The Toxic Marriage That Killed Comedy Legend Phil Hartmann
If you grew up watching “SNL” or “The Simpsons,” you surely have many fond memories of Phil Hartman, the versatile character actor who played the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Bill Clinton, and voiced Troy McClure in the 1980s and 1990s. What makes every memory so bittersweet is knowing that Phil died tragically young at 49, in one of the worst ways imaginable: at the hands of his wife, Brynn, in a gruesome murder-suicide.
Hang on to all of those memories, then put them aside and read Mike Thomas’ biography,“You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman.” In Thomas’ biography, based on news stories, show archives and interviews with Hartman’s closest family members, friends, co-workers, Thomas illuminates the private life of one of the greatest character actors of his generation. In doing so, it becomes apparent that all these years, we mistook Phil Hartman’s ubiquitousness for accessibility. Behind his sunny disposition and his easygoing demeanor lay a much more serious, distant and enigmatic person that few people ever saw.
Thomas, a longtime arts and entertainment writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of Second City oral history “The Second City Unscripted,” has been piecing together the short life of the beloved comedian for nearly three years. In doing so, he seemed to earn the trust and appreciation of the Hartmann family.
The book fleshes out the private life of Hartman (who changed the spelling of his name to be more showbiz friendly), offering surprising details about Phil’s neglected childhood (he was the middle child with seven other siblings, one of whom was very ill), his rising popularity in high school due to good looks, intelligence and an uncanny ability to impersonate virtually any star. In the days before “SNL,” and even L.A.’s Groundlings theater, he was a successful artist and graphic designer who spent his days surfing, getting high and falling in and out of love. He eventually became “the Glue” that held “SNL” together, Thomas reveals, but he was always more comfortable playing a character than being himself. His withdrawn personality made romantic relationships difficult.
Thomas, a Hartman fan since childhood, recently talked to Salon about writing the biography, Phil’s legacy, and the horrific way he died.
Tell me how you got involved with this biography.
I got an email from a comic friend of mine in Chicago here. And he knew I had been fishing around for subjects to follow up my last book, which was on “Second City,” and I wanted to stay in the comedy realm and he suggested Phil Hartman because he hasn’t written anything about him. I immediately got back to him and said, “That’s a genius idea!” because I loved Phil.
When Phil joined the cast in ’86, that’s when I began watching “SNL” intensely every single week. So that’s my cast — him and Dana [Carvey], Victoria [Jackson] and Jan [Hooks]. So I was intimately familiar with his work. I knew stuff about his death, obviously, from all those writings and broadcasts that came out after that. I didn’t know much about his life, though.
I decided to explore all the in-between stuff and I ended up reaching out to his older brother, John, kind of the family patriarch. John basically gave me the blessing. He couldn’t participate at that point. He ultimately came on board in a big way, but at that point he said, “Go for it.” And that opened doors: Phil’s younger brother, close friends, eventually came on, colleagues … it’s an incremental process, especially with a subject that is still this sensitive because of the way Phil died. But eventually I was just stunned with how many people came on board and how many people shared their true emotions; they put themselves back in that period and told me exactly what they were thinking when they were thinking it.
I was actually really surprised by some of the candor, specifically Julia Sweeney’s comments about Brynn at the end surprised me. What did you make of that?
Yeah. You’re not the only one. Many people pointed that out. She did not mince words.
She was very direct as to what she felt, and my job is not to parse that stuff. It’s sort of to put it out there. Those are her true feelings. I wouldn’t say I was stunned. I would say, as a journalist, I was very appreciative of her forthrightness and the boldness of her statements because some people will hedge and she didn’t at all. Obviously she’s not an apologist for Brynn — that’s the way she felt — but she said what she did was horrible and it was entirely her fault. But she also gave another piece of her thoughts on that.
What surprised you the most in all of your research?
You know, what delighted me was, for one, the love that people still have for Phil. I had no idea it was as intense as it is. If you surf around, if you talk to people, there’s still this intense emotional attachment to him.
It’s partly because of the way he died, because he was in his prime. But I have to also think it has a lot to do with who he was when he lived. He was a decent, generous guy — he had his faults like anyone else — but I think people sensed that through the characters he played, many of whom were schmucks, by the way. But I think this sort of decency and humanity showed through that people latched onto.
I also thought it was really cool to read about the real Phil, who was more of a hippie than anything else. He loved to surf, he loved to hang out on the beach of Catalina, smoke pot. He was not the characters he played, a lot of whom tended to be more straight-laced, stick-in-the-mud boss-like figures.
I was really fascinated by the contradictions in him. I almost feel like I understand him less now — or at least that my original perceptions were off. He understood character motivations and intentions so well, but he didn’t really seem to understand people nearly as well. That sort of baffles me. That he could play anyone, but he didn’t really know how to just be himself.
I get what you’re saying. Yeah. I think that’s a conundrum that a lot of performers have. They’re more comfortable in someone else’s skin than they are in their own.
In writing about a lot of performers over the years, their comfort zone is onstage and I think they’re very, very extroverted up there. But offstage a lot of them tend to be introverts. And especially guys like Phil, he was an artist too. So he spent a lot of time alone early on before he started the acting thing. He was a very contemplative guy.
A lot of comedy folks in general are not, at least in my experience, the life of the party offstage. They can be quiet. They can be contemplative. They can be sullen. And Phil, you’re right, didn’t have that connection with some of the key people he should have been connected with — his wife, in particular, emotionally.
And he seemed to be most connected when he was dispensing advice and that worked great at “SNL,” as we learned he’s The Glue, but in other relationships it sort of had the opposite effect. Like: Brynn said that he’s not a good listener.
Yeah. I think especially with the women in his life. With the guys it was an easier dynamic. At least, that’s the sense I got.
It also seemed very specific. He connected emotionally with women once there wasn’t sexual tension with them, like Julia Sweeney or like his ex-wife, Lisa, in later years.
I think you’re right. His relationships would always start out very intensely — intense emotionality, sexuality — and then they would inevitably peter out. I mean, with Phil, he was always on the hunt for the new, the fresh, and he had an eye for, he had an artist’s eye for, beauty. Some friend of his, I can’t remember who it was, said Phil was infatuated by beauty [as a teenager, Phil’s friend Kathy observed that he wanted “perfection,” and later in his life, Sweeney commented that he was attracted to Brynn for her beauty, and missed that she was an "interesting person"]. And so I think he was always sort of, in a way, looking for the next best thing. If he would get sort of tired of the relationship he was in and pull away and it would die and he would move on.
That was one of the questions I had about his relationship with Brynn. It seemed like when things stopped working out in his previous relationships, the two people parted amicably. But as I kept turning the pages I saw so many signs that this relationship is toxic and damaged. Why didn’t it end?
Yeah. I guess theories are really the best I can offer. I’ve talked to friends of his about this. I think first of all he stayed — and I think he knew this — he stayed too long in the marriage. But he loved his kids intensely and he didn’t want a third divorce to split the family apart. So that was a huge part of it. He also didn’t want to be a three-time loser in marriage. He really wanted to stick this out. He was trying to work it out. He just didn’t know quite how, especially when it came to Brynn’s addictions.
What were some of the biggest challenges of putting this together?
Well, just from a time perspective, I had to juggle a full-time newspaper job and writing a book. So it took evenings and every weekend and every holiday and every vacation day. I think I took a couple days off at Christmas one year. So that was a challenge. And just, logistically, there’s so much material and even when you think you’re ready to write, there’s always more coming in as you know. So I would be at a point where I would say, “OK, I’m ready.” And then more stuff would come in and I’d wade in it as I was writing.
I would say also, as I said before, people’s emotions were still, in a lot of cases, “raw,” but they’re still very affected by Phil’s murder. So there were a lot of different emotions to juggle. But ultimately people were phenomenal and came on board in a big way. I was very fortunate.
I was surprised by how much access you got and how easily this idea was approved by the family. Was it because they were ready to talk?
I think enough time had passed.
I like to think it’s because they came to trust me. I didn’t come at this with any other motive than telling Phil’s life story. I thought his life had been overshadowed by his death for so long that it was time to tell people who he really was and I thought people would really appreciate it. Of course, you have to include the darker death stuff in the book. But that’s only a small part of it. So I like to think that they knew that was my motivation and his brothers in particular were just a huge help in all of this just with memories and recordings they had and context. So I was very grateful for that generosity.
Do they feel like you’ve done Phil’s life story justice?
I have been stunned by the feedback I’ve gotten. Not only from his brothers, but from close friends — I mean, they just keep coming in — from colleagues just telling me they felt like they had been transported back sort of in time and were grateful to remember Phil as he was and they felt it was great tribute and accurate and insightful. I was floored by the feedback.
Yeah, really. Because it does include a lot of the stuff that’s hard to read. You never know how people are going to react because I did a lot of research for this and people never quite know what you’re going to come up with.
You joined one of Phil’s friends to help spread his ashes, which I imagine is a pretty rare honor for a journalist who hasn’t actually met his subject.
It was really a tremendous honor because I had met his friend Britt [Marin] through another pal of his. We had lunch or dinner in L.A. and talked for a couple of hours and Britt had mentioned that he had a portion of Phil’s ashes and a lot of other friends of Phil’s had scattered him at various locales that Phil loved — along the Malibu Coast and under the Golden Gate Bridge — and Britt said, “You know, it’s about time. It’s been 15 years.”
He had told me this story about him driving down to this boating store with Phil the day before Phil died, and they were just talking about life and death and Phil had iterated that he wanted his ashes scattered around this certain place at Catalina. They weren’t able to do that the first time — they went out for this big ceremony four months after Phil died. But because it’s very shallow water around Indian Rock, a big boat can’t get anywhere near that without crashing.
I said, “Britt, if you do this, I would love to come along.” So we eventually arranged that.
We met up in San Pedro and took the ferry out to Two Harbors, talked about Phil at the bar the night before, and the next morning we rented a kayak and sailed out to Indian Rock with Britt doing a large amount of the paddling [laughs]. Because I’m a wimp city boy [laughs]. But yeah, we had Phil on board, and of course 15 minutes out when Britt turned around and went, “Oh shit!” He’d forgotten something to open the box.
So we spent literally like an hour and a half — it was comical — we went on three different shores. We tried seashells, zippers, watch buckles. It was nuts! And we finally went ashore and found this guy named Jerry with a screwdriver who undid the screws for us on this box that held the ashes for 15 years. And it turned out to be Emerald Bay — Camp Emerald Bay — which was where Phil first encountered Catalina as a boy. So we pushed off, realized that the box was still sealed shut. It was like the Ark of the Covenant or something. We eventually got it open by banging it on a buoy and were able to scatter Phil around Indian Rock. Britt and I both thought it may have been Phil messing with us.
There is definitely something cosmic about that.
Yeah. It all seemed appropriate that we would have sort of a comedy of errors going on. Phil was a comedian.