Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Glue

Some Saturday Night Live stars--John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers--could be quite versatile but still had a personality that shone through. Others, Dan Aykroyd being the original, would immerse themselves so deeply in the role that you almost forgot who was playing the part.

The ultimate such performer was Phil Hartman, who'd take any role, big or small, and play it for all it was worth.  His co-stars called him the Glue, because he helped hold things together.  His life was cut short, but now there's a biography by Mike Thomas--You Might Remember Me--to recount how he got to be such an essential player on SNL.

He was born in 1948--actually older than some of the debut cast.  He kicked around, doing various things in his 20s.  He was quite successful, in fact, as a graphic artist, designing several classic rock albums.  He also joined the Groundlings, L.A.'s top improv group, which was a feeder to SNL from the start.  Once there he worked with fellow performer Paul Reubens to help create Reuben's Pee-wee Herman character. Hartman played Captain Carl in the early shows once Pee-wee got on TV.

But it was Saturday Night where he'd become famous, and do his best work.  He joined in 1986, not long after creator Lorne Michaels took the reins back after being gone for five years.  Hartman stayed for eight seasons and created characters such as the Anal Retentive Chef, Frozen Caveman Lawyer and Frankenstein.  He also did spot-on impressions, avoiding caricature and trying to get as close as possible to the original, such as his Phil Donahue, his Frank Sinatra, his Ed McMahon and--probably his most famous portrayal--Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, he did lots of voice work, most memorably on The Simpsons, where he created characters such as useless lawyer Lionel Hutz and former matinee idol Troy McClure (who'd always note "You might remember me from..." hence the book's title).

Unlike some of his castmates, Hartman never hit it big in movies.  Maybe that's because he was such a chameleon he didn't personally come across.  After eight season on SNL, he did hit it big in prime time on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio.  It may have been good money, but for many of his fans, it was a letdown--we were used to him doing a handful of characters each week, and now he was stuck doing only one, episode after episode.

He'd married his third wife, Brynn, in 1987, and they had two kids.  He seemed to be a happy family man, but Brynn could get insanely jealous, and also had trouble with drugs.  On May 28, 1998, full of cocaine, alcohol and Zoloft, she shot her husband dead, and a bit later turned the gun on herself.

Mike Thomas tells Hartman's story in a straightforward enough fashion, though his writing is fairly cliché-ridden.  But even if the biography were better, it's hard to read because you know how it'll end--a large portion will describe how Hartman was be struck down while still in his prime.  But if you'd like to know where he came from, this is the book.

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