You might remember him for his Saturday Night Live characters, including the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, performances in hilarious skits and parody commercials, and impressions of celebrities including Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra. Phil Hartman (1948-1998) made himself a comedy legend for his adaptability and versatility. His talents landed him many film, television, commercials, and animation jobs. Performing in iconic cartoons and animated films from The Jetsons and Tiny Toon Adventures to The Brave Little Toaster and Kiki’s Delivery Service, it was not just his career that made Hartman stand out, but also his tragic murder that shocked the entertainment world at the hands of his own wife. What caused this 10-year Hollywood marriage of one of the biggest names in comedy and voice acting to end in a murder-suicide?
Born on September 24, 1948, in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, as the fourth of eight children, Phil loved doing impressions. At age ten, he and his family moved to the United States. He enjoyed making his classmates laugh as the class clown during his school days. He found work touring as a groupie and as a graphic designer, designing several famous album covers. In 1975, he joined the comedy troupe The Groundlings after attending one of their shows. He was able to find additional work in film, animation and television (The Last Days of Phil Hartman). During his time in the troupe, he befriended Jon Lovitz, a fellow SNL cast member who became Phil’s closest friend, and Paul Reubens. Phil helped develop Reubins’s character PeeWee Herman and the shows The PeeWee Herman Show and PeeWee’s Playhouse, where Phil portrayed the character Captain Carl. Reubens brought Phil and some of his writers with him to New York City to host an episode of the legendary variety show Saturday Night Live. Creator Lorne Michaels was impressed with Hartman’s talent (Thomas).
Phil joined Saturday Night Live in 1986 as a writer and cast member for eight years. He performed alongside famous cast members, including Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley. Nicknamed “The Glue” because he held the show together, was always there to aid his fellow castmates, and helped the show regain its popularity after almost getting canceled, earning him and the writing team an Emmy Award. His famous impression of former US president, Bill Clinton was so popular it appeared in various late night shows and other programs (Shales and Miller). Opportunities continued to grow beyond SNL, including on The Simpsons, where he voiced many characters; his most iconic characters were the sleazy lawyer Lionel Hutz and B-movie actor Troy McClure. He would later star in the NBC series News Radio as Bill “The Real Deal” McNeal. This performance earned him an Emmy nomination that he would sadly never live to see (The Last Days of Phil Hartman).
This true crime story truly begins the same year Phil joined SNL, when he met his third wife: a former model and aspiring actress named Brynn Omdahl (real name Vicki Jo Omdahl, 1959-1998). Throughout their marriage, Brynn had anger issues and often argued with Phil. They even often had fights while he was working. Despite Phil’s attempts to help his wife find work, including her auditioning to be on SNL, Brynn lacked the skills and comedic talent needed to land the jobs (Thomas). She only landed small bit roles and cameos, including as an extra on SNL’s opening credits as the woman sitting right across from Phil at a restaurant. During the filming of that scene, Brynn kept constantly looking at the camera instead of Phil, causing her earrings to swing wildly in the final shot (The Last Days of Phil Hartman). Phil and his wife often put up a facade of a Hollywood family in public, but in private, he was withdrawn and distant (Thomas).
After a night of drinks with friends on the evening of May 27, 1998, Brynn returned home and had a heated argument with Phil before he went to bed. While he slept, Brynn fatally shot him three times with a revolver sometime before 3:00 am. She later drove to the home of her friend, Ron Douglas, where she confessed, “I killed Phil, and I don’t know why!” She led Douglas back to her house, where she showed Phil lying dead in his bed. Police were called and were able to get their two children safely out of the house, and they tried to get Brynn to surrender peacefully. Unfortunately, she locked the door to the bedroom and turned the gun onto herself (Thomas).
Many questions still remain about Brynn’s motive. Friends and loved ones believe that her jealousy of Phil’s fame and success, her anger at him for not fulfilling her personal needs, and furthering her own acting career reached its boiling point. In addition, her relapse on drugs had impaired her mental state. Autopsies showed she had a blood alcohol level of .111 and had cocaine and Zoloft in her system. Jon Lovitz was devastated and was one of several people who tried to blame the murder on Phil’s NewsRadio co-star Andy Dick for dealing the cocaine that caused Brynn to relapse. Brynn’s sister took in her and Phil’s children to raise them privately, away from the public (Thomas).
Many changes were made to the shows Phil appeared on, and several projects were canceled. Bill McNeal on NewsRadio was killed off, his characters on The Simpsons were discontinued, and his final episode Bart the Mother, was dedicated in his memory (Thomas). The role of Zapp Brannigan, written specifically for Phil to voice on Matt Groening’s next series Futurama, was given to his friend and fellow voice actor Billy West, who already voiced multiple characters on the show. West was at home with his wife when she answered the phone call and froze in shock. After he asked her what was wrong, she replied, “Phil was murdered.” After inheriting the role of Zapp Brannigan, It is hard to imagine how difficult it was for West to deal with on both a professional and personal level.
The main character of Futurama was also named after Phil as a tribute. His final three films released posthumously were as Phil Fimple in Small Soldiers, Chauncy in Buster & Chauncey’s Silent Night, and Jiji the talking cat in the English dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service.
As a fan of The Simpsons, I admired the versatility of the show’s voice actors, able to change their voice to convey many different characters. At the age of 16, I learned the story of what happened to him. It makes people wonder how Hollywood couples maintain respect for each other if one is having more success than the other.
Phil Hartman’s ashes were scattered at Emerald Bay on Catalina Island, one of his favorite places to visit. His legacy was honored on Hollywood and Canada’s Walk of Fame. Phil was nicknamed “The Man of 1000 Voices,” and Rolling Stone Magazine listed him as one of the top 10 greatest SNL cast members of all time (Thomas).
Thomas, Mike. You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, St. Martin's Press. Sept 23, 2014
Shales, Tom and Miller, James. Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests, Back Bay Books. 2002
The Last Days of Phil Hartman. ABC News Special. ABC, 2019
Saturday Morning Rewind Many Voices of Phil Hartman (A tribute to Phil Hartman and the characters he voiced) Youtube. March 4th, 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfHlviQR6Bw&t=5s