He has two children, Sean Hartman, an aspiring artist, and Birgen Hartman, who was recently married.
Hartman once said in an interview that he did not get much attention as the middle child in a large family, so he sought love elsewhere. He became the class clown in high school in West Los Angeles, where his family relocated. He joined an improv group in Los Angeles called the Groundlings, which later led him to Saturday Night Live in 1986, according to PEOPLE.
His nickname there was “the Glue.”
“He kind of held the show together. He gave to everybody and demanded very little. He was very low-maintenance,” SNL creator Lorne Michaels told PEOPLE.
A series of failed marriages led him onto a blind date with Brynn, who would later become his wife and murderer.
His story is being told again in an episode of ABC’s 20/20 airing Friday, May 1, 2020 at 9 p.m. EST.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. He Was Born Phil Hartmann in Canada Into a Family of 8, the Son of a Salesman Who Died Weeks Before Him
Phil Hartman was born Philip Edward Hartmann in Brantford, Ontario, 60 miles from Niagara Falls. He dropped the second “n” in his surname later in life, according to CBS. He was the fourth of eight children born to Rupert Hartmann and Doris Hartmann. His dad was a building-supplies salesman, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom.
“I’m from a large family; I’m a middle child,” he said in a CBS interview. “I suppose I didn’t get what I wanted out of my family life, so I started seeking love and attention elsewhere.”
His dad died at age 83 just a few weeks before his son, according to PEOPLE.
The family moved to the United States when he was 10, settling briefly in Connecticut. They moved again a few years later to the West Coast, in West Los Angeles, CBS reported.
Hartman was known as the class clown in high school. He started doing impressions in class to make his friends laugh.
“Even at Westchester High in West L.A., I was class clown, because I could do John Wayne, Jack Benny, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and entertain my friends on the senior lawn,” he told CBS.
It was in LA that Hartman joined an improv group called The Groundlings.
“He was always gentlemanly and kind, which is rare in comedy,” Groundlings member Patrick Bristow told PEOPLE. “Phil was everybody’s big brother.”
2. Phil Hartman Was Divorced Twice Before Marrying Brynn Hartman & His Second Wife Called Him Reclusive
Phil Hartman was divorced twice in only a few years. He first married Gretchen Lewis in 1970. The marriage was brief, PEOPLE reported.
Lewis wrote a post about the marriage for an alumni website. She wrote in part:
After graduating in 1967 I stayed in Miami for one year and attended Miami-Dade. I was on the ‘Men’s Track and Field Team’ as they didn’t have a women’s team. In 1968, I moved back to California where most of my family was and attended Northridge C.C. where I played Ladies Varsity Basketball until track season. We went to the championships that year!
I left school after a year to work in the fashion business and at 18 yrs. old, I married Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live. At the time, he was a struggling graphic designer, designing album covers for Poco, Neil Young, and America. We lived in Malibu, were married for five years and living quite the ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ life. His older brother was a William Morris agent and had some big groups. It was a crazy life as was California in the 60’s. Chuck Coleman actually came out to visit me once and no one was crazier than Chuck.
My mother, who always lived in Miami, became ill, and I came back to Florida some years later, after having divorced Phil. He was the greatest guy, I was just not ready for that life.
She is now retired and married to a judge.
He later married Lisa Strain, a real estate agent, in 1982. That marriage lasted only three years.
Strain called her ex-husband reclusive and passive in an interview with PEOPLE, and said he accused her of getting in the way of his work.
“He would disappear emotionally,” she said. “Phil’s body would be there, but he’d be in his own world. That passivity made you crazy. And when I’d protest, he’d say, ‘You’re getting in the way of my career, and this is who I am and what it’s going to be like.’”
Hartman would face similar problems in his third marriage to Brynn Hartmann, but instead of ending in divorce, that marriage ended in death.
3. He Met Brynn Hartman On a Blind Date When She Was Working as a Swimsuit Model
Brynn Hartman was a swimsuit model with an amorphous identity who met her future husband on a blind date. She was born Vicki Omdahl in Thief River Falls, Minnesota to Donny, a former engineer, and Connie, who ran a retail shop. Her high school principal, Terry Soine, told PEOPLE she was “just another student, an ordinary young lady.”
Hartman married Doug Torfin, a telephone operator, and later divorced. She began modeling in Minneapolis, but later moved to California and added acting lessons to her repertoire.
“She was always looking to find herself,” a friend told PEOPLE. “When I met her, she was Vicki; then she became Vicki Jo, then Brindon and then Brynn. I’d laugh and say, ‘Who are you this week?’”
Hartman was a Catalina swimsuit model when she met Hartman. She suffered from severe insecurities, and became intimidated by her husband’s successes.
“He was this confident guy on the way up,” her friend, Suzan Stadner, told PEOPLE.
The family moved into a small Manhattan apartment when Hartman landed the job with SNL. She continued taking acting lessons, but mainly stayed home with their two young children.
“She would tell me she felt secluded and totally cut off,” Stadner told PEOPLE.
4. Hartman’s 2 Young Children, Sean & Birgen, Were Home the Night Their Parents Died
Phil and Brynn Hartman’s children, Sean and Birgen, were home the night their mother shot their father and then turned the gun on herself. Sean was only 9 years old and Birgen was only 6.
After the children became orphans, they were briefly taken into the home of Phil Hartman’s brother, John Hartman, a Los Angeles record company executive. It was stipulated in the will that the children go to Brynn Hartman’s sister, Katherine Kay Wright, who was married and lived in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, according to PEOPLE. The children eventually moved to live with Wright. They were raised with a different last name to keep their lives private, according to Distractify.
The grisly murder happened in the bedroom of their $1.4 million Encino home.
“This is just a tragedy beyond description,” Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks’s wife, told PEOPLE in 1998. “Now two children are left without the two most important people in their lives, and with a lifetime of confusion.”
5. Hartman’s Son, Sean Hartmanm Is an Aspiring Artist & His Daughter Was Recently Married in Italy
Despite the tragedy that wrecked their childhood, Hartman’s children, Birgen Hartman and Sean Hartman, are carrying on with their own lives and achieving personal successes.
Sean is now 31 years old. He told ABC News he is “pursuing his dreams of being an artist and musician.”
Birgen, who is 27, was married last year in Italy to a man named Brandon. She started her own business, her uncle, Greg Omdahl, told Distractify.
Both Birgen and Sean largely stay out of the spotlight, but Birgen made an appearance for the 40th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live in 2015.
Entertainment articles described her as “gorgeous,” but Birgen had a different idea about her appearance in the spotlight.
“Ready to blind America with my paleness tomorrow night,” she wrote on Instagram before the show.