Phil Hartman was an actor and comedian who is known for many things, like voiceover work on the Simpsons and impersonating more than 50 characters on Saturday Night Live. He made it up the Hollywood ladder and built a beautiful family. Sadly, his life was tragically ended in a violent murder-suicide at the hands of his wife, Brynn.
*This is not an exact transcript, but rather an outline of my notes.
Phil Hartman was born on September 24th, 1948 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. He was the fourth of 8 children and says that he found affection difficult to earn as a child. "I suppose I didn't get what I wanted out of my family life, so I started seeking love and attention elsewhere.”
Phil’s family moved to the United States when Phil was 10 years old, settling in Los Angeles, California. Fun fact: Phil Hartman attended Orville Wright Junior High school, where he had a classmate named Lynette Fromme. Lynette Fromme is also known as “Squeaky” Fromme, who you may remember was a member of the Manson family. Squeaky Fromme also attempted to assassinate president Gerald Ford and served approximately 34 years in prison before being released on parole in 2009.
Phil was known for being a class clown growing up. He attended the Santa Monica City College and studied art, but dropped out in 1969 to become a roadie for a band called the Rockin’ Foo. When Phil was 20, he met a beautiful 19-year-old named Gretchen Lewis. Gretchen was said to have opened up worlds for him, sexually.
“I no longer have any sex hangup, which had built up, and was beginning to flip me out,” Hartman wrote. “My hangup was that I’d never meet a girlfriend who digs sex as much as me. Well, I’ve met my match!”
The feeling was mutual. According to Gretchen, “things went on from a sexual standpoint that I didn’t even know existed before. Just from the point of pure duration, I was a living bladder infection!” Unfortunately, the chemistry would fade pretty quickly and the couple would divorce in 1972, after less than 2 years of marriage. Phil’s close friend and lawyer, Steve Small, said “Phil fell in love easily but wasn’t very skilled at continuing a relationship.”
In 1972, Phil returned to school for graphic arts. He stopped working as a roadie and started working for his brother’s talent management agency. He kind of developed his own graphic art business using his graphic arts skills from college and began designing album covers for classic rock bands. He created more than 40 album covers, doing promotional work for Crosby, Stills, & Nash and Buffalo Springfield, and designing the cover art for America’s album, History: America’s Greatest Hits and for Poco’s Legend album.
By 1975, Phil had grown tired of graphic design and felt the urge to do something more social. He was a little bit introverted, despite his comedic nature. He attended a comedy show by the Los Angeles improv group, The Groundlings. The Groundlings are a famous comedy troupe as well as a school. Members would audition and have to be accepted into the program in order to perform with them. A lot of really big names were Groundlings, like Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz, Kathy Griffin, Will Ferrell, and the list goes on and on. Their shows would often include inviting audience members onto the stage, and Phil, who was attempting to be more extroverted, volunteered.
Tracy Newman, a founding member of The Groundlings, said “I never saw an audience member come up with that kind of excitement and energy…it was like a hurricane hit that stage, and I mean in a good way.” Phil was invited to join their troupe, meaning he would enroll in training and performing with them without having to audition. For years, he paid his way through the training by helping with the group’s graphic design needs, like redesigning their logo and merchandise .
Phil made his first appearance on television in the late ‘70’s when he appeared on an episode of the dating game. Phil was the winner, but for some reason, his date stood him up.
During his time with The Groundlings, Phil befriended Paul Reubens, and together they created the character Pee-wee Herman and developed The Pee-Wee Herman Show, which began as a live stage show. Phil played the character Captain Carl and reprised the role for the children’s TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He also co-wrote the script of the 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
By this time, Phils was 36 years old and considering quitting acting. He was having a hard time finding work, but then he saw the huge success that came from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and changed his mind. He got small roles in films like Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Three Amigos, and did quite a bit of voice-over work in animated television shows, like The Smurfs, The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, and Dennis the Menace.
Phil developed an affinity for guns at some point. He was dating Dawna Kaufmann, who would become a writer for SNL/MadTV, and he offered to show her his gun collection. She thought he was joking until he pulled out a Colt .45. “He was really delighted about it, bragging,” said Kaufmann.
In 1982, Phil would marry his second wife, Lisa Strain. This marriage followed patterns similar to the first. The couple had wild sex and intense chemistry in the beginning. Lisa was a hot little fire cracker with a high sex drive, and she was very supportive of his career. Phil was really into it at first. But eventually his libido kind of faded while hers remained high. According to Lisa, he was also reclusive and would disappear emotionally, often going into his own world.
“My sense of Phil was that he was really two people,” Lisa said on 20/20. “He was the guy who wanted to draw and write and think and create and come up with ideas. He was the actor, entertainer, and then he was the recluse.”
“Seeing Phil at The Groundlings was Phil being truly Phil,” she continued. “You know, as time goes by, you understand that his personas are his protection and are his personality.” Sadly, after about a year of marriage, Lisa realized that the relationship was over.
“On our first anniversary, we went back to Santa Barbara. And I dressed up... lingerie or something… and I jumped up on the bed. And he said, ‘Must you? Really?’ So I said, ‘No.’ I took it off, put a robe on, got my book out. And I knew that was the end.”
Before long, the couple would divorce and Hartman would meet his next wife– Brynn Omdahl. Brynn was a tall, blonde, sometimes-model. She grew up in Minnesota doing some modeling work and moved to LA with hopes of becoming an actress. She was a year into recovery when she met Phil, having struggled with alcoholism and cocaine addiction. She enjoyed going to the Rodeo meetings in Beverly Hills, where she could sometimes run into celebrities. Phil fell deeply in love with Brynn right from the beginning, despite his friends believing they weren’t a good match.
In 1986, Phil earned his spot on the variety show Saturday Night Live in its 12th season. He joined a cast that included Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, and Kevin Nealon. During this time, he played a wide range of characters and became well known for his impressions. He performed as over 70 different characters, including Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Ed McMahon, Bill Clinton, Jesus, etc.
His castmates on SNL referred to him as “the glue”.
"He kind of held the show together.” SNL creator Lorne Michaels explained. “He gave to everybody and demanded very little. He was very low-maintenance." Michaels also added that Hartman was "the least appreciated" cast member by commentators outside the show, and praised his ability "to do five or six parts in a show where you're playing support or you're doing remarkable character work".
Phil and Brynn fought a lot. Brynn was beginning to feel a little jealous, perhaps a little bit left out because her career wasn’t advancing like Phil’s was. Plus, Phil was so emotionally closed off that when they would get into fights, he would shut down and refuse to engage, sometimes locking himself in a room, leaving her to feel hopeless of any resolution.
The fights between Phil and Brynn became evident to everyone around them. Chris Rock recalled how anytime they were together, they were fighting and it was uncomfortable to be around them. They would make plans with friends and end up bailing on them because they’d be home fighting. Brynn would sometimes time their arguments right before crucial dress rehearsals for SNL.
Kaufmann recalls Brynn visiting the set one day when the cast and writers were gathered in a conference room. “She comes in and starts sitting on all the guy’s laps and kissing them and putting her tongue in their ears. And everyone thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that funny?’ And I thought, ‘How could she do this to Phil? This is so humiliating to him.’ And he’s laughing like he didn’t care. How could you not care?”
Phil remained close friends with his ex-wife, Lisa, and he confided in her about his fights with Brynn. He vented about how Brynn needed constant validation and wanted a lot of plastic surgery. He told her she had a lot of insecurities around his fame. You can actually see her in the opening credits of Saturday Night Live with Phil, but it’s just the back of her head. If you look closely at her earring, you can see that it’s swinging, as if she had just turned her head. The reason for this is that she was trying to show her face to the camera, but the director made her look away. Phil told Lisa that Bryn was increasingly jealous, even about things like fanmail. She’d throw violent “object-throwing temper tantrums”. She also suspected, incorrectly, that Hartman was having an affair. They tried marriage counseling, but Hartman often didn’t show up. He grew distant, and began to reject his wife in the bedroom.
Phil and Brynn broke up for a short period. In 1987 while SNL was on a break, Phil returned to LA to see Brynn and they got back together. Shortly after, she moved in with him in New York City, which concerned his friends.
Phil was good friends with fellow groundling Cassandra Peterson, famously known for playing the character Elvira. She was set to appear on SNL’s Halloween episode in season 8 and dropped by Phil’s office to say hello. Phil showed her engagement ring he had gotten for Brynn. Cassandra blurted out “Oh god no!” Phil was very hurt by this and told her to get out of his office.
She later acknowledged that it was really rude and inappropriate of her to respond that way. This ended their friendship for a few years.
Phl proposed to Brynn in October 1987 and they were married soon after, on November 25th, 1987. In June 1988, their first child was born– a son named Sean. Phil called his ex-wife, Lisa, and told her that he had just become a father.
“He calls me and [says], ‘I just became a father.’ And so, I wrote a card. ‘Dear Phil and Brynn, you know... much love from Aunt Lisa. You know, if you ever need a babysitter... I'm so thrilled for you,’” Lisa said. “Brynn wrote me back four pages of the most hideous vitriol you could imagine,” Strain revealed. She threatened her life and told her that if she ever came near her child, she’d kill me. And that if she ever came near her husband, she’d rip her eyes out.” They had never even met.
“I called Phil and said, ‘Do you have any idea who you are married to?’ And he said, ‘You should’ve seen the letter she wanted to send.’” Lisa was pissed. Their friendship was over.
Lisa learned at some point that Phil had told Brynn that she wasn’t his soulmate, but that it was actually Lisa who was his soul mate. Perhaps Brynn had reason to be a bit jealous.
In 1990, Phil Hartman made his debut on The Simpsons as the character Lionel Hutz. In 1991 he debuted the character Troy McClure. His marriage continued to suffer. Nonetheless, they had a second child in February 1992, a daughter named Birgen.
By 1993, almost every cast member from Hartman’s first year on SNL had left the show. He said he felt "like an athlete who's watched all his World Series teammates get traded off into other directions ... It was hard to watch them leave because I sort of felt we were all part of the team that saved the show." The cast turnover resulted in newer performers like Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and David Spade. Phil was close with these cast members and took them under his wing (particularly Chris Farley), but he felt that his style of humor didn’t fit in with these newer cast members and decided to leave the show in 1994.
Phil started working on his own variety show, The Phil Show, but it wasn’t picked up. So in 1995, he signed on to an NBC sitcom called NewsRadio, alongside Andy Dick, where he starred as news anchor Bill McNeal. The show ran for 4 seasons and would be renewed for a fifth, but sadly Phil died before Season 5’s production began. He also landed parts in movies, like Jingle All the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sgt. Bilko with Steve Martin. Meanwhile, Brynn was getting very little work. She had one line in a Rob Reiner movie called North where she played a cocktail waitress, and she also appeared in an episode of Third Rock From the Son as an alien from Venus. By all accounts, she was hoping for more work.
By 1996, their marriage was deteriorating. Phil’s libido was, again, low. The couple wasn’t having sex and a friend of Phil’s recalls a story that Phil told him where a female neighbor came over and Phil said to Brynn, “she has great tits”. Brynn became increasingly paranoid that Phil was cheating on her and even started to worry when he was with his male friends, suspecting that maybe he was having a homosexual affair. He was not having an affair, but he did spend a lot of time away from home hanging out with friends or spending time on his boat or plane.
In 1987, Brynn relapsed on cocaine and began drinking soon after. On Mother’s Day, Brynn went out partying and came home in the early hours the next morning, completely plastered. Phil and Brynn got into an argument and he told her that she needed to go back to rehab. She checked in to a facility but it was short-lived. She left and returned home after 4 or 5 days. Some reports say that she left because she was missing her kids, while others say that she simply decided she was better. Nonetheless, she continued down a spiral of drug and alcohol use.
Phil told his mother that he was out of his mind with concern about Brynn, and said that he told her that if she was ever in that state again, he would take the kids and leave. It’s odd though, it seems like he didn’t understand the seriousness of drug addiction. I mean he was aware that she was addicted, but it seems as though he thought she would eventually pull herself together.
In December 1987, Phil and Brynn hosted a New Years Eve party and Andy Dick was in attendance. Brynn reportedly approached Andy Dick and asked him if he had any cocaine. Of course, it’s Andy Dick, so he did indeed have cocaine and he was willing to share it. Brynn and Andy locked themselves in a room and did a bunch of blow that night. Phil was very hurt and upset. A lot of people blame Andy Dick for participating in Brynn’s relapse.
Andy Dick says that he’s not the cause of her relapse, though. “She was already in relapse mode, which I didn't even know she had a problem at all in the first place.”
To be fair, it probably wasn’t wise to have Andy Dick and Brynn at a party together. Like when your friend or loved one is in recovery, you shouldn’t carelessly invite triggers into their home. Again, I think Phil didn’t understand the seriousness of the addiction.
Brynn’s moods became increasingly unpredictable. She was prescribed Zoloft, but it didn’t seem to be helping. That’s possibly due to the fact that she was mixing it with alcohol. Phil had confided in a couple of costars from NewsRadio about his troubles with Brynn after he came to the set with scratches on his face. Another time he showed up looking disheveled because he had spent the night sleeping on his boat after an argument with Brynn. Phil also confided in his ex-wife, Lisa, who was concerned because Brynn owned a gun. Phil, again, wasn’t too worried.
In April of 1998, Brynn turned 40 years old. She was worried about getting older and looking over. In an effort to placate her, Phil offered to pass around a screenplay that she had written to his colleagues and agents. It’s said that Phil was reluctant to do this because it wasn’t very good, but he really loved her and wanted to make her happy.
By this time, Phil had mended his friendship with Cassandra Peterson (Elvira). They had a phone conversation that got pretty deep. He told her “if I died tomorrow, I would know that I had a better life than anyone could’ve ever dreamed of having. It has so far outweighed my expectations. I’ve got a beautiful wife, two beautiful children. I’m the luckiest man alive.”
On May 27th, 1998, Phil spent the afternoon having lunch and looking at boats with a friend. Around 6pm, he returned home where Brynn was with the nanny and the kids. Phil told Brynn that he was going back out to see his plane at Van Nuys airport, but he wouldn’t be gone long. After he left, Brynn decided to go out as well. She told the nanny that she was going out for drinks with a friend at Buca Di Beppo. Phil returned home shortly after she left and sent the nanny home.
At Buca, Brynn met with her friend, Christine Zander. They sat at the bar where Brynn had two cosmos and half a beer. It was said that she nursed these drinks over a couple of hours and Brynn didn’t seem drunk. At about 9PM, Christine decided to call it a night. Brynn didn’t seem to want the night to end just yet. Before they paid the bill, Brynn went to use the payphone at the restaurant. She called her old friend, Ron Douglas, who she dated about 15 years prior and remained friends with. Phil knew about Ron and had no problem with their friendship, as long as they didn’t stay out late together because the pair used to do a lot of coke together.
At about 10:15PM, Brynn arrived at Ron’s home in Studio City. They drank beer, talked about Brynn’s script, and Brynn vented about Phil having spent the whole day with his friend. She told him that Phil made her field like dirt and complained that he smoked a lot of weed and was constantly out of it. Over the next couple of hours, she had 3 more beers. At 12:36AM, Brynn used the phone to call another friend, Susan, who she also used to do coke with. Clearly, Brynn was looking to score. Susan didn’t answer.
At 12:45AM, Brynn said her goodbyes and headed home (or so she said). He told her to call him when she got home to let him know she made it there safely, but she never did. What exactly transpired over the next three hours is unclear. At some point, Brynn returned home and crept into her bedroom where Phil was sleeping. On the closet shelf was a metal lockbox where she and Phil kept their firearms and gun supplies. She grabbed Phil’s Smith & Wesson .38 and walked over to the bed. From her side of the bed, only about 18 inches away from Phil, she aimed the gun at Phil and fired into the side of his neck. She fired a second shot into his forearm which exited through the other side and re-entered his chest. The final shot was the most damaging. She fired at nearly point-blank range into the middle of his forehead, just above the bridge of his nose, passing through his skull and into his brain. His death was quick, if not instantaneous. He looked as though he was smiling in his sleep, as if in the middle of a dream.
Around 3:25AM, Brynn called Ron on the phone and told him that Phil wasn’t home, but he left a note saying “I’m going out for the night. I’ll be back—Phil. Love you.” She told Ron that she didn’t want to be alone and asked if she could go back over to his house. He told her she should just try to go back to sleep– it was late and she couldn’t leave her kids unsupervised– so he suggested she have a glass of milk and some aspirin and lay down. Irritated, he did the same.
20 minutes later, Brynn was banging on his front door and repeatedly ringing the doorbell. When he answered the door, he saw Brynn standing there in pajamas and socks, but no shoes. Her breath stank like alcohol and it was clear to him that she was really fucked up, drunk and probably on drugs. He was irritated. Brynn stumbled inside while saying “don’t yell at me! Phil yells at me all the time.”
Once inside, Brynn tried to sit on the living room sofa but slid off onto the floor. Sobbing, she blurted something about having killed Phil. Ron didn’t think much of it, he thought she was just being hysterical about another fight with her husband. As she’s sitting on the floor, she continuously dozes off. She tells Ron that her stomach hurts, that she’s sick, and passes out. He decides to keep her awake until she sobers up, just to be safe. When he hakes her, she runs to the bathroom and vomits. This happens several times: she’d nod off, run to the bathroom, and vomit. He served her water and hot tea.
Brynn asked Ron to call her home several times, and he did. There was no answer and he left no messages. During one of the calls, Brynn started rummaging through her purse when suddenly, the gun tumbles out onto the floor. Ron was shocked and asked what she was doing with it. Brynn picked it up without responding to the question. He said “give it to me”, and she complied. Ron opened the gun’s cylinder and saw what appeared to be six cartridges in their chambers, which he assumes means no bullets have been fired. Brynn said “see! I told you I killed Phil!” He remained doubtful and stuck the gun in a kitchen drawer.
Around 6AM, Ron decided that Brynn was sober enough to drive home. She insisted that he follow her back in his car to make sure she made it safely. On the way out of his house, he grabbed the gun again and looked in the cylinder a second time, but this time he noticed something he hadn’t noticed before. There weren’t six bullets in the chamber, there’s only three. He became nervous at this point but was hopeful that maybe she just shot a couple warning shots into the air or something. He put the gun in a plastic grocery bag and placed it in the trunk of his car.
On the drive to the Hartman home, Brynn drove like a maniac. She was speeding, blowing stoplights, struggling to stay in her lane. She picked up the car phone and called her friend Judy. She sobbed and screamed “I think I killed Phil!”
“Where are you?” Judy asks.
“I don’t know!” Brynn replies. “I don’t know!” “My life is over!”
Trying to pinpoint her location, Judy asked Brynn to read off a couple of street signs. Judy hangs up, gets dressed, and drives over to the Hartman home.
Brynn pulled into her driveway with Ron pulling up behind her. They ran straight to the master bedroom, where they found Phil’s lifeless body in bed. That’s when the reality hit Ron like a ton of bricks.
“Oh, my God, he’s dead!” Brynn screams. “I told you I did! I told you I did! I killed him! I killed him! I don’t know why!”
Brynn then calls her friends Steve and Marcy and tells them that she killed Phil. Ron is freaking out. He steps into the hallway and calls 911. He’s holding this gun in a plastic bag and wants nothing more than to get out of this nightmare. While he’s on the phone with the police, Brynn locks herself in the bedroom with Phil’s body. Ron tried to get in, unsuccessfully.
Brynn was screaming and wailing from the bedroom and somehow the kids, who are 6 and 9, are sleeping through it all. From the bedroom, Brynn called up her sister, Kathy, and told her that she killed Phil. She asked her to tell the children that she loves them. Kathy is freaking out, but Brynn hangs up on her. At 6:32AM, Brynn’s house-phone rings. She answers it and it’s the police.
She answers: “Hello?”
“Hi, this is the police department, um, is Ronnie home?”
“Yes,” Brynn says, “come in.”
“Is there someone who’s been shot there?”
“How many people are inside the house?”
Crying, Brynn hangs up. The police call back.
“Ma’am, how many people are inside the house right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“OK, thank you.” This time the police disconnect.
Steve and Marcy arrive at the home but are unable to get in. They buzz from the gate and tried calling Brynn on her cell-phone, but she was completely incoherent. Steve and Marcy can see Ron through the window. They all look at each other like “who are you and what are you doing here?” Through the window, they all figure out that they’re there to help with whatever’s happening with Brynn and Phil. Steve and Marcy ask Ron to let them in, but the gate was locked with a deadbolt, meaning it couldn’t be opened without a key. Not only were Steve and Marcy unable to get into the house, but Ron was unable to get out.
Ron went to 9-year-old Sean’s bedroom and woke him up, telling him they needed to get out of the house. Fortunately, Sean knew where his parents kept the key to the gate and they were all able to get outside. Ron passed the boy and the gun over to the police, who were just arriving, and informed them that 6-year-old Birgen was still inside, possibly asleep.
Brynn was on the phone with her sister, Kathy again.
“Take care of my children,” she tells her sister. Kathy asks what she means.
“Just let them know how much I love them,” Brynn says, inconsolable and sobbing. “Tell Mom . . .” She cuts her sentence short as she hears the police coming up toward the bedroom.
One of them calls her by name: “Brynn!”
“I gotta go,” Brynn tells Kathy before hanging up.
Brynn went to her closet and retrieved her own gun from the safe. (Remember, she had used Phil’s gun to kill him, which is now in the hands of the police.) She climbed into bed with Phil, sat up, inserted the two-inch barrel into her mouth, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet passed through her prain and lodged into the headboard. Her head slumped toward Phil and her shooting hand dropped to her right, almost touching him, with her finger still on the trigger.
The responding officers heard the single gunshot at around 6:38AM, but they couldn’t be certain of its origin or its target. The response team proceeded to clear the other bedrooms, including Birgen’s.
Two officers left the residence and set up outside Brynn’s bedroom window. The curtains were drawn.
“Los Angeles Police Department! Come out with your hands up!” the lead officer, Sergeant Daniel Carnahan, shouted. There is no response. An officer grabbed a nearby brick and hurled it through the glass window, while another officer inside the house forced entry into the bedroom.
The two children, Sean and Birgen, were escorted away in their pajamas to a police station for questioning. The children suffered no physical injuries but were understandably distraught.
Steve Small, an attorney who handled Phil’s previous divorces and stayed in contact with him, said "She had trouble controlling her anger. She got attention by losing her temper," adding that the two had separated more than once. "Phil said he had to restrain her at times." Although there was much talk of domestic abuse, police said they were unaware of any previous visits to the Hartman residence.
A friend of the couples’, Andrea Diamond, said “There were rumors. But you should have seen how he used to look at her. You could tell he loved her. I don’t know why she would do this to the kids.”
Lisa Strain was completely shocked when she heard about the deaths. "He always talked about his children, and how he and Brynn were working it out.
A ceremony was held for Brynn and Phil in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, which has a lot of celebrities. Phil’s brother, John Hartman, took the high road and addressed the elephant in the room directly, imploring everyone not to think of Brynn as a killer.
“They were victims of the same accident,” he said. “There is no one to hate and no blame to be laid. I beg you to forgive her. So put this incident in your past and close the door. Forget — if you can.”
In 1999, Brynn’s brother sued Zoloft manufacturer Pfizer for wrongful death, on behalf of the children and both estates. Pfizer gave a statement that “there’s no scientific or medical evidence that Zoloft causes violent or suicidal behavior.” The suit was settled for $100,000 and there was no admission of any wrongdoing.
Brynn’s sister Kathy and her husband raised both Sean and Birgen in the midwest. They got everything in their parents’ will and grew up very loved. Sean is now 34 years old and pursuing his dreams of being an artist and a musician. Phil would brag that his talent far exceeded his own. Birgen is now 30 and married and running her own business. She’s said to have her father’s gift for comedy.
Brynn’s brother, Greg Omdahl, said “I believe my sister would be very proud of how Sean and Birgen have grown up and the people they've turned into.”
Phil Hartman was very active in the community, participating in causes like Heal the Bay to restore the Santa Monica Bay, and the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica. He also served as honorary sheriff of Encino.