From the Archives: Actor Phil Hartman, Wife Killed in Murder-Suicide
By Solomon Moore and Greg Braxton and T. Christian Miller
May 29, 1998 | 12:00 AM
Former "Saturday Night Live" comic Phil Hartman was shot to death early Thursday, apparently by his wife, who killed herself as police were shepherding the couple's two children from the family's million-dollar Encino home.
Officers responding to a call of shots fired at the home arrived to find the couple's 9-year-old, Sean, fleeing out the front door. They took the boy to safety, then returned to get his 6-year-old sister, Birgen. A single shot was heard--Hartman's wife, Brynn Hartman, 41, apparently killed herself as police took her daughter from the home.
Upon searching the home, police found the Hartmans dead in the couple's upstairs bedroom in their home in the 5000 block of Encino Avenue, a tree-lined street of pricey homes just north of Ventura Boulevard.
Phil Hartman, 49, clad in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, was lying on his side on the bloody bed.
Brynn Hartman, in a two-piece sleep suit, was on her back.
There was no sign of a struggle, police said.
The two young children, who police said suffered no physical injuries, were distraught as they were escorted away in their pajamas to a police station for questioning, authorities said. A family spokesman said relatives were flying into Los Angeles on Thursday evening to take custody of the children.
Although the coroner's office did not release a time of death, police believed that Brynn Hartman killed her husband before they reached the house at 6:20 a.m.
"Mr. Hartman had been dead for a while," police spokesman Lt. Anthony Alba said.
The apparent murder-suicide shocked fellow stars and longtime friends of Hartman, a gifted mimic who was known for masterful impersonations of such figures as President Bill Clinton and Liberace.
Hartman starred in the current NBC situation comedy "NewsRadio," provided voices for "The Simpsons," and appears in "Small Soldiers," a movie set for release next month. He joins Chris Farley, John Belushi and Gilda Radner in the ranks of "Saturday Night Live" alumni who have suffered untimely deaths.
"This is a tragedy in so many ways," said Mike Scully, executive producer of "The Simpsons," the animated series for which Hartman supplied the voices of such recurring bit characters as washed-up actor Troy McClure and lawyer Lionel Hutz. "Phil was just tremendous fun to work with. The minute he said hello, you were laughing."
Some close to the family said the slayings seemed a shocking final burst of anger from Brynn Hartman, who they described as having a mercurial temper.
"She had trouble controlling her anger," said Steve Small, an attorney who handled Hartman's two previous divorces and stayed in frequent contact with Hartman.
"She got attention by losing her temper," said Small, adding that the two had separated more than once. "Phil said he had to . . . restrain her at times."
Police said they were unaware of any previous visits to the Hartman residence. The couple had been married since 1987.
Reached at their home in North Dakota, Brynn Hartman's family declined to comment. "We're still in shock," her mother, Constance Omdahl, told the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald.
Stan Rosenfield, a spokesman for Brynn Hartman's brother and sister, said the family was concerned for the welfare of the children.
"This a situation that occurred that redefines tragedy in every conceivable way," Rosenfield said. "There are two very young children and their needs must be attended to."
Craig Harvey, the coroner's chief investigator, said police told him that a man was at the home when police arrived and that the man had placed a 911 call. Police declined to confirm the account.
Harvey said police took two revolvers from the scene. A woman who described herself as a friend of Brynn Hartman said the former model, who recently changed her name from Vicki Jo, bought a gun upon relocating from New York to Los Angeles about six years ago because she felt unsafe in the family's four-bedroom, five-bath, 4,000-square-foot home.
"She had guns in the house, but I begged her to get rid of them," said the friend, who met Brynn shortly after she arrived in Los Angeles. "She didn't feel safe in this house" because he worked long hours and she was alone with the children so much, the friend said.
The woman and her sister said they talked frequently with Brynn and knew of no marital discord. Both described Brynn Hartman as a doting mother who took great pride in her two children.
But other friends and neighbors said there were clues of trouble in the marriage, Phil Hartman's third.
Andrea Diamond, who said she had been a friend of the couple for six years, said Brynn had spoken to her about problems in the marriage but "I didn't take it seriously--he's in the industry, those kinds of things happen all the time."
"There were rumors," Diamond said. "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, Hartman's second wife, said she was "completely shocked" when she heard about the deaths.
"He always talked about his children, and how he and Brynn were working it out," said Strain, who divorced Hartman in 1985 but remained friends with him.
Hartman was born in Canada in 1948, and the family moved to Los Angeles in 1960. His father, Rupert, sold roofing supplies and building materials.
Hartman attended schools in Westchester and showed an early interest in drama. During his junior high school years at Orville Wright Junior High, he shared the stage with Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who is serving a life sentence for the attempted assassination of then-President Gerald R. Ford.
Even after Hartman left Westchester and became famous, he never lost touch with old friends and remained down to earth, a comment repeated over and over during interviews Thursday.
Nora Kanoy, 49, said Hartman was her first love during the time the two attended elementary school together. Back in town for a high school reunion, Hartman paid her a visit.
"We barbecued at the beach. We talked about old times and he met my girls, which they loved," Kanoy said. "He wasn't bigheaded. He was always funny. He was an honest, good, down-to-earth person."
Hartman attended Santa Monica College and Cal State Northridge, where he majored in graphic design. An early highlight was designing the logo for Crosby, Stills & Nash.
In 1975, he joined the Groundlings, an improvisational Los Angeles comedy group. Tim Stack, a former member of the Groundlings, recalled the actor/comedian as a generous friend and devoted family man.
At a lunch the two men had at a San Fernando Valley deli two weeks ago, Hartman talked about reducing his workload this summer so that he could spend more time with his family.
Hartman never talked of trouble within the family or marriage, Stack said. "In fact, that was the weird thing," he recalled. "He had such great affection for Brynn. He said, 'This is the one that's for real.' The crazy years were behind him."
Hartman helped create the Pee-wee Herman persona of comedian Paul Reubens after meeting him in 1978, and shared co-writing credit on the 1985 feature "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." However, his career didn't really take off until he joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in 1986.
Hartman's average looks and poker face helped him do imitations of more than 50 characters, including Ed McMahon, Ronald Reagan and Jack Nicholson.
NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield spoke of Hartman's importance to "Saturday Night Live."
"Phil just flourished there," Littlefield said. "He was the go-to everyman. He became so many characters and such an integral part of the ensemble through some great years."
Hartman left "Saturday Night Live" in 1994. In 1990, he began doing regular voices on "The Simpsons" and in 1995, he began starring in the role of a self-centered and arrogant anchor on "NewsRadio." Littlefield said no decision has yet been made about the future of "NewsRadio," which is scheduled to return in the fall.
Hartman was also active in the community, participating in such causes as 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.
With material success secured, friends and family said, the Hartmans had increasingly expressed a desire in recent years to focus on their children.
Their son Sean was a particular source of pride, according to Stack. He followed in his father's footsteps as a graphic artist, and Hartman would brag that the boy's talent far exceeded his own. Daughter Birgen, other friends said, had Hartman's gift for comedy.
Hartman's death, friends said, came at the peak of a long climb toward success.
"I have a plane. I have a boat. I have a great house. I have a great family. In fact I have everything I ever wanted," film director Joe Dante recalled Hartman telling him recently. "It feels great."
Phil Hartman 1948-1998
Sept. 24, 1948: Born in Brantford, Canada.
1960: Moved to Southern California. He attended Cal State Northridge and worked as a graphic artist, creating rock 'n' roll album covers. Designed logo for Crosby, Stills & Nash.
1975: Joined Los Angeles comedy improvisation troupe the Groundlings. His work there with fellow performer Paul Reubens led to appearances on Reubens' CBS series, "Pee-wee's Playhouse." Hartman also co-wrote the 1985 film, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."
1986: Joined cast of "Saturday Night Live," and remained on the show for eight seasons. Best known for his impressions of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra and Ed McMahon.
1990: Became a U.S. citizen.
1990: Began regular work with "The Simpsons," providing the voices of such characters as actor Troy McClure and lawyer Lionel Hutz. Appeared on 49 episodes, recording the final one on April 22 for telecast in the fall.
1995: Hired to play egotistical newscaster Bill McNeal on "NewsRadio," a comedy still running on NBC.
May 28, 1998: Killed in his Encino home.
Times staff writers Vanessa Hua, Eric Rimbert, Andrew Blankstein, John J. Goldman, Jeff Leeds and Jill Leovy, Times correspondent Joe Mozingo and freelance writer Clifford Rothman contributed to this story.