A Mandate for Mimicry . . . : Comedy: Impersonations of the President-elect may forever change the career of ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Phil Hartman.
Phil Hartman, the “Saturday Night Live” veteran who has received raves for his dead-eye impersonation of Bill Clinton, drafted a long letter this week to the President-elect.
“I don’t want him to be offended,” Hartman said from NBC’s studios in New York, explaining that he had voted for Clinton. “Whatever I say or do, I want him to know that I’m on his side, and I’m a fan. I’m a satirist, and satire on the surface can seem cutting and mean, but it’s my job to impersonate him on network TV.”
With Clinton getting ready to move into the White House for at least four years, Hartman figures to be doing a lot of impersonating. And just as colleague Dana Carvey’s portrayal of President Bush on “Saturday Night Live” helped launch him to fame and a multitude of movie and TV opportunities, Clinton’s election may be the springboard to a higher profile fame for the 44-year-old Hartman, whose congenial personality and eagerness to blend in have made him the entertainment equivalent of the bridesmaid but never the bride.
Consider that Hartman has written and sold eight screenplays to Hollywood over the last 10 years, including the sequel to Steve Martin’s “The Jerk,” but only one of them (“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” which he wrote with Paul Reubens) has been produced.
He has been in the films “Blind Date,” “Fletch Lives,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “The Three Amigos” and others--but only in minor roles.
In seven seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” Hartman has performed at least 50 impersonations by his count, including Ronald Reagan, Liberace and Barbara Bush. Producer Lorne Michaels calls him “the glue” that holds the show together because he can impersonate virtually anybody. But he has never had an original break-out character--such as the Copy Machine Guy, the Church Lady or androgynous Pat--who people imitate at work on Monday beside the water cooler.
“I must say, it doesn’t bother me, because I never expected it to be any other way,” Hartman said of his low-profile status. “Part of the reason is that I got this career relatively late. I was in my mid-30s when I was hired for ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I was happy just to be doing something that I love. I’m not a terribly ambitious person in the sense of . . . .”
He trailed off for a moment. “All of us know performers who feel it’s their destiny to become big stars. I feel it’s my destiny to do good work.”
In an interview five years ago, Hartman accurately predicted that his friend Carvey (their wives are best friends) would be the star of the new “Saturday Night Live” cast. Even in their best skits together, Carvey plays the featured performer--Ross Perot or Johnny Carson--while Hartman plays the sidekick--Adm. James B. Stockdale or Ed McMahon.
“Dana comes from a stand-up comedy background,” Hartman explained. “He has refined instincts working one-on-one with audiences, milking every line. I come from an ensemble performance background (the Los Angeles improvisational group the Groundlings), and I like to work in a scene. I tend to be more exactly like the person I’m impersonating, while Dana is an expert with caricature.”
Hartman says his stock has already risen as a result of his Clinton, whom he doesn’t expect to be doing regularly until Clinton takes office. (There is not a Clinton sketch scheduled for tonight’s show, the first new installment since the Nov. 3 election.)
“I’ve been able to define the character on national television,” he said. “Off hand, no one has had more exposure in the character than me. And I feel it’s a fairly successful impersonation, right down to the fact that I resemble him so much. We’re both stocky guys with big jaws and bulbous noses. It’s uncanny.”
There was a point right before he was hired by NBC in 1986 that Hartman, who used to operate a graphic design shop creating rock ‘n’ roll album covers and logos, was ready to leave acting behind.
“I had spoken to a vice president of ABC--the head of casting,” he recalled. “He said to me, ‘What do you like to do?’ I said, ‘I love to do characters, just lose myself in an impersonation, or accent, or dialect.’ He said, ‘We don’t hire that. Look at network television. It’s Tony Danza and Ted Danson acting like themselves. I suggest you go back to acting school and find what’s funny about Phil Hartman.’ I had actually decided to quit at that point. I wasn’t that secure with myself. I felt vulnerable trying to be anything close to myself on stage or in front of a camera. I felt more comfortable being buried in a person. The deeper the burial, the better. Playing Captain Carl on ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ was the best. You couldn’t even recognize me.”
Now Hartman, a native of Canada who became an American citizen in 1990, is having the last laugh on ABC or anyone else who passed him over. He is in the third year of an exclusive contract with NBC that includes a prime-time series with a rare guarantee of nine episodes. Hartman will write, produce and star in the project for the spring of 1994.
If that works out, Hartman would like to settle permanently in California with his wife and two children. If not, he expects to have a standing offer to continue with “Saturday Night Live.”
In the meantime, he’s meeting with his agents at William Morris to explore opportunities for outside performances and public appearances as Clinton. Carvey was paid as much as $30,000 to speak at sales meetings and business conferences as Bush, and he impersonated the President a couple years ago at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
“I can’t emphasize how much I like this gig,” he said. “We’re made for each other. I’m just an average guy, with average looks. I can’t compete on a cute level with people who become stars in Hollywood. But they can’t do what I do. I come in a plain brown wrapper, and if I change my clothing, tweak my voice and put on a wig, I can look like Bill Clinton, Phil Donahue, Roger Ebert or anybody. That’s what I do.”