The first and only time I cried when I heard a celebrity died was on May 28, 1998, when news broke that actor Phil Hartman had been shot and murdered by his wife, who soon after shot herself, too (their two kids, nine-year-old Sean and six-year-old Birgen were in the house at the time).
I refer to Hartman as an “actor” rather than a “comedian” because he was much more than someone who could just make you laugh, and that’s what separated him from the pack. He had a unique ability to convincingly play intelligent, pompous jerks, while reportedly being one hell of a nice guy in real life.
But goddamn, he could make you laugh, too.
Hartman’s first notable role was as Captain Carl on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which eventually led to him being cast on “Saturday Night Live” in 1986. Backstage, he was referred to as The Glue because, according to Lorne Michaels, “He kind of held the show together.” Usually I hate admitting that Lorne Michaels is right about anything, but he was spot-on about Hartman. During the mid- to late-1980s, “SNL” was in a state of flux, still trying to recover from Eddie Murphy (and Joe Piscopo, to a lesser extent) leaving, and while Hartman was never the flashiest of cast members, he was the most consistent. He never half-assed any of his skits, never made the show about him, even though he was by far the best thing about it, and ended up with some of the series’ best characters, like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Bill Clinton. He stayed on “SNL” until 1994, picking up three Emmy nominations (and one win for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Program, the show’s first since 1977, when Belushi was a cast member) along the way.
While still working at Studio 8H, however, he found a side gig that ended up becoming his most recognizable and famous role: “Hi, I’m Troy McClure, you might remember me from such TV spin-offs as ‘Son of Sanford and Son’ and ‘After Mannix.'” Hartman already had an impressive history of voice actor work, including in The Brave Little Toaster (as the horrifying Air Conditioner), “TaleSpin,” and “Tiny Toon Adventures,” before he was asked to do a one-time role on “The Simpsons.” Everything you need to know about the kind of characters Hartman excelled at playing can be found in his first line on the show, then in its second season: “Hutz is the name, Mr. Simpson. Lionel Hutz, attorney at law. Here’s my card. It turns into a sponge when you put it in water.”
Hartman played likable not-quite-bad guys, who were cocky but never hated. In other words: hacks. Troy McClure, who Hartman said was his favorite role, is the best example of this. He was a big-time movie star (appearing in such films as The Erotic Adventures of Hercules, Christmas Ape Goes to Summer Camp, Calling All Quakers…god, this is fun…Here Comes the Coast Guard, Look Who’s Still Oinking…OK, I’ll stop, after one more…and Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die) who lost almost everything, because of a supposed fish-fetish scandal. Without any artistic credibility, he’s forced to hawk subpar products and host telethons, like the Juice Loosener and Out with Gout ’88. Unlike Hartman, who knew from the start that he was never going to be an A-list name, McClure considered himself the second coming of Brando, the guy who could save Hitler Doesn’t Live Here Anymore from itself and ended up with nothing better than a sham marriage to Selma Bouvier. I bet that’s why Hartman loved the part: it was his sly jab at both Hollywood for being so full of itself and at himself, for knowing that although he’d never be a marquee name, he’dalso never sink to the career lows of his characters, like starring in “Firecrackers: The Silent Killers.”