Beloved TV comedic actor Phil Hartman is best known for his eight brilliant seasons on Saturday Night Live, where his versatility and comedic timing resulted in some of the funniest and most famous sketches in the television show’s history. Besides his hilarious impersonations of Phil Donahue, Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton, Hartman’s other indelible characters included Cirroc the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Eugene the Anal Retentive Chef and, of course, Frankenstein. He also starred as pompous radio broadcaster Bill McNeal in the NBC sitcom NewsRadio and voiced numerous classic roles — most memorably washed-up actor and commercial pitchman Troy McClure — on Fox’s long-running animated hit The Simpsons. But Hartman’s seemingly charmed life was cut tragically short when he was fatally shot by his troubled third wife, Brynn, who turned a gun on herself several hours later.
This is not the definite biography of Phil Hartman.
The problem with the story is that Hartman was a bit of that clichéd comedian we’ve heard about from time to time, a truly gifted comedic actor (and not a comedian, which seemed to create a problem for him) who seemed only to be himself when he was being someone else. Was Hartman a cipher? Sure, but you gleam nothing new here that could not be found in the pages of People Magazine. And that's the problem here.
And Thomas does a not do a good job in representing Brynn Hartman. He seems more concerned in giving second-hand stories (from notes Hartman himself made) and with friends in describing the women who ended his and her life so shockingly. Many of Hartman’s friends seemed to know little of Brynn, with the exception of SNL alumni Julia Sweeney, who brings the only interesting thing to the story. Sweeney’s perspective (unsettling in many ways) seems to indicate that she was one of few who seemed to interact with the Hartman’s on more than one level. And makes it clear she is on Brynn's side.
So this is not a complete story and it does not solve the mystery of Phil Hartman and what drove his sort placidity as he moved through life, but it also does not solve who Brynn Hartman really was either (I mean, why wait until the end –after she killed Hartman and then herself- to bring in her friends and family?). Author Thomas does not pass judgment here, which is a nice surprise, but he cannot create a narrative that offers the readers nothing new about the conundrum that was Phil and Brynn Hartman.
And much like the last Lord of the Rings film, the book has too many endings and gives us no update on the lives of Hartman’s two children, Sean and Birgen –who should be in their twenties now. Perhaps that may come off as exploitative, but they’re apart of this story as much as their parents. Maybe, someday, we’ll get their perspective. Until then, this biography feels incomplete.