The Enduring Legacy of Phil Hartman

As much as Phil Hartman’s work and influence lives on, the Ontario native has so far escaped the kind of mainstream legacy re-appraisal that so many other late standups and sketch players have enjoyed.

You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, which takes its name from the catchphrase of The Simpsons mainstay Troy McClure (voiced by Hartman), aims to right that. The long-overdue appreciation of Hartman’s genius, which will be published tomorrow by St. Martin’s Press, looks at the arc of his career – from his little-known stints as a rock ’n’ roll roadie and album-cover designer to his comedy work with the Groundlings and beyond – as well as the off-stage, off-camera details: Hartman smoking pot, surfing, writing poetry, laughing.

Given his tragic fate, it’s tempting to reduce Hartman’s personal legacy to a tortured artist with a smiling persona, a man who endured private agony and professional highs but never quite found his star vehicle – despite creating roles that no one else could fill on Saturday Night LiveThe Simpsons, and NewsRadio.

But author and Chicago Sun-Times journalist Mike Thomas paints a more symmetrical, often brightly-colored picture of Hartman’s life. His detailed, reporting-driven approach yields a less sexy but far richer portrait of this consummately professional comedian who improved the prospects of every sketch, sitcom, and series he touched.

Hartman, who was tragically shot to death by his coke-addled wife Brynn on May 27, 1998, would have been 66 years old this year, so I also picked Thomas’ brain about where he thought Hartman’s career was going, what he would have been like in 2014, and more.

This book draws from an impressive number of sources, but I’m curious: What was your own first exposure to Hartman?

Right when he came on Saturday Night Live. I started watching it in earnest in 1986 when I was 16 years old, and Phil had just joined the cast with Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks. He really revitalized that cast, and so for years after that I watched the show every single Saturday and never missed an episode. I don’t know if his name immediately stuck in my head, but as I saw him week after week after week I noticed him just getting better and better.

I imagine that was the case with a lot of viewers, that their appreciation of him grew as Hartman himself grew as a performer.

I appreciated him even more when I got a little older and he began the tail end of his SNL career and it went into NewsRadio. After he died it only intensified. But yeah, as they often said about him on SNL, he was always “the glue.” Regardless of whatever sketch he starred in, he never sucked. He never broke character. It didn’t matter how small the part was, he always gave it 1,000 percent. His commitment was incredible and that’s part of what so many people latched onto.

It’s odd to me that there isn’t another Phil Hartman biography out there already, though to be fair you did work on this book for three years. How did you know when you were finished?

I think the first correspondence with Phil’s oldest brother John was at the end of 2010, and he basically said “Go for it.” That started the ball rolling, but these things are very incremental. You talk to one person and they suggest someone else to talk to, and eventually people open up and can trust you a bit more. So it took a couple solid years of reporting, and I knew I was done because at a certain point I had to start writing and I wanted it to come out in the fall of 2014. We didn’t know yet that he was getting his star (on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which Hartman received on Aug. 26) so we thought, “Maybe the 40th anniversary of SNL?” But we didn’t want to let it linger and thought it was better to put it out sooner than later.

Especially in light of Robin Williams’ recent death, so many people try to reconcile comedians with their tragic circumstances. Did you engage in any of that while writing this book?

Phil and Robin both met tragic ends, but Phil was not like Robin Williams. As far as I could tell he had attained an attitude of gratitude. He was a pretty sunny guy. He could become melancholy once in a while, but I never got the sense that he struggled with the demons that Robin did. And as shocking as Robin’s death was and is, Phil’s was shocking because it came from the outside. It was so stunning and sudden and so unexpected. Not that Robin’s death was expected, but you see people talking about the demons that Robin struggled with as playing a part in what happened. When Phil died, it was just that he was here one day and gone the next. People were just left to deal with it while their jaws were still on the floor.

You do a nice job of alternating between writing about his last days and writing chronologically about his overall personal and professional life. What was the biggest challenge in trying to format his story?

The challenge was that everybody knows what’s going to happen at the end, so there had to be foreshadowing and little hints throughout without smacking people over the head about it. And as I talked to people they’d tell me these things, like Britt (Marin, a friend of Hartman’s) told me about his car trip with Phil the day before he died where Phil said, “What makes you think you’re going to die before me?” But there were other things, like once his brother recalled going to a tarot card reader with Phil and she had said, “One of you guys is going to die before your time.” That was in the ’70s, so I tried to include some of that stuff in there. It was a matter of keeping the story going from a style standpoint, since everybody knows what’s going to happen. But what I wanted to stress was Phil’s life, not his death, because it’s long been overshadowed by the tragedy in May of 1998. What I tried to do was focus on everything leading up to that and after that, and then portray his humanity throughout.

I have to ask about that Julia Sweeney quote in the book, where she says she empathized with Hartman’s murderer and third wife Brynn, and thought it was brave of her to kill herself. That’s quite a quote.

She was very definite on that and it wasn’t something she hedged on. I don’t know if anyone smacked me in the face for any of the questions I asked, but there’s still a lot of sadness about him. It’s almost like people in a way are still grieving. And I really appreciate that they would go back and relive that horrible time for me. A lot of people didn’t look back with rose-colored glasses. They had good emotional memories but in terms of remembering the details, they were pretty honest.

What makes you the guy to write this book? Did you ever interview or meet Hartman?

I never met him, although I would have loved to. I had admired him for 20 years. He was one of those solid guys. I had watched all of his shows and I appreciated him as both a human being and as a comedian. I like him a lot. I think when you’re going to write about somebody and sort of live with them for three years, you really have to like them, and I found myself liking him more and more. He was a very generous person and a very peaceful guy. He wasn’t jealous. He wasn’t a backstabber. He paid it forward. He had an attitude of gratitude, as I mentioned. He seemed to really appreciate the life that he had. I had only known him as a comedic performer before and I came to appreciate that even more as I learned about him as a human being. As far as being the guy to write it? I just love comedy and for some reason I latched onto his personality. He had never had a book written about him and there were still some mysterious circumstances around his death, with a lot of two-dimensional reporting about it, so thought I could address that and then write about his life, primarily.

Is it possible sum up what made him such as rock-solid performer? The range of his roles, from Pee Wee’s Playhouse to The Simpsons, is crazy impressive, but there’s always this through-line and consistency with each of them.

In one word it was commitment. A lot of his Groundlings mates talked about how committed he was on stage, whether his character was a shirtless guy with flashing lights around his waist and a visor on his head, or Chick Hazard, private detective. Jan Hooks said that no matter what he played, he played it for blood, which is why they used him for so many sketches on SNL. He never played a throwaway character, and a huge part of his allure was that commitment. It obviously also has something to do with his knack for impressions and the tone of his voice.

Right. He set the modern comedy standard for playing hosts, announcers, and other smarmy showbiz characters.

But he was never caricature-y. He always tried to play it real. His Sinatra had a realism about him. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer – he’s not acting like some moron caveman. He just looks like a caveman, but he’s a brilliant shyster.

It’s hard to imagine people like Chris Parnell or Will Ferrell without Phil Hartman, who defined that sort of game show-host absurdity that can turn on a dime and mutate into rage or surreal humor. Along those lines, do you have a favorite character of his?

It’s probably a tie between Troy McClure on The Simpsons and Keyrock the Unfrozen Cavemen Lawyer, which was just such an original character, written by Jack Handy of course. But Phil played it perfectly, and Troy’s just the perfect mix of utter stupidity and overconfidence rendered in the perfect voice. Phil loved to play assholes, but his humanity showed through. It was always palpable underneath, whomever he was playing, whether it was Keyrock or Evil Reagan or Troy.

Is there a contemporary equivalent of him?

I think Stephen Colbert has the same quality. He’s played his (Colbert Report) character brilliantly for something like nine years now. But I think it’s in part because the real Stephen is a stand-up guy.

How do you feel about him after the book versus when you started it?

I appreciate his work even more because I was able to scrutinize it day after day after day. It’s a testament to his work that I never really got sick of watching it and was amused the entire time. I mean, all those Simspons episodes, the NewsRadio episodes, the bit parts he had in commercials – I was never bored.

Why wasn’t he more famous during his last few years?

My theory is that it’s because he had taken so many ensemble roles. For example, on SNL he had a couple breakout characters but the big ones were impressions, like Bill Clinton. He didn’t have a Church Lady like Dana Carvey or a Wayne like Mike Meyers, so he was never really able to break out there. And The Simpsons, that was cake for him.

How so?

He loved it. It was his favorite show to do. But again, he was part of huge cast. As much as people loved Troy McClure there were tons of other characters on there. He was trying to be a star, however. He had a variety show after he left SNL, but NBC ended up getting cold feet. Still, he got onto NewsRadio. So I wonder if he just didn’t have the vehicle to make him a breakout star. It was the blessing and the curse of being so good in ensembles.

To your point about playing assholes with humanity, there’s that Simpsons episode where Troy McClure marries Selma just to further his career, and yet the viewer ends up feeling kind of sorry for him.

The Simpsons writers and cast considered him an unofficial member of the staff. They just loved him so much.

If I could indulge in some speculation, what do you think he would be doing today if he was around? He died right when the Internet was rising to prominence, which I think is interesting.

He was a total gadget-head and had lots of computers, so I think he’d be big on Twitter. He probably would have found some leading-man movie roles. I don’t think he was there yet when he died. He hadn’t really found a film that suited him perfectly. He had some decent ones as a co-star, but I think he’d be a marquee guy if he had the right script. And I think he could have done more dramatic stuff, too. I think he would have broken out of that smarmy-announcer role in his 50s and 60s. He was getting pigeonholed by that. He played so many stentorian figures like presidents, teachers, and lawyers, and maybe he would have eventually gone on to something farther afield.

Do you think he lacked ambition?

Phil was ambitious in a way, but again he wasn’t. In an ensemble show he always said that if a show tanked, it wasn’t on him. Phil loved to earn money and act, but he also loved his leisure time, and Jim Downey talks about that (in the book). He didn’t live to work, he worked to live, even though he did love his work. He also loved being on his boat, flying his plane, and just chilling out. It didn’t seem to have consumed him.

What do you hope people take from the book overall?

I just hope this gives them an in-depth look at Phil and the people in his life because like I said, even though his death is a part of this book, it’s done him a disservice by overshadowing everything else in his life – and it was a colorful one. He lived in so many different realms from the surfer dude to the graphic designer to the rock hippie and screenwriter. He was complex emotionally, too, even though he didn’t wear it on his sleeve. So I hope all of that comes out.

This could be The Year of Phil!

I hope this is year of Phil. He’s getting his Canadian star, and he got his Hollywood Walk of Fame star, and then this book will come out. But he’s got his hardcore fans. I’m still amazed by the Phil fans because they’re so intense. They still mourn his loss and celebrate his life. That’s been the most astounding thing to me in going through all this, just realizing the intensity of love that’s out there for this guy.

The Enduring Legacy of Phil Hartman