It's been more than 16 years since comedian Phil Hartman — star of Saturday Night Live,The Simpsons and NewsRadio — was shot to death in his bed by his wife Brynn, who later turned the gun on herself. His murder sent shockwaves through Hollywood, stunning both those who knew him personally and those who were only familiar with the characters he played on TV.
In the new biography You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, author Mike Thomas delves into the life and death of Hartman, from his humble upbringing in Canada through (an exhaustive examination of) his final, fateful hours. The book also reveals the tumultuous nature of the Hartmans' marriage, offering details that seem chillingly ominous in retrospect.
Perhaps best known for his SNL impersonations of Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra, Hartman — who would have turned 66 on Sept. 24 — is also revealed to be a man whose success never matched up to his ambition, and who could be so laid-back and detached at times that it became maddening to his wife.
Here are 11 of the most telling anecdotes from You Might Remember Me:
1. He was "The Glue" that held SNL together: Hartman's SNL co-star and frequent scene partner Jan Hooks coined the nickname "The Glue" for her dear friend, who helped her cope with stage fright and was never afraid to let someone else have the spotlight in a sketch. When he left the show after eight seasons, the cast and crew presented him with a pedestal, affixed to which was a bottle of wood glue.
2. His parents made tough choices: Hartman's younger sister Sarah Jane was born in 1951 with a rare neurogenetic disorder later dubbed Angelman syndrome, and required round-the-clock care. She was eventually placed in a facility and did not join her parents and seven siblings when they moved from Canada to the United States in 1957.
3. Comedy wasn't his only talent: Hartman parlayed an interest in art and drawing — fostered in middle school when he and his brother would walk over to Disneyland frequently — into a career designing album covers and promotional materials for bands in the 1970s. These included a backdrop logo for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that the band still uses on tour today. (Graham Nash also performed at Hartman's memorial service.) Upon joining the comedy troupe The Groundlings in 1975, Hartman got out of paying the $25 monthly dues by instead redesigning a logo for the collective.
4. He got Experienced: As a roadie in the 1960s, Hartman once literally held a bass drum in place for Buddy Miles during a performance by Jimi Hendrix at The Experience in Los Angeles.
5. He changed his name for good luck: Born Phillip Hartmann, he later dropped the second N in his surname due to a belief in I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, which calculates a symbolic numerical value to certain letters. The "destiny number" of the name "Phil Hartmann" is 8, which symbolizes ambition and a simple yet satisfying family life. The name "Phil Hartman" has a destiny number of 3, which translates to "the height of artistic fulfillment" and the "pinnacle of creativity," which was more in line with Hartman's goals for himself. He legally changed his name to Phil Hartman in 1992.
6. He could be excessively thrifty: Though Hartman owned several cars, boats, and even a plane, he could be incredibly stingy when it came to day-to-day items. His second wife, Lisa Strain (with whom he remained close friends until his death), describes him as "horrifically cheap" and says he wouldn't even let her share a special shampoo he used. They also kept separate bank accounts while they were married.
7. His friends weren't fans of Brynn: When Hartman told his Groundlings buddy, actressCassandra Peterson, in 1987 that he planned to propose to Brynn, Peterson blurted out: "Oh God, no!" Hartman promptly asked her to leave his office and the two didn't speak for years afterward. "It's the first time — and, I think, last time — I ever saw him angry," Peterson recounts. Later, when Hartman and Brynn's son Sean was born, Hartman's former wife Strain sent a congratulations card to the couple — and got a death threat from Brynn in return.
8. He refused to bare all anything: Though his SNL colleagues, including Chris Farley, were more than happy to strip down for the show, Hartman refused to even go shirtless for sketches.
9. He became inadvertently involved in a feud between Andy Dick and Jon Lovitz: At a New Year's Eve party at the Hartmans' home in 1997, the actor's NewsRadio co-star Andy Dick may have given Brynn (who struggled with sobriety on and off for years) cocaine. Dick says he doesn't recall, though witnesses saw him and Brynn lock themselves in the bathroom at one point. Hartman's close friend Jon Lovitz, believing Dick did in fact give Brynn drugs, harbored a hatred for Dick for 10 years that erupted into an altercation at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood in 2007, when Lovitz "picked Andy up by the head and smashed him into the bar four or five times."
10. His death changed at least one person's mind on guns: Actor Ed Begley Jr. says the death of his close friend prompted him to surrender a shotgun that he kept in his home for protection. "I didn't want a gun in the house after that," he says. "So I took it to the North Hollywood police station. I walked in without it and said ... 'I want to get rid of this gun. I don't want it in the world.'"
11. He refused to let his kids be trust fund babies: In his will, Hartman provided money for his children, Sean and Birgen, to be allotted over the course of their lives — "if and only if a bachelor's degree was obtained from 'a four-year university accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges or some comparable nationally recognized organization.'"
Watch Hartman's Saturday Night Live audition tape below: