Like many of the tragedies that seem to curse the City of Angels, it came swiftly, boldly, without warning, leaving in its wake profound shock and bewilderment.
Suddenly, the morning of May 28, the city’s — and nation’s — attention shifted to a sleepy Encino side street, where a hundred or so people watched and waited behind ribbons of yellow police tape as another media circus kicked off. A woman collapsed in tears as a phalanx of reporters engulfed her. A vendor hawked cookies in the tangle of camera crews. Journalists settled into beach chairs, puffing cigars they’d packed to pass the time. From remote locales, celebs and pundits pinned mikes to their lapels, tributizing and hypothesizing away.
And then there were the millions of us, flipping between CNN and MSNBC, in search of a quick-fix answer to the grotesquely inexplicable: Phil Hartman, genial star of NewsRadio, was dead, apparently murdered by his wife, Brynn, who later turned a gun on herself. In disbelief, we watched the same heartbreaking scene again and again: Hartman’s 6-year-old daughter Birgen, still in her nightgown, clinging to the neck of a police officer as they scurried from the nightmare in her home.
”Death of a…” reports never fail to rumple the soul, but this one seemed particularly bizarre. (That the story was broken by newscasters with the exact sort of hammed-up seriousness that Hartman often spoofed made it positively surreal; you could almost envision him in the anchor chair, delivering his own grisly scoop.) By all accounts, the 49-year-old Hartman was a decidedly regular guy, beloved by everyone he worked with. ”I’ve always been enamored with him, how he carried himself and lived life,” says his NewsRadio costar Andy Dick, who considered Hartman a mentor. ”He was a clean, honest, sincere, fair man who could do no wrong in my book. He had his s — – together, he really did.”
By Hollywood standards, Hartman’s personal and professional lives seemed picket-fence sturdy: He’d grown into one of the best all-around utility players in comedy, first breaking out as an uncanny impressionist on Saturday Night Live, more recently as NewsRadio’s self-amused radio jock Bill McNeal and characters on The Simpsons. Off camera, he opted for low-key; his big passions were flying, sailing, and guitars. ”Phil was one of the easiest-going, most normal guys,” says producer Terry Turner, who cast him twice in his 3rd Rock From the Sun and wrote for him at SNL. ”If he wasn’t in show business, he would have been the guy who ran the Buick dealership.”
The affable Hartman, in other words, was the last person you’d expect to read about in lurid headlines in your morning paper. Yet there he was, the actor who believed he wasn’t handsome enough to play leading men, elevated to A-list media treatment. In national newscasts, reports of the murder-suicide overshadowed breaking reports of nuclear tests in Pakistan. The Simpsons’ producers sent the show’s cast members home just minutes before rehearsal was to begin. The Groundlings — the famed L.A. improv troupe that jump-started Hartman’s comedy career — canceled their performance that night. Friends and colleagues (and Steve Guttenberg in particular) grieved for news cameras or issued emotional press releases. Rita Wilson, who costarred with Phil in Jingle All the Way and was a friend of the family, says of the Hartmans, ”The thing that freaks everyone out is that this was not them. He was a great dad, she was a really good mom. This is so uncharacteristic of how they were together.”