He was the guy who made the spot-on impressions of Frank Sinatra, Bill Clinton, and Ed McMahon on Saturday Night Live. He was the voice that gave life to the washed-up actor Troy McClure and the sleazy lawyer Lionel Hutz on The Simpsons. He was an Emmy-nominated actor who earned the nod for his role as the pompous anchor Bill McNeal on NewsRadio. Phil Hartman was a Canadian living the American dream.
That is before his wife took it all away. Hartman’s off-screen life was nothing short of heartbreaking. On one fateful day in 1998, his home was met with unspeakable tragedy. This is a look at the brief and tragic life of Phil Hartman, the man who always made us laugh.
Hartman seemed to have achieved the American dream. Within two decades, he made it up the Hollywood ladder and built a family. Then, on May 28, 1998, his life was violently taken away by his wife, Brynn Omdahl, who afterward took her own as well. He was 49.
In the same year of his murder, he said in an interview, “I think in my old age, I’ve come to realize just how precious everything is, and I try to value the many blessings that have been bestowed upon me.” Although Omdahl had a history of erratic behavior, he never expected that year to be his last, nor to die at the hands of his own wife.
Hartman dabbled in other areas before finding his passion for comedy. According to Mike Thomas, who wrote the biography, You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, he started out as a roadie for a band called Rockin’ Foo. Around this time, Hartman met Gretchen Lewis, who became his first wife in 1970.
Steve Small, his lawyer and close friend told Barbara Walters on 20/20 that “Phil fell in love easily but wasn’t very skilled at continuing a relationship.” By 1972, they were already divorced. By the mid-‘70s, Hartmann was no longer a roadie. He started working for his brother’s talent management agency. Using his graphic arts skills from college, he designed classic rock album covers.
He did the cover art for America’s album, History: America’s Greatest Hits, as well as the simple line drawing of a horse on Poco’s Legend album. While it was a fun job to tackle, Hartman wanted to branch out of what he called his “very introverted lifestyle.” It’s a good thing he did because it led him to launch his comedy career.
In 1975, he went to a show by the Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings, which was the kind of group that would invite its audience members onto the stage. Hartman, attempting to be more extroverted, volunteered. “I never saw an audience member come up with that kind of excitement and energy…it was like a hurricane hit that stage, and I mean in a good way,” said Tracy Newman, a founding member of The Groundlings.
The improv group thought Hartman was a natural and chose to invite him to join the ensemble, as well as take classes there. Things were going well; he was spending his days in the group and making people laugh. In 1982, he met and married his second wife, Lisa Jarvis. Jarvis said on 20/20: “My sense of Phil was that he was really two people.”
“He was the guy who wanted to draw and write and think and create and come up with ideas. He was the actor and entertainer, and then he was the recluse.” When Jarvis would watch him perform with The Groundlings, he “was Phil being truly Phil,” she said. “You know, as time goes by, you understand that his personas are his protection, and they are his personality.”
It only took a year of marriage, though, for Jarvis to realize that their relationship was over. Not long after their divorce, Hartman met Brynn Omdahl, the woman who proved to be his most tragic mistake. Born Vicki Jo Omdahl, she grew up in Minnesota in a family with three siblings. Her brother Greg said they had an “idyllic childhood.”
“She was always the instigator of fun,” according to Greg. It’s no wonder, then, that Hartman was attracted to her. Omdahl moved to Los Angeles in her 20s with hopes and dreams of becoming a model and actress. She signed a contract with a modeling agency, which led her to find work as a swimsuit model for Catalina swimwear.
Meanwhile, Omdahl was going to auditions. According to her brother, it was around this time in the ‘80s in L.A. that she started to develop an addiction to drugs. “She had a problem with cocaine,” Greg said. “She did too much.” He told her she needed to go to rehab and managed to talk her into it.
“As with Lisa, as with Gretchen, it becomes very intense very fast,” Mike Thomas said about Hartman’s relationship with Omdahl. Thomas explained that as the months went on, the cracks began to show, and Phil did what he did with his last two relationships — he began to withdraw emotionally. They found themselves in the typical on-and-off-again pattern of fighting and making up that marked their relationship from then on.
Hartman delved into his career. He spent 11 years at The Groundlings while working on the side. He played the role of Captain Carl on The Pee-Wee Herman Show, acting alongside fellow Groundling Paul Reubens. The two had a serious feud, too, but we’ll get to that later on…
Hartman’s big break came in the fall of 1986 when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live as both a writer and performer. He was lucky enough to be part of a cast that many fans say was one of the best, with Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, and Kevin Nealon. During his time on the show, Hartman made everyone laugh with his impressions of Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan and even Jesus.
Hartman’s most memorable impression on SNL was his take on Bill Clinton. “Phil was on the map with SNL like never before,” said Thomas. One year after joining SNL, in 1987, Hartman married Brynn Omdahl. It would be his third and final marriage. They welcomed their first child, a boy they named Sean, in 1988.
After Sean was born, Hartman called his ex-wife Lisa Jarvis. “He calls me and says, ‘I just became a father,’” Jarvis recalled. “And so, I wrote a card. ‘Dear Phil and Brynn… much love from Aunt Lisa. You know, if you ever need a babysitter… I’m so thrilled for you,’” she said.
What Jarvis thought was a nice gesture proved to be a big mistake. She ended up receiving a letter from Omdahl, with “hair-curling, fury, rage and a death threat from Brynn.” The gist of the letter was, “Don’t ever f—ing get near me or my family or I will hurt you. I never want to hear from you…never, ever, ever come near us, or you will really be sorry.”
It’s unclear whether Hartman was aware of this letter, but it can be said that this was just one of many red flags that this woman was emotionally disturbed. Their marriage may have been unraveling, but Hartman’s career was soaring.
In 1989, he won an Emmy Award for being part of the writing staff on SNL. In 1991, while still a cast member, Hartman got another job that many can only dream of. He started working on The Simpsons, where he voiced two recurring and iconic characters: has-been actor Troy McClure and shady lawyer Lionel Hutz.
“Phil made the material funnier than we originally imagined, and I couldn’t imagine anybody else doing it,” said the show’s executive producer, Al Jean. As Hartman was on the top of his game, he and Omdahl had their second child, a daughter they named Birgen, in 1992. His friend Lynne Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, said he called her when his daughter was born.
“He was very, very choked up… He said, ‘She’s the most beautiful baby in the world,’” Stewart recalled. Greg Omdahl vouched for the Hartmans’ love for their children, saying that when he watched the old home videos “of Brynn and Phil and their kids, it really brought home what loving parents they were…and what a great mother she was.”
But Hartman’s work schedule was getting more and more hectic. In addition to SNL and The Simpsons, he was doing commercials for Cheetos and McDonald’s. He was becoming a regular on the late-night talk show circuit, too. It all meant that he wasn’t at home as much as Omdahl wanted him to be to take care of the kids and to be with her.
According to Thomas, Hartman might have liked the idea of fatherhood a little more than actually putting in the hard work that’s required of a father. He was just always working, and Omdahl was resenting him more and more because of it.
At times, she was jealous of her husband’s celebrity status. “Phil was getting a lot of attention, and Brynn wasn’t getting any attention… I suppose some of that’s natural,” her brother revealed. “She just wanted to be more part of the spotlight than she was, you know.” One thing she probably didn’t complain about, though, was the money that came pouring in. Hartman was buying boats, cars and even a small airplane.
Hartman used his fancy vehicles to get away from the family at times, to head off to Catalina Island, his favorite place in the whole world. “Maybe she felt Phil was spending too much time with his boat or airplane… and not enough time with the kids,” Greg said. Greg reassured his sister that it was normal and that he still loved her.
Hartman’s makeup artist on SNL, Norman Bryn, recalled one fight he overheard the two having behind the doors of a dressing room. He remembers Hartman walking away from that conversation, “white as a sheet.” He asked Hartman what’s wrong, to which he replied in an obviously comedic voice, “Well, Norm, looks like the wife’s gonna divorce me this time.”
Hartman chose to leave SNL in 1994, after eight successful seasons. He started developing his own variety show called The Phil Show, but it was never picked up. In 1995, he signed on to the NBC sitcom NewsRadio, which also starred podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan. According to Rogan, who got to know Hartman well during their time as co-stars, there was a lot of issues he noticed in Hartman’s marriage.
“His wife was a mess,” Rogan said. “Without the drugs, without the Zoloft, she was a mess. She was a failed actress who deeply resented his success, and as he became more and more successful, their relationship became more and more contentious.”
Rogan recalled that Omdahl would like to embarrass her husband and insult him publicly. “They had ugly, ugly falling outs and sort of fights. They would break up and he would go live on a boat, like a little sailboat, and he’d come back, and they would make up.”
Hartman also landed big parts in movies, like in 1996, when he starred with Steve Martin in Sgt. Bilko. He was also in the movie Jingle All the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger. All the while, Omdahl got only two very minor roles. One being a one-liner in the Rob Reiner movie North, where she played a cocktail waitress, and the other being in an episode of Third Rock from the Sun, as an alien from Venus.
Omdahl’s substance abuse was not going away. Hartman’s NewsRadio co-star Andy Dick revealed on 20/20 that during a Christmas party in 1997, he gave Omdahl some drugs after she asked if he had any. Jon Lovitz, Hartman’s SNL co-star, reportedly blames Andy Dick for being the one to reintroduce cocaine to Omdahl.
Dick, however, asserts that he didn’t cause her to relapse: “She was already in relapse mode, which I didn’t even know she had a problem with at all in the first place.” According to Hartman’s friend Dawna Kaufmann, “Brynn had low self-esteem. She worried about looking older, getting older.” The month before the couple died, Omdahl turned 40, and “For many women, a 40th birthday is a big line in the sand. An emotional event,” Kaufmann recalled.
Though some who were close to the couple say they were fighting more than usual near the time of their death, Greg Omdahl remembers it differently. “They had seen a counselor, and both of them said that really helped and that they’re trying to improve for their spouse. I mean, they cared that much about each other.”
The exact details of what went down on the night of May 27, 1998, and the morning hours of May 28, remain somewhat of a mystery to this day. What we do know – what has been reported – are the accounts from the family’s babysitter, Lorraine Moss, and those who were with Omdahl that night.
“I was waiting for Phil to come home because it was going to be the time for me to go,” Moss said of that day. “Brynn had just gone out, and she wasn’t going to be back till late. So Phil was going to take over in taking care of the children.” That night, Omdahl went out for drinks with her friend Christine Zander.
After drinking with Zander, Omdahl drove to her friend and former lover Ron Douglas’ house at about 10:15 p.m. When ABC News requested a comment from him, Douglas declined. According to what he told the police, though, Omdahl had a few beers and complained to him about her husband.
He told the police that she left his house at around 12:45 a.m. She got into her car and drove home. Sean and Birgen were both home at the time of the murder-suicide. Sean reportedly told the police that he heard a sound that he assumed was “the slamming of a door.”
At 3:45 a.m., according to what Ron Douglas told the police, he was awoken by someone pounding on his front door. It was Omdahl, who told him, “I killed Phil. I don’t know why.” Douglas said he didn’t believe her at first. But once he saw the gun fall out of her purse, he understood. He took it from her and put it in the trunk of his car.
Omdahl and Douglas drove in separate cars to the Hartman residence, where Douglas found Hartman’s body in his bed. Police later learned that he had been shot three times. Douglas stepped into the hallway to call 911. He then saw that Omdahl had locked herself in the master bedroom.
It was about 6 a.m. by this point, and the street in Encino was quiet until the area was suddenly swarming with police, news cameras, and onlookers. Douglas handed the gun to the police, but it wasn’t clear if there were any other weapons in the house. Nine-year-old Sean and six-year-old Birgen were whisked to safety as another shot rang out. By the time the police reached the master bedroom, there was silence.
LAPD officer Daniel Carnahan said finding the two bodies in the bedroom, lifeless, was “one of the most tragic scenes.” Hartman, who lived the American dream, had it all taken away, which to Carnahan, “seems so contradictory and so out of place and so unfair.”
The children were taken into police custody. Upon hearing the news, Joel Diamond, a friend of the family, asked to take the kids out of the police station. The police told him he could take them to a park nearby. “I remember I was pushing Sean on a swing,” Diamond said. He asked the boy, “Sean, is there anything I could do for you?” Sean said, “No… My mom promised me she’d take me to a lot of fun places, and now she’ll never be able to.”
Diamond said that Birgen “looked like she was more in shock than anything else.” She said to him, “I know I’ll never see my mommy and daddy again.” For Diamond, it was one of the worst days of his life, “seeing those kids.” We can only imagine how it felt for the children…
Medical examiner Craig Harvey determined that Omdahl had a blood-alcohol level of 0.12, as well as cocaine and Zoloft in her system on the night of the murder-suicide. “I’ve lost a sister that was such a wonderful person and a brother-in-law who was wonderful,” Greg Omdahl stated. It was “like getting punched in the gut because I knew my sister would never murder anyone. It was such a hard thing to face.”
A year after the tragic event, Greg Omdahl filed a lawsuit against Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft, claiming wrongful death on behalf of the Hartman estate. His case alleged that the use of Zoloft caused his sister to not to know what she was doing. In 1999, Pfizer gave a statement to Salon Health stating that “there’s no scientific or medical evidence that Zoloft causes violent or suicidal behavior.”
The suit was ultimately settled for $100,000, with no admission of any wrongdoing. The money has allegedly been given to the children. Omdahl’s sister Cathy and her husband raised Sean and Birgen in the Midwest. Greg said, “they grew up as loved children.” Sean, an artist and musician, is now 32 years old. Birgen, 28, is married and started her own business.
Hartman’s death sent shock waves through Hollywood, which led to either altering or canceling his multiple projects. His two recurring characters on The Simpsons were immediately retired instead of being recast. Talks of a live-action spin-off film focused on the character Troy McClure was immediately scrapped.
The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s follow-up series, Futurama, was supposed to feature Hartman as the arrogant space captain Zapp Brannigan. Instead, Billy West took over, who voiced the character in tribute to Hartman. NewsRadio continued production at the time of his death. Following the fifth season’s premiere, in which the cast tearfully memorialized Hartman’s character Bill McNeal, Hartman’s close friend and SNL co-star Jon Lovitz replaced him as a new character.
Hartman met Paul Reubens when the two were in The Groundlings comedy troupe in the ‘70s. We all know Reubens as the man behind the high-voiced, man-child character of Pee-Wee Herman. In 1981, Hartman helped Reubens write a stage show featuring the character that was shot and then aired on HBO.
In turn, Reubens was offered a deal to make a big-screen Pee-Wee movie. Together, Hartman and Reubens wrote Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, which then led to the Saturday morning show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, where Hartman appeared as his salty sailor character Kap’n Karl. But, Hartman and Reubens cut off contact. It’s unclear what happened, but by 1996, Hartman said he still wasn’t talking to Reubens. Reubens told Westworld in 2016: “I think about Phil all the time.”
SNL hit a peak in the late ‘80s with its all-star cast, which included Hartman. He was so vital to the show that his nickname was “The Glue” since he was considered the guy that held the show together and was thus one of the network’s most important talents.
When Hartman planned to leave SNL (and NBC) in 1991, his boss, executive producer Lorne Michaels, convinced him to stay. A year later, Hartman almost quit again when he had the opportunity to pursue a major opportunity — as a sidekick to The Tonight Show host Jay Leno. According to Thomas, Leno denies Hartman was offered the gig.
The Tonight Show did try to convince SNL, however, to let Hartman occasionally appear on the show as Bill Clinton. SNL executives rejected the offer. When Hartman finally left SNL in 1994, it was mostly because he wanted to focus on The Phil Show, which was on NBC. They came up with the idea of the show since they didn’t want Hartman to run too far.
They suggested the idea of an updated and reinvented variety show featuring sketch comedy skits and some scripted behind-the-scenes banter (kind of like 30 Rock). But, when the similar-minded show The Martin Short Show flopped in the fall of 1994, The Phil Show was ultimately scrapped. It was then that Hartman was forced to sign on for a supporting role in NewsRadio, an NBC sitcom.
Hartman was a comic actor and comedy writer, but he wasn’t able to get Hollywood to take a chance on his scripts. He created Chick Hazard about a 1930s-style private eye and staged an hour-long production of it in 1984 for The Groundlings. While HBO was indeed interested in airing it on cable, and Universal Studios bought the film rights, the project never materialized.
In an interview on Larry King Live, Hartman’s brother John said that Hartman wrote numerous scripts that were never made into movies — ones that could have, according to John, turned Hartman into a big-screen actor. One of the scripts was Mr. Fix-It, a comedy-horror he wrote in 1984. Phil Hartman described the script as “an American nightmare.” Director Robert Zemeckis even tried to get studios and investors into it, but Mr. Fix-It never saw the light of day.
Hartman’s younger sister by three years, Sarah Jane, had a serious medical condition that wasn’t properly identified or diagnosed until the ‘60s. She had what was called Angelman Syndrome. The rare genetic disorder, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, results in delayed development, intellectual disability, severe speech impediments, and problems with movement and balance.
Those with Angelman syndrome, including Sarah Jane, require around-the-clock care. In her case, it was her mother, Doris, who cared full-time for her during the first five years of her daughter’s life. As a result, young Phil was taken off by his older siblings. Eventually, Sarah Jane was admitted to a care facility. She stayed in Canada when the family moved to the U.S. in 1957.