Phil Hartman September 24, 1948-May 28, 1998
“I benefit from the Mr. Potato Head syndrome. Put a wig and a nose and glasses on me, and I disappear.”
I know that this has been a long time in coming. I wasn’t really ready to write an obituary for Phil Hartman. Who was? Especially to write it the way life wrote it. He was in the prime of his career, the prime of his life. Nothing was stopping him from having a break-through role to make him a bona-fide star. I guess that’s what we all hoped.
After watching the tribute that Saturday Night Live did for him (some parts I had to watch twice) it really hit me what we had lost. This man was an amazing talent. He could do impressions of virtually anyone: from Frank Sinatra (a tribute I don’t feel qualified to write–I became a fan about a month before his death) to Bill Clinton to Bing Crosby to Barbara Bush.
It’s really hard to write a tribute to someone who you never really saw. He was a chameleon. I don’t really know that any of his characters touched what his friends and co-stars say he really was. They say he was a very warm and caring man who kept things together on the sets he was on. His nick-name around SNL was “The Glue.” However, most of his characters were almost the exact opposite. They were typically used car salesman slimy, insincere and self-centered. For some reason, though, you couldn’t wait for them to come back. He brought a warmth to the characters.
I guess we could go through some highlights of his career. One of the earliest jobs that I’ve heard about that he had was designing album covers for the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Poco, America and Steely Dan. The last I’m not too sure about. The IMdB says that he painted the picture on the cover of Aja, but, unless he changed his name to Patricia Mitsui, Geoff Westen or Hideki Fuji and somehow figured out how to paint a photograph, I don’t think this album is among his credits. It wouldn’t surprise me if he changed his name for it, though.
Then it was onto the Groundlings, the spawning ground for many talented and famous comedians, including Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz and Julia Sweeney. There he met Paul Ruebens, better known as Pee-Wee Herman. They became friends and co-wrote Pee-Wee’s first big screen adventure. Phil also appeared on his show as Kap’n Karl.
Then his world changed. He became a cast member of Saturday Night Live in 1986 and became one of the longest running actors on the show. He was one of the few consistently funny people to grace the NBC stage. Oh, he had his bombs. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer doesn’t hold up too well. One of the last sketches they showed tonight (with Candice Bergen as a queen and Phil as a messenger of her death) dragged on for a little too long. It would have been much funnier with an English accent. But, for the most part, he scored. He could outdo anyone at a Clinton impersonation. His aggressive Reagan was hilarious. (He only comes out when the cameras aren’t around.) And who could forget Frankenstein? I almost wish he had gotten a chance to play the character in a movie. (Not one based on the skit, but a real Frankenstein movie. He would have been perfect.) The main skit that I always think of is the one where he plays Ross Perot’s running mate (I can’t remember his name now). All he seems to be able to do is shout lines from his debate. For weeks after it first aired my friends and I would walk around the high school shouting “GRIDLOCK!!!”
But, I guess it’s the little things that I’ll remember Phil Hartman for. His scene in So I Married An Axe Murderer was great. “But everyone around here just calls me Vicky.” His role in Greedy as the yuppie relative who would do anything for Kirk Douglas’s money. “It’s a fucking catastrophe.” And, of course, Troy McClure, B-movie actor extraordinairre from The Simpsons. It was always a comfort to hear Phil’s voice coming from Troy’s mouth. The voice seemed so at home there.
“News Radio” was his last real ongoing project. I didn’t watch it as much as I wanted to, being a fan of Phil and Dave Foley, but the episodes I did see were much funnier because of Phil. His sarcastic delivery was perfect for the character of Bill McNeal, the slightly off-kilter conservative radio show host.
His last movie, Small Soldiers, will be released soon. When I first heard about it I thought it would be terrible. A bunch of toys on the loose blowing stuff up. Sounds like Child’s Play. Then I found out that Phil would be in it. I immediately knew that it would be ok. He always brought an air of dignity to even the worst movies. There was always him to look forward to and he always delivered.
I’m not really sure how to end this. As I said, it’s hard to write a tribute to someone we could never really know. Maybe that’s a tribute in itself. He was, at the heart of it all, an impressionist. If we had gotten a look at the real Phil Hartman I guess he wouldn’t have been doing his job. We’ve lost a great talent and a better man. SNL has been somewhat plagued with bad luck. All of the people from the show who die are taken from us much too early and at the height of their popularity. It seems like it’s bad luck to become really popular from the show. Who would see something like this coming? How do you prepare for it?
I guess there’s no way to. We just have to keep on going and remember them for what they were and not what they could have been. Phil deserved better than what he got, but we don’t make the decisions.
Goodbye, Phil. You will be sorely missed. geovisit();