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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

May 28, 1998

Hello, everyone! And, welcome to our retrospective on this, the twenty-eighth day of May in another edition of the Tuesday Timeline!

So, let's not waste any time, shall we?

To begin our look back on all events from May 28, we are going to start off with celebrity birthdays. I want to wish Paul Hebert, Carroll Baker, Rudolph Giuliani, Gladys Knight, Billy Vera, Patch Adams, John Fogerty, Townsend Coleman, Michelle Collins, Roland Gift (Fine Young Cannibals), James Michael Tyler, Christa Miller, Phil Vassar, Kylie Minogue, Ekaterina Gordeeva, Alicia Minshew, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Alexa Davalos, Colbie Caillat, Carey Mulligan, and Jaslene Gonzalez a very happy birthday today!

And, for special events that took place on May 28, we have the following...

1588 – The Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon, Portugal towards the English Channel

1830 – Andrew Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act, relocating Native Americans

1871 – The Paris Commune falls

1892 – The Sierra Club is organized by John Muir in San Francisco, California

1908 – Ian Lancaster Fleming, author of the James Bond spy novels, is born in Mayfair, London, England

1934 – Annette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie, and Yvonne Dionne are born near Callander, Ontario, making them the first set of quintuplets to survive infancy (as of 2013, only Annette and Cecile are still living)

1937 – The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is opened to the public by President Roosevelt

1944 – Canadian folk singer Rita MacNeil is born on Cape Breton Island

1951 – The Goon Show is broadcast over the BBC for the first time

1952 – Women in Greece are granted the right to vote

1977 – A fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky kills 165

1993 – Eritrea and Monaco join the United Nations

1995 – An earthquake measuring 7.6 strikes the Russian town of Neftegorsk, killing over two thousand people

2012 – The discovery of “Flame” - a malware program targeting computer systems in the Middle East is announced

For today's blog entry, we're going to be flashing back in time to an event which saddened a lot of people. I know that looking back on it, I took the passing of this gifted comedian quite hard, as a lot of my childhood memories were deeply linked with this man and his talent.

Fifteen years ago today, on May 28, 1998, this man died in a senseless and tragic manner, with many people wondering why his death had to happen in the first place.

This is the story of Phil Hartman. A man so incredibly gifted in the world of comedy and who had a bright future in the entertainment industry...whose life was taken far too short by the one person who few seemed to believe could ever hurt him in that way.

Phil was born Philip Edward Hartmann on September 24, 1948 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada (at some point in his career, he lost an “N” from his last name). He was the fourth of eight children born to Rupert and Doris Hartmann, and by Phil's own admission, he was always trying to seek out attention. I suppose being smack-dab in the middle of the birth order in a really large family, it made sense for Phil to seek out attention wherever he could find it. The Hartmanns moved to the state of Connecticut when Phil was just ten years old (Phil himself would be granted American citizenship in 1990), and by the time Phil entered high school, the family settled in the West Coast, where Phil was voted “Class Clown” of Westchester High School in Los Angeles.

Now, here's something that you probably didn't know. When Phil Hartman was first starting out in his career, he initially didn't go into acting right away. One of Phil's first loves was music, and he spent some time working as a roadie for a rock band before earning a degree in graphic design in the mid-1970s. And, keeping his love of rock music alive, some of his first jobs in graphic design included designing album covers for Poco and America, and designing the logo that Crosby, Stills & Nash used. Here's one of the album covers below that Phil Hartman designed as a twenty-something young professional!

Not bad, huh?

It wasn't until the late 1970s that Phil decided to try his hand at acting. His first appearance was as one of the men looking for a love connection on “The Dating Game”, but unfortunately for Phil, his date stood him up.

It was also right around this time that Phil began to attend comedy classes run by California based improv group, “The Groundlings”. He impulsively jumped on stage and joined the cast during one of their performances, and by 1979, he had climbed the ranks to become one of the comedy troupes biggest stars.

And, I bet you didn't know that Phil Hartman was also responsible for helping create one of the most quintessential characters of the 1980s! While he was in The Groundlings, he crossed paths with Paul Reubens. Together, they created the persona of Pee-Wee Herman, who as you know was the character that helped Paul Reubens rise up in the ranks of stardom.

(Well, before his arrest in 1991 for lewd conduct, that is.)

But, even so, I gotta give Phil Hartman a lot of credit. Pee-Wee's Playhouse was one of my all-time favourite shows growing up (and I still have a soft spot for it as an adult), and Phil even appeared on several episodes of Pee-Wee's Playhouse as Captain Carl. He even wrote the screenplay for the 1985 film “Pee-Wee's Big Adventure”, and did a cameo for that very film. Unfortunately, creative differences between Hartman and Reubens caused that partnership to split up, and Hartman was left to pursue other opportunities. But, at least the experience and success that Hartman experienced with the commitment to the Pee-Wee Herman projects secured the belief that he wanted to continue his work in show business.

A lot of Phil's success came from doing voice over work for commercials and animated series. Unbeknownst to me, he voiced the role of Henry Mitchell in what was one of my favourite cartoons to watch as a kid, “Dennis the Menace”. He also did voice roles for “The Smurfs”, “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo”, and of course “The Simpsons”.

Why, you might remember Phil Hartman as the man who voiced Lionel Hutz, Lyle Lanley, and Troy McClure during the first nine seasons of the show! I know I certainly do!

But, I would think that the one show that helped secure Phil Hartman's star power was his commitment to NBC's Saturday Night Live. Phil stayed on that program for eight years between 1986 and 1994, and over his eight years there, he was responsible for creating some of the most memorable characters that Saturday Night Live has ever featured. I just only wish I had some video clips to link here, but SNL clips are a rarity to find online.

But some of the characterizations that I remember Phil Hartman for the most was his near perfect impersonation of Bill Clinton. But, that wasn't the only one. He perfected impersonations of Ed McMahon, Phil Donahue, Frank Sinatra, and even Barbara Bush! As for original characters, well, how about Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, or Eugene, the Anal-Retentive Chef.

And, Hartman's reputation on the set of Saturday Night Live was impeccable, according to several cast members who had the good fortune of working with Hartman while he was on the show. Jan Hooks, for example, credited Hartman with helping her overcome her stage fright. Adam Sandler constantly referred to Hartman as the glue that held all of them together. Even show creator Lorne Michaels said nothing but positive comments about Hartman, who he said gave everything he had to everyone else, and expected very little in return.

Maybe that's one of the reasons why Hartman was so loved by fans all over the world. I know Phil Hartman was always one of my personal favourite cast members of Saturday Night Live (and yes, I was allowed to stay up late and watch it when I was eleven and twelve, so I do remember him).

One of Phil's final projects was the sitcom, NewsRadio, which debuted in 1995, one year after he left Saturday Night Live. He played the role of Bill McNeil, which Hartman described as himself without the ethics and character. And, although the show was never really a ratings winner, he did make enough of an impression for the show to be renewed for four seasons. And, he also did guest spots on other sitcoms as well, including a reunion with Jan Hooks on the set of NBC's “3rd Rock from the Sun”.

That's why I still can't understand how tragically it all ended in the early morning hours of May 28, 1998.

At that time, Phil Hartman was married to his third wife, Brynn. The couple had met on a blind date right around the time that Phil had gotten hired to join the cast of Saturday Night Live, and they had gotten married a year later, in 1987. On the surface, the marriage between Phil and Brynn seemed perfect, and they had two children together, Sean and Birgen.

However, the marriage itself was also plagued with problems. It was widely speculated that Brynn was resentful of Hartman's success, and that Hartman was getting more and more annoyed with Brynn's constant using of drugs and alcohol. Despite this, neither side wanted a divorce. Hartman did his best to try and get Brynn acting roles, and he even considered early retirement in an effort to keep the marriage going. But, little did either Phil or Brynn realize that both of them were on a collision course with their eternal fate...and by the end of May 28, 1998, neither one would be alive to tell the tale.

Things seemed normal on the evening of May 27, 1998. That night, Brynn Hartman went out to dinner with a friend at Encino, California's Buca di Beppo, and was described as being in good spirits that night. But by the time she had arrived back home, that mood seemed to disappear. She and Phil reportedly got into a heated argument, with Phil threatening to leave her once and for all if she didn't seek help for her drug addiction. It would end up being the last conversation either of them would have.

Shortly before 3:00am on May 28, 1998, Brynn entered Phil's bedroom where he lay asleep, armed with a handgun. She then proceeded to shoot her husband three times – twice in the head, once in the side – before fleeing to her friend, Ron Douglas' home. At the time of the murder, she was reportedly under the influence of cocaine.

Once arriving at Douglas' home, she confessed to killing Phil, although he didn't quite believe her at first. But when Douglas followed Brynn back to the Hartman house, he went upstairs to the bedroom where the crime had taken place, and he called 911 three and a half hours after the shooting.

Shortly after returning back to the Hartman household, Brynn locked herself in a bathroom and took her own life, shooting herself once in the head.

Phil Hartman was only 49 years old at the time of his death. And, Hollywood mourned his tragic death. As someone who was a huge fan of his, I took his death quite hard. I never got the chance to meet him, but I felt like I knew him from all of the hard work he did while he was still alive. And, certainly his co-stars and people who knew him felt the same way. Whether he was doing his Troy McClure voice for “The Simpsons”, playing Bill Clinton on “Saturday Night Live”, or making people laugh on “NewsRadio”, he brought the very best of himself to every part he played. In my opinion, Phil Hartman truly did have star power, but was so humble that he rarely showed it. He never seemed like he had an ego, and it seemed like it would be easy to approach him on the street and say hello.

Immediately following Hartman's death, “The Simpsons” retired all of the characters that Hartman voiced, because they knew that nobody could ever replace his voice or the love and passion that he put into that job. “NewsRadio” wrote Hartman's character out of the series and attempted to bring the show forward by bringing in Hartman's long-time friend Jon Lovitz onto the series. And, it was initially planned for Hartman to have a role in Matt Groening's other animated series “Futurama”, with Hartman voicing the character of Zapp Branigan. But with Hartman's death, longtime voice artist Billy West was given the role instead, with West purposely trying to imitate Hartman's voice as a tribute to the late actor.

And, while I'm thinking of it, the show “Futurama” also did something else to honour their fallen friend. You all know that the main character of the show was a pizza delivery boy named Fry, right? Well, Fry's real name is Phillip J. Fry, with Groening naming the character in Phil's memory.

And, Phil's name will forever be linked with Canada's Walk of Fame, getting a posthumous star in 2012 for his contributions to the entertainment industry.

It seems hard to believe that Phil Hartman would be nearly 65 years old if he were still alive. But, even though his life was taken before his time on May 28, 1998, his legacy will forever live on...and he will forever remain one of my all-time favourite performers.

Thanks for the memories, Phil...and may you be at peace.

1 comment:

  1. Phil Hartman will be sorely missed forever. Just watched Jingle All the Way for the first time in over 10 years. Great to see/hear him again, but there's just this layer of nausea while watching beause I can't shake the fact of what happened to him. I try really hard, but it's almost impossible not to hate Brynn Hartman. It really wasn't the drugs though. She was jealous of him, and that's just really sad. God, she was married to him! Spousal jealousy, really? She didn't understand marriage or love. A sad human being. I seriously will pray for her soul.