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The Tragic Murder-Suicide That Took Phil Hartman’s Talented Life
The Saturday Night Live star's own wife shot him while he slept. Why?
Phil Hartman was an actor and comedian with a prolific career, famous for his sketches on Saturday Night Live and for his voice acting appearances on The Simpsons. But his work and life was cut short after his wife killed him in a murder-suicide that made headlines for its shocking nature.
Born in 1948, the Canadian actor was one of Doris and Rupert Hartmann's eight children. He joked that being a middle child motivated him to become a comedian and actor. "I suppose I didn't get what I wanted out of my family life, so I started seeking love and attention elsewhere," he once said, according to CBS News.
The family eventually moved from their home in Canada to the East Coast, briefly living in Maine and Connecticut before putting down roots in California. After graduating from Westchester High School, he briefly enrolled in classes at Santa Monica City College but dropped out in 1969 and worked as a roadie for various rock bands. It was during this time that he also appeared on The Dating Game show — just not the same episode as serial killer Rodney Alcala.
Hartman later returned to college and received a degree in graphic design at California State University, Northridge, later putting his degree to work designing album covers for bands like Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Phil Hartman's Movie and TV Shows
Hartman created the character Pee-wee Herman along with comedian Paul Reubens before becoming a Simpsons staple, known for voicing several of the show's characters including actor Troy McClure and lawyer Lionel Hutz.
He also joined the hit NBC sketchy series Saturday Night Live, doing impressions of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Phil Donahue and Bill Clinton in addition to original characters throughout his eight seasons on the show. Executive producer Lorne Michaels said he was nicknamed "Glue" on the show set because "He kind of held the show together. He gave to everybody and demanded very little. He was very low-maintenance," according to People.
Besides his work on SNL and The Simpsons, he appeared in multiple movies, including Jingle All The Way, and recorded a number of voice-over roles. Notably, he voiced Henry Mitchell and George Wilson in Dennis the Menace cartoons.
Phil Hartman and Wife Brynn
While his career thrived, his personal life was rocky, particularly his relationship with his third wife Brynn, a model and actress whom he had two children with.
To outsiders, Hartman and Brynn, who met on a blind date in 1986, seemed like a good match. A Buca di Beppo bartender who was familiar with the pair told People, "They always held hands and laughed and seemed like they were having a good time.”
But those who knew the pair were aware the couple had problems. "[Brynn] had trouble controlling her anger," Steve Small, an attorney who represented Hartman's two previous divorces told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. "Phil said he had to . . . restrain her at times."
Small additionally told People, "Phil was always very open with the public, but at home he retreated inside."
Hartman and Brynn had separated on several occasions. She even allegedly threatened to kill one of Phil's former wives, according to a the New York Daily News.
Several of Phil’s friends did not approve did not approve of Brynn, who reportedly had substance use issues, CNN reported. Singer-songwriter Linda Thompson told People that Brynn allegedly sought treatment at a facility in 1998, though her stay was brief.
"She admitted she’d had a couple of episodes when she’d fallen off the wagon,” Thompson said. "I remember her saying she didn’t want to be an addict."
Phil Hartman's Death
On May 28, 1998, it's believed that Brynn's substance abuse triggered the couple's murder-suicide.
That night, Brynn had a drink at Buca di Beppo with her friend Christine Zander, who told People that Brynn was "in a good frame of mind." However, when Brynn returned to the Encino home she shared with Hartman, they got into a debate over her drug usage. The argument turned deadly and Brynn shot her husband three times, once in the chest and twice in the head, with a .38-caliber handgun as their children slept upstairs.
After Brynn killed Phil, she went to a friend’s home inebriated and distraught, according to People. She confessed that she murdered her husband, but her friend didn't believe her. Then, the concerned friend returned to the Hartman home with Brynn to see for himself. When they discovered Phil's body, they called 911.
When police arrived at the house, they found the couple’s young children, aged 9 and 6 at the time, unharmed. As they were ushering out the children, Police heard a single shot from a bedroom of the home, CNN reported in 1998.
Both Phil and Brynn were then found dead in the couple’s bedroom. A toxicology report later showed that Brynn's blood alcohol content was .12 percent and she had traces of cocaine and Zoloft in her system at the time of her death, CNN reported.
"Between the cocaine and alcohol, the two of them most definitely intensified the other's effects," County Coroner's Investigator Craig Harvey said. "The Zoloft is kind of a wild card."
"We know for sure [Brynn Hartman] inflicted her own gunshot wound, and she apparently shot herself as the officers were in the house," Lt. Anthony Alba of the Los Angeles Police Department said at the time. "Mr. Hartman had been dead for a while. He did not die at the same time that Mrs. Hartman apparently killed herself."
The comedy world reeled after the tragedy.
"This is a tragedy in so many ways," Mike Scully, executive producer of The Simpsons, told the Los Angeles Times. "Phil was just tremendous fun to work with. The minute he said hello, you were laughing."
(This article was originally published on January 3, 2018. It was updated on May 23, 2023.)