening of May 27th, Brynn visited the Italian bistro Buca di Beppo with her friend Christine Zander, who was a supervising producer of the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. According to Zander, she seemed to be in a good frame of mind – while she had two drinks, it was over the course of two hours, and she didn’t discuss any marital difficulties during the meet-up.
When she got back, she reportedly had a heated argument with Phil about her drug use. Phil told her that if she kept on using, they’d have to end their marriage. “She had to get amped up to get his attention, and when she got amped up, he would simply go to sleep,” said Steven Small, a good friend of Phil’s. “He would withdraw. And in the morning he’d wake up, and everything would be fine.”
Unfortunately, Phil never woke up this time. Brynn shot him three times with a .38 caliber handgun. Afterward, she fled to the home of her friend Ron Douglas. While she confessed the murder to Ron, he didn’t believe her. Following her home, he witnessed the scene and immediately called 911.
Police quickly escorted their two frightened children out of the home, but heard the sound of yet another gun shot. Brynn had taken her own life.
The news of the murder-suicide shocked everyone – especially those unaware of the tumultuous relationship between Phil and Brynn. NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer stated that Hartman “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.” In 2007, Maxim magazine listed Phil as being the top Saturday Night Live performer of all time. Since Phil had such a history voicing numerous characters on The Simpsons, Matt Groening had chosen him to portray the character of Zapp Brannigan on Futurama. (Even though he already had the part, Phil insisted on auditioning for it.) Since he passed away prior to the show’s production, Groening honored him by naming the character of Philip J. Fry after him – and Billy West, who took on the vocal role of Zapp, tried to model his voice in the way he imagined Phil would.
Personally, Phil Hartman will always be a hero to me. He had a remarkable talent, and will always be a huge inspiration to up-and-coming comedians. It’s insane to think of how much bigger his career would have grown had it not been for this horrific event.
Do you remember hearing about Phil’s tragic death? What were some of your favorite Phil Hartman moments?