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Twenty-two years ago, Hollywood lost one of its most hilarious actors and versatile voices. Phil Hartman — who would have turned 72 years old today — was killed by his wife, Brynn, in a murder-suicide. His death was a tragic loss for so many reasons (he was survived by two children), but his legacy, his memory, and his laughs — and there were plenty of those — live on. (No one did stentorian spokesman gravitas and cheer better than Phil.) The Canadian-born comedian emerged as an ultra-adaptable standout in the late-80s/early-90s era of Saturday Night Live (his castmates nicknamed him "the glue"), a hammy punchline machine on The Simpsons (you might know him from such roles as Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz), and the (self-)center of NewsRadio as imperious co-anchor Bill McNeal (earning him his fourth career Emmy nomination). In EW's 30th anniversary issue, we recognized some beloved performers who left us over the last three decades and left behind an undeniably entertaining and important body of work. Here, Hartman's friend and NewsRadio costar Stephen Root pays tribute to one of Hollywood's good guys — and explains exactly why Hartman was an exceptional talent.
I was always a huge fan of Phil’s from Saturday Night. He epitomized that show. He was an everyman who could do anything. He could be a great straight man, he could do really large, funny things. What was brilliant about him was he was able to do broad comedy yet pull it into really small believable stuff, like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. I mean, this was a really big character that he did very, very small — a confused man in a strange new world — that was amazingly subtle and funny. He was a huge influence on me. When I was doing my early sitcom work, he helped me feel confident that I could get work being subtle, but still being big. And when it was announced that he was going to do NewsRadio, I got an audition and couldn't be more thrilled to be working with somebody of that caliber at that point.
Although Phil came from improv comedy, he had the sense of a theater actor in being able to repeat a performance and [have] it be just as funny as the first time. I also came from the theater and appreciated that so much — you could rehearse a scene a couple of times and in comedy, it can really die with too much rehearsal. But Phil would change a little something and keep it fresh every time. He was a very prepared guy. All of us [on NewsRadio] would take our scripts and just throw them around. He had his in a notebook, parceled out into every scene with different tabs and different colors. He would be extremely prepared. That impressed me as well. So he was like Dad in that sense to us.
When Phil got to NewsRadio, he was really the only name in the cast. We’d all done lots of guest-star work, but none of us were known, except maybe for Dave Foley, who had been very successful in Canada with Kids in the Hall, which we were all huge fans of as well. But he wasn't a name here in the States. Phil was the “star” of the show, even though there has never been more of an ensemble in the history of the world than NewsRadio.
Phil also came from a different kind of background with Saturday Night Live, where you had to fight and claw your way to get something on the show. You had to write it, you had to go through a whole week of people changing it or doing whatever, and he brought a little bit of that sensibility to NewsRadio. But we were a very non-competitive group, so we had to beat him down a little bit that first year [laughs] to get him to trust us to go, ‘No, we just want to make it funny, man.’ He got to that place well before the end of the first season, so that he would write for Dave, Dave would write for him, Andy would write for Joe, I would write for whoever, because there was a lot of writing on the set, on the move. But I give credit to him for being able to slip into a more ensemble piece that he was initially the star of.
The key word [about Phil] is commitment to the bit, or commitment to whatever piece he was doing. If there was some show where he had to play the piano, he couldn’t play the piano, but he was committed to learning where your fingers would be on the keyboard to make it look like he was playing the piano. He was super committed to making it look as a real and ridiculous as possible. I appreciated that about him, that he would commit to the nth degree until the bit didn’t work or it did work. Ninety-nine percent of the time it did work.
He loved drawing. He was a tremendous illustrator. He had drawn a couple of very famous album covers back in the 70s, and he would always doodle on his scripts. I’ve still got one of his doodles from a script. It's not something that he promoted, but he was a real artist, and it obviously contributed to everything he did, in his being as careful and studied as he was.
In the first couple of years of the show, we were all getting to know each other after. After [filming an episode], we would all go have a cocktail at the nearest place. Phil would do that to an extent, but he had small kids, and he would prefer to go home, and be with them. I loved being with him. Three or four times, we were able to go do a family outing, we'd go to Knott's Berry Farm or a small carnival thing in the Valley and just hang around and walk around with the kids. That was a great time because he was just relaxed; he was never the guy that [would say,] ‘I'm Phil Hartman and I'm taking my family out!’ He’d put on a baseball cap and walk around and be very grateful if somebody said, ‘I like your work.’ He was a real family guy.
Phil was never afraid to look like a fool or be made fun of, because he had an underlying dignity. The funniest thing I ever saw was a fantasy episode [the season 4 finale, "Sinking Ship," which was Hartman’s last episode] where we were on the Titanic, and Phil was very happy to put on a suit of french fries and sit there with Andy Dick dressed as a hot dog and watch people go by who were drowning. That is the mental picture that comes up when I think of Phil as the ultimate “I'll do this for a laugh and yet it will be somehow stately.”
At the time of his death, he was changing his life. He had done a fair amount of movies, but they were pretty over-the-top comedies. I remember having a conversation with him that he didn't want to do that anymore. He wanted to get into more high-quality pictures — not necessarily dramas — but something that had more meat and better scripts. So he was headed in that direction. I think he would've gone on to become a tremendous film comedian, because that was his sensibility. He made it. He was at the peak of his comedic powers.
[His death] was devastating, and it happened not too long after we'd finished the season. When we went to the funeral, there was so much press wanting to talk to all of us, but we didn't want to talk to them at all. So we didn’t. We put all of our love into the show that we did, into the first show of the next season, which dealt with his passing. We read it once on the day that we usually do, on a Monday. We all cried through it and we all decided, unilaterally that we weren’t going to rehearse this show. The writers were going boost it up a little from that first reading that we did, but we never rehearsed it. We shot it on Thursday and on a Friday. And it was pretty tearful to shoot, but it was cathartic that we did something within the fictional structure that was real, because we really hurt that he was no longer there. That was good that we were able to address it. The rest of that season, we would have a cardboard cutout of him just peeking around the corner, almost on every show [laughs]. Or we'd have a picture of him on Dave’s desk. Or we would have little reminders of him that we would keep with us on each show that he was still there with us — he just, uh… he was maybe going to come later, you know?
We’d make fun of him as much as we could. Whenever we had to do an interview with press, we would literally walk over and grab the back of his jacket, pull him backwards and put him in front of a camera. Because we didn't want to do it. We knew he would do it 10 times better than we would ever do it. And he was completely amenable to it. He would be standing over in the corner, talking to somebody who would grab him, push up in front of the microphone and he would go “Hiii!” and be ready and funny and brilliant all the time. We talk about him [now] the same way we did when he was here. He was present. He was funny. He was great. I keep a picture of him dressed as a blue genie. He was doing some commercial [in an episode] as a blue genie, and I said, “Phil, I have to have this picture in my home.” So he very graciously took a couple, and I keep it in my bathroom so I can see him every day.
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