Comedy & Tragedy: Remembering SNL Legend Phil Hartman

Today, on what would have been Phil Hartman’s 66th birthday, Mike Thomas, author of the new biography "You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman," takes a look at who the funny man was when he wasn’t being Frank Sinatra, Bill Clinton, (name your favorite impression). . .
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Phil Hartman Photo

Phil Hartman as ladies man Bill Clinton on a 1998 episode of Saturday Night Live. (Photo by: Margaret C. Norton/NBCU Photo Bank).

In the 90s, Saturday Night Live star Phil Hartman made us laugh with his deadpan antics and dead-on celebrity impersonations of everyone from Barbara Bush to Frank Sinatra to Bill Clinton. He spent eight years at SNL and moved on to primetime as the pompous anchor on NewsRadio. But like so many masters of comedy, Hartman’s life came to a tragic end. In 1998, his third wife fatally shot him while he was sleeping and then shot herself. His life and career came to an abrupt, shocking stop, leaving us with the memories of how he made us laugh. 

Today, to remember Hartman on what would have been his 66th birthday, we caught up with Mike Thomas, author of the new biography You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, who shared some facts about the man of many voices and talents.

1. Although he loved comedy from an early age, Phil’s first showbiz job was in music.

While in his early 20s, Phil served as a roadie for the “psyche garage country rock” band Rockin Foo, helping them haul and set up equipment at gigs across the country. On one especially memorable night, he held a broken drum set in place onstage while Jimi Hendrix jammed just a few feet away.

History: America’s Greatest Hits Photo

2. Phil was also a respected graphic artist.

In the early 70s, after his roadie days were over, Phil landed a job with his brother John’s entertainment management firm, Hartmann & Goodman, on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. From 1973 to 1980, he created album art for such popular bands as Poco and America. The iconic covers of History: America’s Greatest Hits and Poco’s Legend are Phil’s handiwork.

3. Phil was a better-than-average surfer.

After falling in love with the sport in his early teens, Phil caught countless tasty waves up and down the California coast until his death in 1998. “Surfers always looked down on jocks because they were stupid enough to stay after school while we were at the beach,” Phil once said. He dug surfing’s philosophical underpinnings as well.

4. He was legendary for his versatility at Saturday Night Live and certain characters of his eventually caught fire, but Phil wasn’t always a standout star on the show.

During his early years at SNL, Phil was consistently low-ranked among his fellow cast members when it came to audience favorites. “If it had been up to America who was voted off the island,” former head writer Jim Downey says, “it would have easily been Phil.” (For those not aware of Hartman's talent, check out his  SNL audition tape.) 

5. Phil was a lawman. Sort of.

A resident of Encino since 1989, Phil was appointed honorary sheriff of the tony L.A. suburb in the early-to-mid 1990s. One of his celebrity predecessors in the post included none other than “the Duke,” John Wayne, of whom Phil did a killer impression — in German.

6. Among Phil’s favorite pastimes — which included guitar playing, painting, boating and cigar smoking — flying was his favorite.

After Phil bought his own prop plane in the mid-1990s, he frequently flew (often with a pal or two on board) back and forth to his favorite getaway, Catalina Island, not far off the Los Angeles County coast. Pal and SNL co-star Jon Lovitz once remarked that after Phil had been flying only a short time, he already seemed like “a veteran pilot of 20 years for United Airlines.” Another friend, Tracy Newman, agrees. “We could have been going down, dying,” she says, “and I still would have had confidence in him.” 

Phil Hartman Book Photo

Mike Thomas is a longtime arts and entertainment staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and the critically acclaimed oral history The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater. Throughout his two-decade-long career, he has interviewed numerous comics and comedic actors, including Louis C.K., George Carlin, Stephen Colbert, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart. Mike lives in Chicago with his wife and their two daughters.