An EW writer’s transcript of a 1995 interview with Phil Hartman ends with ”married to Brynn, two children, my son Sean is 6, my daughter Birgen is 3, and we’re very happy.” Those words echoed chillingly on May 28, 1998, when the 49-year-old Saturday Night Live vet was shot dead by his wife, who then fatally turned the gun on herself.
It was an unexpectedly lurid exit for a man who had projected a regular-guy image throughout his brilliant comedic career. Born in Canada, Hartman grew up in Connecticut and studied graphic design at California State University, Northridge. He created album covers for ’70s rock bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash before making a name as an improv comic with L.A.’s Groundlings troupe. In 1986, he joined SNL, where, in his eight-year tenure, he transformed himself into everybody from Bill Clinton to Barbara Bush. Ready for prime time, he earned big yuks doing various voices on Fox’s The Simpsons (1991-98) and as gasbag anchorman Bill McNeal on NBC’s NewsRadio (1995-98). ”Making people laugh was his great joy in life,” says his NewsRadio costar Andy Dick. ”And he was so good at it.”
Hartman’s personal life wasn’t so funny. The twice-divorced actor reportedly met Brynn on a blind date in 1986, when she was a swimsuit model, and married her the following year. She was a high school dropout who changed her name at least four times (having been born Vicki Omdahl in Thief River Falls, Minn.) and had a history of substance-abuse problems. After an almost bump-free decade on the wagon, she started drinking and drugging again not long before the tragedy. Friends later said Phil had threatened to leave Brynn if she didn’t sober up. On the evening of May 27, 1998, she downed two cosmopolitans at an Italian eatery before heading to the Hartmans’ Encino home — and shooting her husband with a .38 three times as he slept. As the LAPD escorted the children out of the house hours later, Brynn secluded herself in the master bedroom with Phil’s body and committed suicide.
In addition to being legally drunk, Brynn was found to have traces of cocaine and the antidepressant Zoloft in her body. A 1999 wrongful-death lawsuit filed by her family against Pfizer (maker of Zoloft) and L.A. area physician Arthur Sorosky (who gave Brynn a sample of the drug) was quietly settled out of court. The money will go into a college fund for Sean and Birgen, who shortly after their parents’ deaths moved in with Brynn’s sister in Wisconsin.
”The kids are doing great,” reports attorney Karen A. Barth. ”They’re really trying to normalize their lives.” That’s the happiest possible ending for such a sad story.
(Additional reporting by Dan Snierson)