Frank Sinatra to Tonya Harding: ”Ya know, if ya want ta do a job, ya don’t tap ’em on da knee wid a metal rod. It’s da old Louisville Slugger, baby!” Actually, it’s not Sinatra, but an incredible simulation: Phil Hartman, whose renditions of the Chairman, Bill Clinton, and an unfrozen caveman lawyer have made Saturday Night Live tingle for eight seasons. He’s sitting at a bulky picnic table on the brick patio of his opulent Encino, Calif., ranch house, going on about the characters he’s lining up for his own prime-time NBC variety show, expected to debut this fall. Characters like Chick Hazard, a hard-boiled ’40s detective: ”I’m a sucker for long legs. I wanted to shinny up one of hers like a native boy looking for coconuts,” says Hartman, breaking himself up, while somewhere deep inside the house the real Sinatra sings from a speaker.
When Hartman, 45, waves goodbye to SNL at the end of this season, he will leave a legacy of 153 shows — a record for a regular cast member. While colleagues like Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, and Jan Hooks cashed in on their late-night success in Hollywood, he stayed behind. ”I haven’t had the breakout character,” he says without much regret. ”I’ve sorta been going, ‘Well, I guess it’s not in the cards for me.”’
Now the cards are being reshuffled. As Frank, the pastel-clad slimeball in the new comedy Greedy, he’s getting the highest critical marks in a cast that includes Kirk Douglas and Michael J. Fox. Off camera he was equally entertaining. ”His Spartacus was more Kirk than Kirk,” says director Jonathan Lynn, who offered Hartman a leading role in his next film, Sgt. Bilko. ”It was funny watching them speak to each other in the same voice.”
His SNL colleagues call him ”The Glue”: He holds the show together. ”I’ve served the same role that Dan Aykroyd did,” says Hartman, ”the average guy who you could put wigs and glasses and noses on and make into a lot of different things. I’ve been sympathetic dads, scary attorneys, insane killers, and Frank Sinatra, who is sort of an amalgam of all those things.”
His SNL relationship, however, may not be ending so amicably. Recently the New York Daily News reported that executive producer Lorne Michaels was so upset by Hartman’s departure that he was punishing him by leaving him out of sketches. Hartman calls the item ”way off the mark. For one thing, Lorne Michaels is a friend of mine. This is the guy who gave me a new lease on life.” Hartman does, however, criticize the show’s attempts to please its younger viewers. ”The shows are getting less sophisticated,” he says. ”There’s less political satire. The younger audience loves Adam Sandler [Opera Man]. He appeals less to the intellect and more to that stand-up sensibility of ‘Let’s go out there and be insane.’ I like Adam Sandler, but that’s not my kind of comedy, so, yeah, in a way it makes me feel like, ‘Well, it’s time for me to go.”’ Michaels was unavailable for comment.
The Phil Show will be Hartman’s reward for nearly two decades of dues paying that began when he left graphic design (he came up with the Crosby, Stills & Nash logo) to join the Groundlings, an L.A. improv troupe. There he helped Paul Reubens develop his Pee-wee Herman act and cowrote the 1985 hit Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Before Laraine Newman and Penny Marshall recommended him for SNL, he toiled in a half dozen TV pilots and stuff like Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie.
Hartman hopes that Phil will be a beacon to those feeling disenfranchised not only by SNL but by ”the entire Fox network, [which] seems skewed toward an urban, booty-doody humor.”
”Yeah,” he says. ”It’s all, like, ‘Look at the size of his butt!‘ It’s the kind of thing that makes middle-class white people cringe. Their a –holes slam shut. You can hear it.”
A middle child among eight siblings, Hartman moved to Southern California when he was 12 and spent most of adolescence surfing. After his final SNL on May 14, he will return to Encino full-time with his third wife, Brynn, 36, an actress who will work on The Phil Show, and their children, Sean, 5, and Birgen, 2. Sitting in a flannel shirt and nerdy glasses, flanked by the pool and barbecue, he says, ”I’ve always had this notion that I was an anachronism. I always looked like a guy from the ’40s.” He removes his glasses, while Sinatra and Streisand go at it on the stereo. ”I should’ve been a bomber pilot or something.”