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Culture Shock

COMMENTARY

Hartman's comedy should live on

  • PHIL-HARTMAN

    Comedian Phil Hartman smiles as he makes an appearance at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, May 4, 1998.

    Associated Press

  • PHIL-HARTMAN-1

    Comedic actor Phil Hartman is show with his wife, Brynn, in this Oct. 1992 file photo. The former 'Saturday Night Live' cast member and his wife were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide in their Encino (Calif.) home Thursday morning, May 28, 1998.

    Associated Press

  • Kirk-baird-mug-1

Not everyone deserves a happy ending. Phil Hartman did.

The brilliant comic-actor, who became a star on Saturday Night Live, showed his impressive acting chops on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio, and was beloved by almost everyone, was shot to death at the age of 49 by his wife, Brynn Hartman, 41, who then committed suicide in the couple's bedroom, even as police got the couple's 6-year-old daughter out of the home. The Hartman’s 9-year-old son was fleeing from the home just as the police arrived while responding to a call that shots were fired in the home.

May 28 marks the 20th anniversary of this gut-wrenching tragedy that stunned Hartman's friends, colleagues, and those of us who were — and are — fans. Sadly, Hartman is remembered as much for his death than for his life and work. His middling legacy of movies has much to do with that.

His last film, Small Soldiers, released nearly a month and a half after his death, is typical of his big-screen oeuvre (Coneheads, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Sgt. Bilko, Jingle All the Way, House Guest), which mostly featured Hartman in small to medium roles in forgettable and now forgotten comedies.

The actor’s best movie, in fact, has him onscreen for only a minute as an unnamed reporter who asks the question, “When exactly did you become blood brothers?”

The film was Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which Hartman co-wrote with the film’s star Paul Reubens.

The pair met as members of the famed Los Angeles improv group, the Groundlings, in the 1970s and worked together to develop Pee-wee Herman into a surrealist swipe at children’s shows into a cult hit that led to mainstream film and award-winning Saturday morning TV show. This link shows Hartman performing as salty sea dog Captain Carl, one of several frequent visitors to Pee-wee's Playhouse.

Hartman's big break, of course, was as a performer and occasional writer on Saturday Night Live, where he played presidents, actors, the Chairman of the Board, and an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, from 1986 through 1994.

Among his best work: Hartman's President Bill Clinton stops at a McDonald's for a Big Mac while on a jog with his Secret Service protection.

Hartman's portrayal of President Ronald Reagan as a genius “mastermind” who parades the forgetful public persona as cover for his wheeling and dealing is political parody at its best.

After leaving SNL, Hartman won raves and received an Emmy nomination as snobby, overly confident, and not-so-competent radio newsman Bill McNeal on NewsRadio. Watch how Hartman elevated this cane as a predictable prop gag into a graceful physical comedy.

And of course, no remembrance of Hartman's career is complete without his stellar guest work as rather shady characters on The Simpsons:

Has-been actor Troy McClure and Planet of the Apes the Musical

Shyster “attorney-at-law” Lionel Hutz.

But I'll close the column with something that isn’t particularly funny: “Love Is a Dream,” an SNL short with Hartman as a dashing young prince who sings and sweeps an elderly woman-turned beautiful young princess played by Jan Hooks off her feet. Like Hartman, Hooks also died far too young: at age 57 from cancer in October, 2014.

This elegant 1930s-style dance homage was out of place when it premiered in 1988; Hartman’s good-bye smile and salute to Hooks, and Hooks sweetly blowing him a kiss in return was too sweet and innocent for a show heavy on satire. Three decades later, “Love is a Dream” still isn’t funny. But it is the poignant and elusive fairy-tale ending they deserved.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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