Books

What Happened on the Night When Phil Hartman Tragically Died

A new book tells the story of the 'Saturday Night Live' genius, including his shocking death at the hands of his wife.

The following is an excerpt from MIke Thomas' new book, You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman (St. Martin's Press, 2014).  This excerpt was first published in Salon and is reprinted here with permission.

In almost all respects, Phil Hartman was incredibly successful. A standout star on NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" and "NewsRadio," and a popular voice-over artist on Fox’s "The Simpsons," he was beloved by millions worldwide. But when it came to marriage, Phil faltered — though not for lack of trying. Famously, his wounded third union, to the increasingly troubled Brynn Omdahl, ended in tragedy when Brynn shot Phil and then herself in the early morning hours of May 28, 1998. And while it is by no means the defining moment of Phil’s colorful life, his shocking death still resonates deeply with family, friends and fans. Until now, however, little was known about what really happened. Here, more than 16 years after Phil’s passing, is the most complete account ever of that fateful night.

May 28, 1998—early morning

According to police, the most likely scenario for what then transpired is this: sometime in the next couple of hours, as Phil sleeps with his bent right leg exposed atop the sheet and cover and his left arm extended straight out beneath him, Brynn enters the master bathroom suite. There, on a closet shelf, is the metal lockbox in which she and Phil keep their firearms and gun supplies. Extracting his Smith & Wesson .38, she returns to where her husband lies. From her side of the bed, she takes aim and fires the first shot. A second and a third follow. One strikes the right side of Phil’s neck, just lateral to his chin. Another enters through his posterior right forearm, exits out the anterior, and re-enters his right lower chest. Both are fired from no more than eighteen inches away, the latter causing a fatal wound. The most damaging shot, also fatal, is fired at point-blank or nearly point-blank range and enters just above the bridge of Phil’s nose, passing through his skull and brain before it comes to rest. Death is quick, perhaps instantaneous. Incongruously, he seems to be smiling, as if in the middle of a sweet dream.

An hour or so later, probably after drinking more alcohol and possibly after snorting cocaine (though she may have done so earlier), Brynn phones her longtime friend Ron Douglas, who lives in nearby Studio City. It is 3:25 a.m. She tells him Phil isn’t home, but that he left a note: “I’m going out for the night. I’ll be back—Phil. Love you.” Brynn doesn’t want to be alone, she tells Douglas, who dismisses the idea of her returning to his house. It’s too late, he says, and she can’t leave her kids unsupervised. Drink a glass of milk, he advises, take some aspirin, and go back to sleep. Irritated, he tries to do likewise.

Twenty minutes later Douglas hears his doorbell ringing repeatedly, along with banging on his front door. Still aggravated and now bleary-eyed, he walks downstairs and peers out the window. Brynn is outside in a long-sleeved pullover T-shirt, white pajama bottoms, and light-colored argyle socks—no shoes. Her hair is still down, long and straight, and she clutches her Prada purse. When Douglas opens the door to ask her what’s going on, he catches a strong whiff of alcohol on her breath. She’s drunk—he can tell. And Douglas is angry—she can tell. “Don’t yell at me!” Brynn says on her way inside. “Phil yells at me all the time.”

Stumbling into Douglas’s house, Brynn attempts to sit on the living room sofa but slides off onto the floor. Crying, she blurts out something about having killed Phil. Douglas thinks little of the hysterical statement, assuming she and Phil merely had another fight. Besides, Brynn is obviously inebriated. Still on the floor, she looks as though she is nodding off. Douglas tells her she smells like a brewery and chastises her again. Brynn says her stomach hurts, that she’s sick, and passes out. Guessing she might have taken an overdose of pills, Douglas wakes her. When he does, she runs to the bathroom and vomits. This happens several times: nod off, run to the bathroom, vomit. Douglas decides he should keep her awake until she sobers up. To that end, he serves her water and hot tea.

Book cover of "You Might Remember Me"
Photo Credit: 
St. Martin's Press
At Brynn’s requests, Douglas calls the Hartman home several times. There is never an answer and he leaves no messages. During one of his calls, Brynn starts to root around in her purse. For what, she does not say. Then it tumbles out onto the floor: the Smith & Wesson .38. Douglas is incredulous, asks her what she’s doing with it. Brynn picks it up and doesn’t respond. Give it to me, he demands, and Brynn complies. Upon opening the gun’s cylinder and spinning it around, he sees what appear to be all six cartridges in their chambers. Which means, he assumes, that no bullets have left their berths. A feeling of mild relief sweeps over him and he stashes the piece in a kitchen drawer. “See?” Brynn says. “I told you I killed Phil!” Douglas remains doubtful.

A little before six a.m., not long before her kids usually awaken and after two and a half tortured hours at Douglas’s house, Brynn finally seems sober enough to drive home. But she agrees to do so only if Douglas follows her back. He should bring the gun, too, she tells him. Fetching it from the drawer and checking its cylinder again while staring down the barrel, Douglas notices something he hadn’t before: two of the bullets are missing. (In fact, as he’ll later learn, three are gone.) Hoping Brynn might only have fired warning shots into the air, he puts the gun inside a tan plastic SAV-ON shopping bag and rushes out behind his frantic friend. He doesn’t want to, but feels he has to. Placing the concealed weapon in his trunk, he gets behind the wheel of his black Lincoln Town Car and starts the engine.

Around six a.m., as Douglas tails Brynn back to Encino, she phones her good friend Judy. “Oh, God!” Brynn exclaims when Judy answers. “I think I killed Phil!” Hysterical and sobbing, she is speeding and driving erratically; traffic laws mean little. She blows red tri-light signals at two intersections.

“Where are you?” Judy asks.

“I don’t know!” Brynn replies. “I don’t know!” “My life is over!”

Trying to pinpoint her location, Judy asks Brynn to read off a couple of street signs. Sepulveda and Ventura, Brynn tells her. She is close to home. Judy hangs up, gets dressed, and drives over to 5065 Encino Avenue.

Minutes later Brynn arrives there and pulls into the garage. Douglas finds a street spot nearby. He retrieves the .38 from his trunk and follows Brynn through the garage entrance. Once inside, he trails her down a long hallway to the master bedroom at the north end. Peering in, he sees Phil’s motionless body on the bed and soon notices the bullet wound in his head.

“Oh, my God, he’s dead!” Brynn screams. “I told you I did! I told you I did! I killed him! I killed him! I don’t know why!”

Douglas just stands there for a moment, the horror before him sinking in. Things seem to be moving in slow motion. Out of her mind with grief and panic, Brynn makes another call—to her friends Steve and Marcy. She tells Steve what she told Douglas and Judy: “I killed Phil!” Steve tells Marcy. They, too, drive over from their house just three blocks away.

Now Douglas is in the hallway outside the master bedroom. There is a phone nearby. He picks up the receiver and dials 9-1-1.

Police dispatcher: Emergency operator 614.

Douglas: Yeah, hi, this is 5065 Encino Boulevard. And, um, I was called over to the residence. I think there’s been a shooting here. (Douglas speaks in an unsteady monotone.)

Police dispatcher: OK, do you see a victim?

Douglas: Yes.

Police dispatcher: OK, hold on for the paramedics, OK? One moment.

Douglas: OK.

Police dispatcher: I want you to stay on the line.

Douglas: OK.

Fire dispatcher: Fire Department emergency operator, how may I help you?

Douglas: Yeah, hi, there’s been a shooting at 5065 Encino Boulevard.

Fire dispatcher: How many people are shot?

Douglas: Just one, and um . . .

Fire dispatcher: Do you know what part of the body? Douglas: I think around the head and the neck. I just got here.

Fire dispatcher: The person who shot him, is he still around? Douglas: Yeah, she’s his wife.

Fire dispatcher: [T]he wife shot him and they’re both there? Douglas: Yeah.

Fire dispatcher: Is she hurt at all?

Douglas: I’m not sure. I’m trying to calm her down. OK?

(The police dispatcher comes back on the line.)

Police dispatcher: Hello, sir?

Douglas: Yeah.

Police dispatcher: Did, uh, was this on purpose or was this an accident or what, sir? Do you know what happened?

Douglas: I have no idea . . . She was drunk. She said she killed her husband and I didn’t believe her.

Police dispatcher: OK, are they both there right now?

Douglas: You’re right. Now, can you trace this address because I’m not sure?

Police dispatcher: All right, where’s the weapon now? Douglas: It’s in my hand because, um, she brought it to my house.

Police dispatcher: What’s your name, sir?

Douglas: My name’s Ron, Ron Douglas.

Police dispatcher: All right, sir, we’re going to get the officers on the way.

While Douglas is on the phone, Brynn closes her bedroom’s double doors and locks them. Douglas tries to get in but cannot. He is still holding Brynn’s bagged gun and wants nothing more than to escape this nightmare. Unfortunately, the front door dead bolt is locked and he can’t find a key. Brynn continues to wail.

Apoplectic in her shattered state, at 6:21 a.m. she calls her sister Kathy in Wisconsin. First she tries Kathy at home, but there is no answer, so Brynn dials her work number. Kathy’s assistant answers, senses that something is deeply wrong, and immediately alerts her boss. Kathy comes on the line.

“Phil is dead!” Brynn says.

“What do you mean, Phil’s dead?” Kathy wonders aloud. “What happened?”

Brynn is unable to speak. Kathy tells her to take a breath.

“I don’t know!” Brynn exclaims. “I’m sick! I don’t remember!” Then: “Tell the children that I love them.”

“I know you love them,” Kathy says, and asks if Brynn called 9-1-1. The answer is unclear. Distraught like Kathy has never heard her before, Brynn emits a series of bone-chilling shrieks.

When she calms down enough to speak, Brynn mentions that she called Marcy and Ron. She also tells Kathy about Douglas.

“You mean Ronald McDonald?” Kathy asks, using a nickname Brynn bestowed upon him long ago.

Yes, Brynn tells her. Ronald McDonald.

Kathy asks if anyone else is in the house. She needs to talk with someone besides Brynn to better assess the situation and to make sure Sean and Birgen are looked after. Brynn’s crying and screaming persist. Then she says, “I’ve got to go. I gotta go,” and hangs up.

*

At 6:32, Brynn’s bedroom phone rings. She answers: “Hello?” “Hi, this is the police department, um, is Ronnie home?”

“Yes,” Brynn says, “come in.”

“Ma’am?”

“Yes?”

“Is there someone who’s been shot there?”

“Yes.”

“How many people are inside the house?”

“Help me.”

Crying, Brynn hangs up.

The police call back.

“Ma’am?”

“Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?”

“Ma’am, how many people are inside the house right now?” “I don’t know.”

“OK, thank you.”

This time the police disconnect.

*

Parking on Encino Boulevard near the Hartmans’ front gate, Marcy rings the buzzer a few times but gets no response, so she tries calling Brynn with her cell phone.

Brynn answers: “Hello?”

“It’s Marcy. Open the gate.”

“Over the gate,” Brynn says in a panicked tone. “Over the gate.” The call ends.

Steve succeeds in opening the gate latch. He and Marcy walk up to the front door, through which they can hear a woman screaming. Inside, wanting desperately to split the scene, Douglas keeps searching in vain for a key. As he does, Steve and Marcy see him through a window. He stares at them and they at him—strangers.

“Who are you?” Marcy asks from outside.

“Ronnie.”

“Let us in.”

“I can’t open it,” Douglas tells them. “It’s a dead bolt. I need a key.”

“Get it from Brynn,” Marcy says.

“No,” Douglas replies. “I can’t. Is there another way in?”

Marcy looks behind her and sees that police have arrived. One of the uniformed officers motions to them. She and Steve retreat from the house.

*

Probably rousted by the ruckus, nine-year-old Sean makes his way to where Douglas is standing. (He will later recall that Douglas got him from his bedroom.) They have to get out of there, Douglas says. Fortunately, Sean knows where his parents keep a key for the back door. He retrieves it and they exit. Toting the gun bag in one hand, Douglas ushers the boy outside toward the rear gate and hands over Brynn’s weapon to a couple of waiting officers from the LAPD’s West Valley division. Sean is placed in their protective custody. Douglas also gives the officers a quick rundown of events and informs them that six-year-old Birgen remains inside, possibly asleep.

Once Douglas and Sean are out, several officers make their way into the house through the open west center door. They pass through the kitchen and into the hallway that leads to the bedrooms. Two officers crouch down on opposite sides of the hall. Three more get into similar “positions of advantage,” focusing their attention on the home’s north side, where the master bedroom is. From behind its doors they can hear a female’s moaning and muffled screams.

Brynn is again on the phone with Kathy.

“Take care of my children,” she tells her sister.

Kathy asks what Brynn means.

“Just let them know how much I love them,” Brynn says, inconsolable and sobbing. “Tell Mom . . .”

She cuts her sentence short as officers announce their presence.

One of them calls her by name: “Brynn!”

“I gotta go,” Brynn tells Kathy for the second time, and hangs up.

From Wisconsin, Kathy’s husband Mike calls Los Angeles 9-1-1. He is told that officers have already been dispatched to the Hartman house.

Brynn is done making calls.

Settling into her king-sized bed with Phil’s body, she props herself up against the headboard with a pillow. In her right hand is the Charter Arms .38-caliber five-shooter she has owned for years and fired countless times. Inserting its two-inch barrel into her mouth, she squeezes the trigger. A fatal bullet passes through her brain and lodges in the headboard. Her head slumps toward Phil and her shooting hand drops to the right, almost touching him. Her index finger is still on the trigger.

Although one of the responding officers hears a single gunshot emanate from the master bedroom at around 6:38 a.m., he cannot be sure of its origin or target. The response team, therefore, proceeds to clear the other bedrooms, including Birgen’s. Once she is taken from the home and handed off to a female officer who carries her to safety, officers devise a diversionary tactic in order to extricate Brynn with as little risk as possible to her, Phil (whose precise condition at this juncture is unknown to anyone but Brynn), or themselves. It proceeds as follows: Two officers leave the residence and set up outside Brynn’s bedroom window. Its curtains are drawn. “Los Angeles Police Department! Come out with your hands up!” the lead officer, Sergeant Daniel Carnahan, shouts two or three times. There is no response. Using a found brick, one officer hurls it through the glass while simultaneously, inside the house, another forces entry into the bedroom. He is accompanied by uniformed backups.

They encounter a grisly scene. Phil and Brynn are both dead—that much is quickly ascertained. But no one knows why. Outside, just beyond the crime scene perimeter, concerned neighbors mill about worriedly. As media outlets get wind of the developing story, an onslaught commences.

Mike Thomas is a longtime arts and entertainment staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the critically acclaimed oral history The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.

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