A look back at the late comedian's brilliant career

By Ken Tucker
Updated May 29, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Phil Hartman wasn’t a wild man like Chris Farley, or a ranting guy like Dennis Miller, or a snide whippersnapper like David Spade — his style was more subtle, more deceptive. His conventional-guy demeanor and deep, hearty voice were his secret weapons: With them, he could momentarily fool audiences into thinking he was the straight man, but then he’d cock an eyebrow and give his voice an ironic lilt that delivered a punchline like a fast slider — you barely saw it coming until you started laughing. This was as true of Hartman in person as it was of his brilliant and varied voice work on “The Simpsons.”

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On “Saturday Night Live,” Hartman was used for his impersonations. His Bill Clinton captured the silky smoothness of Slick Willie in a way no other comedian ever did; he wasn’t afraid to play Frank Sinatra as a bullying thug; and his Phil Donahue was a work of minor genius: First of all because no one “did” Donahue, second because once Hartman had done him — as a hectoring, hammering yammerer — Donahue could never be taken seriously again.

Hartman’s role on “NewsRadio” was more confining, but no less cunningly interpreted. A lesser performer handed the role of pompous radio announcer Bill McNeal would have played him as a variation on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”‘s Ted Baxter, because that’s what Bill was, on paper. But Hartman gave infinite variety to Bill’s self-centeredness, turning him devious, cowardly, squeamish, and foolishly bold from week to week.

In a way, Phil Hartman was like the young Bob Hope — a very smooth wise guy. But when you saw him in interviews, what also came across was his heart — he must have been the most humble, least egomaniacal performer to ever emerge from the hothouse atmosphere of “Saturday Night Live.” Hartman will be missed in the livid late-’90s for his rare calmness and grace.

Jim Carrey gets serious in “The Truman Show”

“The Truman Show,” which opens next Friday, is about a man who finds out his entire life is being televised. With his face on the cover of this week’s Time, New York magazine, and Entertainment Weekly, it seems Jim Carrey is getting nearly as much exposure as his character.

Carrey’s role as Truman Burbank is being touted as the comic’s move into “serious” acting. “It’s not Shakespeare,” Carrey told EW’s Benjamin Svetkey, “but it’s a more human character than any I’ve done.” Ever the comedian, Carrey’s inner clown would occasionally burst forth on the set. Director Peter Weir filmed these antic moments, then asked Carrey to do another take without the jokes. “There’s a scene with Truman mowing the lawn,” says Weir. “Jim did this silent-comedy thing. He danced with the lawn mower, not unlike Fred Astaire dancing with the coatrack. But it was too much. It didn’t fit with the tone of the picture. I told him, ‘We must now have you puttering in the garden without doing anything funny.'”