Everyone seems to have a favorite Phil Hartman character. After all, there are so many to choose from: SNL’s Anal Retentive Chef, The Simpsons’ Troy McClure, or even morally reprehensible Bill McNeal from NewsRadio. What we don’t want to think about is Hartman’s sad and untimely end. It seemed to come quite randomly, and as if out of nowhere. But did it really? Let’s follow the facts and see how, with one quick decision, Hartman’s life suddenly seemed destined for a tragic and gruesome conclusion.
Philip Hartman was number four in a string of eight children. He was born on September 24, 1948, in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. As a child, Hartman felt a little lost among all his siblings. He later said that he craved affection, and when his parents didn’t have time to give it to him, he found it in other ways—by being funny.
The entire Hartman family made a big move from Canada to California, where they lived near LAX. Here Hartman attended high school and got a reputation as the class clown. He also involved himself in drama. He appeared in plays at Orville Wright Junior High and one of his co-stars ended up being famous—well, infamous. Hartman shared a stage with none other than Lynette Fromme.
You may know her as Squeaky, the Manson Family member who tried to shoot Gerald Ford when he was the President. Yikes! And Fromme wasn’t the only one to get involved in the counterculture of the 1960s. Hartman was right behind her.
When he graduated, Phil Hartman started up at community college. This, however, didn’t last long. This was the late 1960s and there were a lot of cool temptations for a young man in California. Hartman soon got a job as a roadie for a rock band and said goodbye to college and hello to the open road.
On his travels, Hartman ended up front and center at a concert that would go down in rock and roll history.
Hartman was touring with a band called Rockin Foo when they got a gig at an LA club—but they got way more than they bargained for. The club the band was playing at had a famous owner: Jimi Hendrix. At one point in the concert, Hendrix himself got on stage to jam with Rockin Foo. A problem occurred when the drummer hit his kick drum very hard, and it moved downstage every time he hit it.
That’s when Hartman—shaggy-haired and looking like a surfer dude—saved the day. He literally held the drum in place with his hands while Hendrix brought the house down. This was all fun and games, but eventually, Hartman needed to get serious about life.
Once he’d done his thing as a roadie, Hartman realized he still needed a career. He studied graphic arts at a state university and soon was combining his love of design and of rock music. This resulted in Hartman designing album covers for bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Poco. Hartman, however, wasn’t content to be behind the scenes. He wanted to be famous.
Hartman’s first stop on the road to getting himself noticed was to be on The Dating Game. During his introduction, the host announced that Hartman made the best avocado sandwich in the world—and then Hartman took it up a notch. He jokingly called himself: “Slippery when wet” and “built something like a Greek god”. The audience loved him, and so did the female contestant—who chose him for her date.
Once he’d tasted the thrill of being loved by an audience, he wanted more.
After winning The Dating Game, Hartman poked around looking for an outlet. He wanted to perform but didn’t know how. He stumbled upon The Groundlings, which was an improv group that had launched the careers of many Saturday Night Live members. Hartman was just a student of the group, but he often attended the live performances. One evening when he was in the audience, he had an epiphany.
He thought he was ready to join the actors on the stage, so he just got up and joined them. It didn’t go quite as planned.
Even though Phil Hartman launched himself onto the stage, The Groundlings gave him a big thumbs down when it came to performing. They sent him back to their school for more training, but there was just one problem. He couldn’t afford them.
So, in exchange for classes, Hartman worked his magic as a graphic designer. He redid their logo and helped them “merchandise” their brand. It paid off, because they invited him back onstage, and—within a couple of years—he was an audience favorite.
While performing with The Groundlings, Hartman met Paul Reubens. The two started to work together on comic bits, and through this collaboration, they gave birth to a bizarre character: Pee-wee Herman. The Groundlings thought that Pee-wee Herman was a blast, so they gave them the stage at midnight. Reubens was Pee-wee and Hartman appeared as Captain Carl and Monsieur LeCroq.
The Pee-wee Herman Show was a spoof of children’s TV shows and the audiences loved it. It wasn’t, however, only audiences that thought the show was hilarious.
Executives at HBO happened to come to a midnight performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show and loved it. The network decided to tape one of the live performances and then put it on the air. This was the beginning of a crazy ride that would make Paul Reubens incredibly famous. While Hartman was one of the creators and had a character of his own, it was hardly going to put his face on the map.
In fact, at this time Hartman was questioning his career choice. Would he ever be a famous performer?
By 1982, Phil Hartman was on his second marriage. The first had been in the early 1970s and this one was with Lisa Strain: a real estate agent. In 1985, Hartman and Strain got a divorce. Strain later laid the dark details of their relationship bare in an interview. She told People magazine that the problem with their marriage was that Hartman tended to “disappear emotionally” and “be in his own world”.
She added that this behavior made her crazy. As we’ll soon see, this wasn’t the only wife of his that felt crazy around him.
While he was questioning being a performer, Phil Hartman got a role in a movie. In Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, both Reubens and Hartman had cameos. But still, this bit part wasn’t about to make Hartman into a star. Later, when Reubens wanted to make a movie, he got Hartman on board as one of the writers on 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
While it must have been fun working on this film, it had Hartman away from the camera instead of in front of it. This wasn’t his career plan—and he’d do anything he could to change it.
In 1986, CBS became interested in Pee-wee Herman. They had an idea to make The Pee-wee Herman Show—which was a fake children’s show—into an actual children’s show. Which makes you think that CBS didn’t quite get the joke. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. CBS wanted Pee-wee and wherever Pee-wee went, Hartman went too.
It seemed that the two would be together as long as Pee-wee Herman was a success—or maybe not.
Opportunities to appear on a big show like Pee-wee’s Playhouse were few and far between. On the outside, it seemed like a big break for Hartman—but behind closed doors, things were falling apart at the seams. Hartman and Reubens had intense creative differences and eventually, it grew to be too much for Hartman, and he walked. What he walked into were more small roles.
Though none were especially memorable, they did expose him to a whole new batch of co-stars—many of whom had previously appeared on Saturday Night Live. It made him think. Maybe it was his turn to appear on the show.
SNL creator Lorne Michaels auditioned Hartman and welcomed him to the show in 1986 for the 12th season. Hartman had a plan. He wanted to use SNL to gain exposure to a wide audience. Then he could go on to write and appear in his own movies. So SNL was supposed to be a temporary means to an end. So why did he end up staying for eight seasons?
In the end, Phil Hartman really did go down in Saturday Night Live history. The website Grantland was looking to name the best SNL cast member of all time. The winner of their online poll put Will Ferrell in the number one spot, but they were quick to mention his only competition: Hartman. Bryan Curtis of Grantland said that Hartman had “a kind of comedic graciousness.”
What most people said was that Hartman was a nice guy. Well, he was about to meet someone that would challenge this ability in a big way.
During his first year with SNL, Phil Hartman went on a blind date with swimsuit model Brynn Omdahl. Although that hadn’t always been her name. A friend later wondered why Omdahl changed her name from Vicki to Vicki Jo and then from Brindon to Brynn. The friend thought it made Omdahl seem unstable—she had no idea how right she was.
Omdahl was sober when she met Hartman, but she hadn’t always been. Omdahl’s beauty blinded Hartman, and he wasn’t able to see any of the warning signs. They got married in 1987—and the countdown to tragedy began.
One day, Phil Hartman was filming an opening credit sequence for Saturday Night Live. In the shoot, Hartman was supposed to be eating dinner, and he asked Omdahl to sit opposite him for the filming. The director knew what he had to do: get shots of Hartman’s face and no one else's. When Omdahl noticed that she wasn’t in the shot, she got angry with the director.
The poor woman just wanted to be on TV. What harm was there in that?
Hartman saw his wife’s need to be on camera and tried to help her. Sadly, even Hartman couldn’t use his connections to get Omdahl into an on-camera role. The consequences were brutal. When she’d had enough of failure, she sadly returned to the bottle. Instead of pacifying Omdahl, booze tended to ignite her.
She often flew into rages, and of course, Hartman was her lone target.
Omdahl really wanted her own career, so when she and Hartman had children it put a monkey wrench in her plans. Sean Edward was born in 1989 and Birgen came three years later. Omdahl had her hands full. She was taking acting lessons, raising two kids, and all the while watching her husband have what she so desperately wanted: fame.
There was something else wrong with the marriage—and it may not have been Omdahl’s fault.
It turned out that Phil Hartman had a disturbing pattern in relationships. At first, he was very emotional with the new person. After some time, however, Hartman tended to retract into himself. His second wife, Strain, had said this, and others who knew him agreed. The problem this time around was that Omdahl was already unstable, so Hartman’s withdrawal from her had a more sinister effect.
Another pattern that Hartman had with his wives was how he argued. Apparently, in the middle of an argument, Hartman would do something bizarre: go to sleep. Hartman said that he did this to let his wife calm down. But you can imagine the frustration. You’re in the middle of an argument, and your partner decides to take a nap.
We’ll soon see how this habit would prove fatal for Hartman.
One example of Omdahl’s instability was when the couple received a “congratulations on the new baby” card after the birth of their son Sean. The problem wasn’t the card, it was who it was from: Hartman’s ex-wife Strain. Omdahl was soon writing a letter of her own to Strain.
In the letter, she told Strain in no uncertain—or polite—terms, to stay away from her family forever. If she didn’t stay away, Strain would “really be sorry”.
While Hartman and Omdahl were working on their marriage, he was finding great success with SNL. Two of his most audience-pleasing characters were Eugene the Anal Retentive Chef and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. It was, however, his impersonations that fans really enjoyed. He had a long list that he could do well.
This included Charlton Heston, Phil Donahue, and even Barbara Bush. There was one, however, that got him into trouble.
One of Hartman’s impressions for SNL was then-US President Bill Clinton. Let’s just say that Hartman’s impression was not at all kind to the junk food-loving President. In 1993, Hartman happened to meet Clinton and Hartman felt a little guilty. He humorously told Clinton: “I guess I owe you a few apologies”.
Clinton didn’t seem too bothered by Hartman’s impression and even later sent him a signed photograph. It was hard to be mad at Hartman, he was such a decent guy.
While working on SNL, Phil Hartman received the nickname “Glue”. Lorne Michaels explained that the nickname was because Hartman sort of held the show together. He was helpful and gave a lot to his fellow cast members. Eventually, Hartman won an Emmy for his writing on SNL and received a nomination for his performance.
Hartman was the toast of New York, but his wife clearly wasn’t feeling the love.
Hartman’s wife Omdahl was not just a model, but an actor too—or at least she wanted to be. You can imagine how tough it would be to be trying to get famous while married to someone who was already so successful. This would be especially true when your only credits were a “waitress” in a movie and two episodes of 3rd Rock from the Sun.
Omdahl wanted to be famous and watching her successful husband was like putting salt in a wound.
Hartman stayed with SNL, even as his favorite castmates left. The show’s creator Lorne Michaels kept Hartman on the show by making him a huge promise. He told Hatman that if he stayed for another year, he’d give him his own show. This is exactly what Hartman wanted. What Hartman envisioned was an old-time variety show.
Unfortunately, Hartman may not have realized that there’s nothing more fickle than a show business executive.
When Phil Hartman was ready to leave SNL and start The Phil Show, NBC suddenly got cold feet. They didn’t think a variety show would appeal to young—and jaded—audiences. You’d think that Hartman would have gone ballistic, but he didn’t. He later confessed that it was a relief. He could see how much work the show would be and knew it would be like “sweatin’ blood” to make it up to his standards.
Hartman was through with Saturday Night Live, and it was time to move on to the next phase of his life.
Phil Hartman hit Los Angeles and soon found work on Fox’s The Simpsons. They brought him in for a one-episode part during the second season, and Hartman ended up doing a total of 52 episodes. His most famous character was certainly Troy McClure—a fictional has-been actor who has to perform degrading infomercials and educational videos. It seemed that wherever Hartman worked, the people there wanted to keep him around.
Obviously, NBC still owed Hartman something after not going through with their promise for a variety show. Their offer was a part on NewsRadio, which was an ensemble sitcom set at a radio station. Hartman’s Bill McNeal was a standout character, and Hartman joked that he basically played himself minus “any ethics”.
Hartman had made a successful transition from New York to LA. And what about his wife? Any chance she was finding success as well?
A move to sunny California should’ve brightened the mood in the Hartman home. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Omdahl was still tired of living in the shadow of her famous husband. Having kids had not settled her, and she was now using both booze and narcotics. At times, Hartman became concerned for his children’s safety.
Omdahl was losing her cool on many occasions, so Hartman would take the kids to a friend's place for their own safety. But it wasn’t just the kids that needed protection.
Since they’d moved to LA, Omdahl had been afraid for her and her family’s safety. Maybe she was used to the hustle and bustle of New York and found it strange to be in a big house, often alone with the kids. To remedy her fears, Omdahl wanted some protection, so she bought a gun. A friend who likely knew about Omdahl’s anger management issues begged her to get rid of it, but she refused.
It seemed like a bad idea for someone with a bad temper to have something like that so close at hand.
While Hartman’s career was going well, his home life was clearly not. Co-workers started to notice something shocking. Hartman was showing up at work with visible scratches on his face. Most people knew that Omdahl had a temper, so they assumed it was she who’d scratched him.
Some nights, Hartman would avoid his home—and his wife—and sleep in the safety of his houseboat. What Hartman needed was someone to talk to about his problems at home.
One of Hartman’s co-stars on NewsRadio was Joe Rogan—who later became the host of The Joe Rogan Experience. Hartman opened up to Rogan about what was going on with his wife back at home. Rogan, after hearing about Omdahl’s behavior, had one thing to say: divorce her immediately. He apparently told him this at least five times over.
Hartman said he couldn’t leave her. He stayed with Omdahl for the sake of the kids—a decision that he wouldn’t live long enough to regret.
Among the other cast members he’d stayed friends with, Phil Hartman had remained close to his ex-SNL scene partner Jan Hooks. Omdahl started looking at her husband’s relationship with Hooks suspiciously. She would sometimes joke that it was like Hartman was married to Hooks and not to her. While these comments came off as jokes, it appears they were more deeply rooted than just a jab.
On the night of May 27, 1998, Omdahl was having an intimate Italian dinner with her friend Christine Zander, who had worked as a writer for SNL. Zander later said that Omdahl seemed to be fine. Yes, they’d had a couple of drinks, but she was in a “good frame of mind”. When Omdahl got home to Hartman, however, that frame of mind turned dark.
When Omdahl got home, she and Hartman got into a terrible fight. It’s not clear when they stopped arguing, but Hartman did his usual thing and went to bed in the middle of the fight. Omdahl had some time to brood, and she also drank more and took some illicit substances.
She then got herself worked up into a frenzy. Omdahl grabbed her pistol and entered their bedroom where Hartman was fast asleep.
Omdahl was obviously in a very agitated state. From outside the bedroom, three loud shots rang out in the large home. The children were fast asleep and luckily didn’t hear anything. When Omdahl saw what she’d done, she was at a loss. She spent an hour drinking more and wondering what she should do next.
Distraught, she decided to call her friend Ron Douglas.
When she got a hold of Douglas on the phone, Ohdahl made up a story. She said that Hartman wasn’t home. According to her, he’d left her a note which said that he was out for the evening. Maybe Omdahl was already concocting a story to explain what had happened. Get herself an alibi. Douglas just told her to calm down and go sleep it off.
Omdahl then left her sleeping kids in the house, got into her car, and headed to Douglas’ home.
Ron Douglas said that Omdahl arrived at his house at 3 am. She immediately headed to the bathroom, where she vomited repeatedly. Once she’d recovered, she told Douglas the horrible truth. She’d shot Hartman. Likely, Douglas had seen his friend in such an agitated state before, so he didn't believe her.
When she showed him the weapon, Douglas was still unconvinced. He looked down into the chamber, and whatever he saw made him think she was lying.
For some reason, Douglas hung on to his belief that Omdahl was lying or mistaken about what she’d done. Just to be on the safe side, he took her pistol and put it in a plastic bag. When her head was clear enough to drive, he asked her to go home. Omdahl agreed on one condition: that he drive in his car behind her.
Douglas agreed and the two set off for the Hartman household. Omdahl knew what they would find there, but Douglas had no idea.
When Omdahl arrived at the house, she and Douglas entered. Douglas, who’d been so sure that Omdahl was lying, finally saw the horrible truth with his own two eyes. He saw that Omdahl had shot Hartman three times: in the chest, in the throat, and finally right between the eyes. Douglas finally realized it was time to call for help.
While he was looking for the landline, Omdahl locked herself in the bedroom—with Hartman’s body.
Once Douglas had called for help, he realized he needed to do something about the children, who were still asleep in their beds. He grabbed Sean, who was nine at this time and took him outside. By this time the officers were already there. He gave Sean to the officers, and he also handed over Omdahl’s weapon.
Another officer went in and got the couple’s daughter Birgen, who was just six years old. At that moment everyone heard a loud bang come from the bedroom where Omdahl was with Hartman’s body.
While in the bedroom with her husband’s body, Omdahl had got a hold of another pistol. She spoke to her sister on the phone for a short time. The loud bang that Douglas, the officers—and probably the children—had heard was Omdahl taking her own life.
Two children lost both their parents that night and the world lost a great comedian.
Of course, once everyone had taken in the tragedy, twisted rumors began to emerge. Neighbors said they knew that the couple had problems—likely they could hear the screaming matches. Actor Steve Guttenberg had the opposite impression. He said they had the “appearance of being well-balanced”.
In Omdahl’s belongings, they found hateful letters Omdahl had written to Hartman’s dear friend Jan Hooks. It seemed that there were two sides to this volatile relationship: the one that they put forward, and then the truthful one.
It came out later that Omdahl had been using a medication called Zoloft partnered with booze and other things. This information prompted Omdahl’s brother Gregory to launch a lawsuit for wrongful death. Gregory’s lawsuit was against Pfizer—the company that made Zoloft—and the doctor who prescribed it to his sister. While this was going on, there was another squabble about Hartman—and this one was a lot more personal.
Jon Lovitz—an SNL colleague and friend of Hartman’s—had someone he wanted to blame for Hartman’s early demise. It was Hartman’s co-star on NewsRadio Andy Dick. Lovitz said that Andy had gotten Omdahl back into recreational drug use: even though she had a history of misusing them.
He had apparently reintroduced Omdahl to illicit substances and the two had used them together. So, what did Andy have to say about this accusation?
Andy did not deny using with Omdahl. What he did deny was something else—he said had no idea about Omdahl’s history of substance use. Lovitz took a while, but he eventually admitted that maybe Andy wasn’t to blame. Andy, however, wasn’t about to let it go. When he saw Lovitz in a LA restaurant in 2006 he said these words to Lovitz: "I put the Phil Hartman hex on you. You're the next one to die".
Lovitz had him removed from the restaurant, but this certainly wasn’t over yet—not by a long shot.
The next year, 2007, Lovitz ran into Andyat the comedy club, The Laugh Factory. The two men soon got into a heated argument, again about Hartman. Andywas continuing to say that he was not responsible for Hartman’s demise. Lovitz wasn’t buying it—and he finally took out his anger over losing his friend. He ended up taking Andy's head and banging it against the bar.
While the adults work out what went wrong with Hartman and Omdahl, let’s not forget about the kids.
The real victims in all this, of course, are Hartman and Omdahl’s children. Omdahl’s sister Katherine and her husband Mike Wright stepped up and took over raising the children. Luckily, they lived far from the paparazzi of Hollywood—in Wisconsin. The kids didn’t need to worry about money, as Hartman had taken great care with his will. The children would get lump sums of money at different points through their adult life. He was a caring man to the end.
But it wasn’t really about the money, was it? What about the kids’ mental health?
It may be because of all the media around his parents’ passing, but the adult Sean Hartman has kept himself completely out of the spotlight. All we know about him is that he lives in Oakland, California and he—like his father—is a visual artist and also a musician. Birgen has grown into a stunning beauty. Based on her Instagram account, Toronto is her favorite city, and she had a spectacular wedding in Italy.
On the surface it seems that the kids have done alright—but it seems to me that only time will tell.
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