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The Incomparable Phil Hartman
by Tim Josephs

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In three days it will be the 12th anniversary of Phil Hartman's death, so I thought I'd take some time to reflect on this very funny and talented man.

Originally from Canada, Hartman moved to the U.S. with his family when he was ten. He studied art in college and began his own graphic arts business eventually creating over forty album covers for bands such as Poco and America.

On a whim he joined the comedy troupe The Groundlings in 1975 and began honing his skills as a comedic actor. There he met Paul Reubens and the two became friends and writing partners. From their collaborations Pee-wee Herman was born and Hartman regularly appeared on the first season of Pee-wee's Playhouse.

In 1986 Hartman joined Saturday Night Live. I still remember being around ten or so and sneaking out of
bed to watch SNL. He was a mainstay on the show from the mid-80s to the mid-90s and arguably the most talented cast member during that time, which, in my opinion, was the show's hay-day.

It seemed like there was no person (real or imagined) Hartman couldn't play. He did a great Clinton as well as Sinatra and Donahue. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Frankenstein, and the Anal Retentive Chef (Carpenter, Fisherman) were also great characters. He was called the "glue" that held the show together and won an Emmy in 1989.

And of course he frequently voiced two excellent characters on The Simpsons: B-movie actor Troy McClure and inept lawyer Lionel Hutz. Although they weren't in every episode, they were two of the best secondary characters and even to this day I think the show is lacking without

Hartman was on the funny NewsRadio for its first four seasons playing pompous Bill McNeal. He joked that he based McNeal on himself with "any ethics and character" removed. That show also suffered after his death.

As for movies, Hartman didn't make a lot of them and when he did he was rarely a main character. He co-wrote PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE and also appeared at the very end as a reporter. He also had small parts in THREE AMIGOS and JUMPIN' JACK FLASH as well as some others.

His role as an Alcatraz tour guide in SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER might be the funniest part of the movie. Every once in a while one of his lines comes into my head and I chuckle: "My name is John Johnson but everyone here calls me Vicky."

When I first found out Phil Hartman had died it honestly shook me a
little. At that point (and probably to this day as well) I couldn't remember ever being too affected by the death of a celebrity, but then I was. And it wasn't just the seedy, tabloid-ish way Hartman was killed. I can't really explain it but I think it was mostly the fact that I had grown up watching him. Laughing at his characters and antics on some of the best shows on TV became a routine, and then suddenly he was gone.

And although Hartman said his standard character was a "jerky guy", and described his usual roles as "the weasel parade," he still usually came off as likeable. And whenever you saw him (or heard him as the case might have been) on screen, you knew it was going to be good and funny. In that way he was always reliable, and although it's been twelve years, he's still greatly missed by me and many others.

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Mike Thomas
May 25, 2010 1:12 AM
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Some of his later roles were funny too. As the materialistic dad in TOY SOLDIERS and the sleazy housedad in JINGLE ALL THE WAY, he oozed his way though both roles and still came out funny. Of course playing against Ahr-nald, it wasn't too hard.

I can still hear him on THE SIMPSONS saying, "Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may recognize me from..." and he'd go on with his "famous" infomercial or PSA, all of which were totally disposable.
Thanks for remembering a great comic!

May 25, 2010 12:43 PM
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Nice tribute to this amazingly funny man. I miss Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure so much, too. He also voiced Jebediah Springfield . . . remember, everyone: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man."

Jun 6, 2010 7:19 PM
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I think it's a tribute to him that his Simpsons characters were silenced when he died--there's no replacing him!

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Movie Musings
Every other Tuesday

Thoughts, observations, conjectures, complaints about movies and mostly how they relate to me personally. If you're looking for something a little broader, try Ebert.

Other Columns
Other columns by Tim Josephs:

So Long 2013, and MatchFlickers!

The Season for Peace, Presents, & Puncture Wounds

Women are Once Again Kicking Ass

Chewing the Scenery

The Greatest President We Never Had

All Columns

Tim Josephs
Born to write (literally much to the displeasure of his mother, he emerged with a pencil clutched in one tiny fist), Tim spends most of his days crafting epic monosyllabic poems, new comical titles to his favorite Beatles' songs (Hey, Dude), and angry letters to local businesses that have wronged him in some way. He's really an okay guy once you get to know him.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Tim Josephs by clicking here.

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