Remembering Phil Hartman

hartmancoverformarksblogEarlier this year, while leafing through a catalog of remaindered books, I spotted a book titled “You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman,” by Chicago Sun-Times journalist Mike Thomas. The title comes from a signature line uttered by Troy McClure, whose character Hartman voiced on “The Simpsons.” McClure, a washed-up actor, was reduced to introducing educational films thusly: “Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You might remember me from ‘Christmas Ape’ and ‘Christmas Ape Goes to Summer Camp.’”

I bought the book, based largely on the strength of a telephone interview I had conducted with Hartman a few weeks before his shocking murder by his wife, who later committed suicide in their home.

It took several months and several other books to go through first, but I finally read “You Might Remember Me.” In one sense, it’s tough reading a biography whose ending you already know. But, about two-thirds of the way through the book, as the narrative slowed down to provide more detail into the last months, weeks and days of Hartman’s life, I grew curious. Had my interview with Hartman been found and used by Thomas? It may seem difficult for readers of this blog to believe, but Catholic News Service is not often regarded as a go-to destination for celebrity interviews.

I thumbed through the index. No sign of my name. Oh, well. Then I looked for “Catholic News Service” in the index. And voila! Seeing where it was, I skipped 40 or so pages to get to the material to see how Thomas had used it.

“Strangely, in light of his long-lapsed Catholicism, he conveyed a seemingly renewed sense of religiousness,” Thomas wrote, “or perhaps he was merely tailoring his words for the publication as he tailed his act for a specific venue.”

Had Thomas sought me out, I would have told him there was no tailoring going on. The phone interview was supposed to have been conducted in April 1997, but a representative of NBC -– where Hartman was starring in the sitcom “Newsradio” — called to reschedule, as Hartman was not going to be available on the original date. NBC had made the pitch for a phone interview to boost the marginal ratings of “Newsradio,” and noted Hartman’s Catholic upbringing.

On the rescheduled date, Hartman called at the assigned time. I asked him how he was, and he said, “Fine.” I asked him what had prompted the rescheduling. “My father was sick,” Hartman replied. I then asked how his dad was doing. “Oh, he died,” Hartman said. I conveyed my condolences, and Hartman launched into an entirely unprompted soliloquy about life and death and the hereafter.

“Our faith prepares us for what lies ahead, and tells us that it’s a mystery to us, and we tremble before that mystery,” Hartman said in part. Moreover, he spoke in slow, measured tones, slow enough for me to be able to capture every word he was saying even without the aid of a tape recorder.

“Faith has guided me to believe it’s a rebirth. We are set free from this mortal coil, and we’ll see wonders beyond our imagination. We’ll get close to the Creator. I’ve believed that all my life even when I’ve questioned other aspects of my faith. I’ll be there with my father in heaven,” Hartman said. I remember needing to ask no questions.

When Hartman was done ruminating about life after death, the interview shifted to more conventional topics. One question I particularly delighted in asking him was: “If I was Rosie O’Donnell, and you were a guest on my talk show, and I pulled a couple of album covers you had designed out from under my desk, which two LPs would they be?” Hartman chuckled at the scenario, then answered with an album by the folk-rock band Poco and the intertwined “CSN” logo used by Crosby, Stills and Nash on their 1977 album.

When the interview was over, I told my editor, Julie Asher, what had transpired over the phone. I knew I had my lead. And it was a good story, one to be proud of.

Three weeks after the interview, I came back to my cubicle from lunch to see a sheet of paper torn off the Reuter newswire resting on my chair: Phil Hartman, wife dead in murder-suicide. I audibly gasped. A new story had to be written. All the comments Hartman had made about his father took on added resonance with his own death.

And therein lay a conundrum. Celebrities are no less immune than the rest of the population to having grown nominally Catholic. Hartman was no exception. Just how nominal it had become, one could only guess, since dead men tell no tales. Brynn Hartman, who likely had shot her husband in a drug-fueled state, turned out to be Hartman’s third wife. Author Thomas in “You Might Remember Me” reveals that Hartman’s first wife had two abortions while married to Phil. Hartman’s family insisted on a Catholic funeral for their son and brother. They got one, at a chapel in the cemetery where Phil and Brynn were interred.

Hartman’s life and career were far too short. “You Might Remember Me” brings all that back home.



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