Not Funny: The 1998 Murder-Suicide That Killed SNL Star Phil Hartman

Phil and Brynn Hartman [Getty Images]

LOS ANGELES, CA — In the early morning hours of May 28, 1998, actress Brynn Hartmann, 41, entered the master bedroom of her Encino-area home where her husband, comedy star Phil Hartman, 49, lay sleeping. Brynn brought a loaded .38-caliber gun with her — and she used it.

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A few hours earlier, the Hartmans reportedly argued intensely, supposedly prompted by Brynn’s longtime battle with substance abuse and exacerbated by what friends described as her “vicious” jealous streak.

After a period of sobriety, Brynn had once again ingested both alcohol and cocaine that evening. Thus, it’s believed Phil threatened to finally leave the marriage and take away the couple’s two children — son Sean, 9, and daughter Birgen, 6.

Some time before 3 A.M., then, Brynn pointed the gun at Phil and, from less than 18 inches away, squeezed the trigger three times. Phil took bullets in the neck, chest, and skull. The head shot is believed to have killed him immediately.

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In the homicidal aftermath, Brynn Hartman called her friend Ron Douglas and then drove frantically to his home in nearby Studio City. She left Sean and Birgen asleep at home with their dead father just down the hall.

Upon arriving, the clearly inebriated Brynn blurted out something about killing Phil, but Douglas chalked it up to boozy blabbering — at first. After the .38 tumbled out of Brynn’s purse, Douglas agreed to escort her back home and check out the situation.

Once Douglas peered inside the carnage-drenched bedroom and saw his lifeless friend Phil Hartman bleeding from a hole in his head, Douglas called 911.

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While waiting for responders, Brynn locked herself inside the bedroom with a deadbolt. She called her sister, confessed to the murder, and asked her to take care of the kids.

In the meantime, Douglas let police officers inside, and they made fast work of getting the children out of the house. During that process, at 6:38 A.M., a single shot exploded from inside the master bedroom.

Brynn had climbed into bed next to Phil, put the gun to her head, and committed suicide.

With that, a tragedy engulfed not only the Hartmans’ family and loved ones, but the countless millions who had come to love and cherish Phil by way of his work on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Newsradio, and other zeitgeist-capturing comedies.

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Born in Canada in 1948, Phil Hartman came of age in Los Angeles and, from an early age, modeled himself on the brilliant stylings of funnyman Jonathan Winters.

Prior to comedy, though, Hartman detoured into L.A.’s late-1960s rock ‘n’ roll scene, where he worked as a roadie for top acts of the day and spent his free time surfing and smoking pot.

Eventually, Hartman translated his love of the rock scene into success as a graphic designer, creating a number of award-winning album covers (including the official logo of Crosby, Stills, and Nash).

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In 1975, Hartman caught a performance by L.A.’s famous sketch troupe The Groundlings, and he immediately shifted focus. Comedy was all he wanted to do.

By decade’s end, Hartman became one of the main attractions at The Groundlings, where he met Paul Reubens and together they made history by cocreating The Pee-Wee Herman Show. Hartman and Reubens also collaborated with Cheech and Chong, and both appear in the stoner duo’s popular cult films.

While beloved by audiences and popular with coworkers, Hartman’s romantic life proved considerably rocky. By 1986, he had already been married and divorced twice. That same year, just before being cast on Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman met aspiring performer Brynn Omdahl and, by all accounts, fell hard.

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Brynn’s addiction issues were no secret and, by this time, Phil had started collecting guns. In 1987, the couple wed and, over the ensuing seven seasons on SNL, Phil became one of the most revered performers in the show’s history.

When Phil left SNL in 1994 to focus on the NBC sitcom Newsradio, show creator Lorne Michaels stated, “Phil has done more work that’s touched greatness than probably anybody else who’s ever been here.”

At that point, as well, Phil had amazed audiences with his vocal work on the era-defining cartoon The Simpsons.

He played 52 characters on the series, but is best remembered for shyster lawyer Lionel Hutz and hammily aging Hollywood heartthrob Troy McClure (whose signature introduction, “You may remember me from…” was followed by titles that included The Boatjacking of Supership ’79, Gladys the Groovy Mule, and The Erotic Adventures of Hercules).

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All the while, by most accounts, Phil and Brynn Hartman appeared to be a happy and loving couple and they were highly regarded by their peers and neighbors alike. Brynn took steps, in fits and starts, to be free from drugs and alcohol and, while she routinely accused Phil of having affairs, no evidence ever came up to suggest that was true.

People around the Hartmans did start noticing those darker elements after Brynn got drunk on Mother’s Day 1987. Phil reportedly insisted she go to rehab or he’d be leaving. Brynn checked into a facility for help, but left just a few days later — unfortunately calling her husband’s bluff.

The situation grew worse when Brynn started mixing the antidepressant Zoloft with alcohol. Toward the end, Hartman reportedly showed up regularly to the Newsradio set looking beleaguered and even bearing scratches on his face.

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On the evening of May 27, 1998, Brynn drank two cocktails and a beer with friends at a bar, followed by three more beers at the home of Ron Douglas. She then drove home at 12:45 A.M. By dawn, Brynn went on to kill both Phil and herself.

Both the public and the couple’s show-business associates expressed immediate outpourings of love and grief, with friends and family members stressing that Brynn was a sick and suffering addict who was not in her right mind when she took her fatal actions.

At a memorial service for the couple, Hartman’s SNL costar Jan Hooks implored mourners:

“They were victims of the same accident. There is no one to hate and no blame to be laid. I beg you to forgive her. So put this incident in your past and close the door. Forget — if you can.”

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Some unexpected turns did follow. Brynn’s brother unsuccessfully attempted to sue the makers of Zoloft for altering his sister’s chemistry, despite her having been clearly advised not to take the drug with alcohol.

Hartman’s close friend and SNL colleague Jon Lovitz reportedly blamed Newsradio costar Andy Dick for providing cocaine to Brynn in the hours before the killings. Dick hasn’t exactly denied the allegation, but he maintains he had no idea that Brynn had such addiction issues.

The two comedians have allegedly come to blows several times over the issue, the most serious of which happened in 2006. Lovitz claims that Dick approached him in a restaurant and said, “I put the Hartman Hex on you! You’re next to die!”

Lovitz told a reporter that, in response:

“I grabbed him by his shirt and pushed him really hard and I smashed his back and his head into the bar. And I did it again. I would have kept going, but the doorman broke it up.”

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In the years since, Phil Hartman’s reputation as a master of his craft has only deepened and taken on immortal dimensions.

Alas, while Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Troy McClure may live forever, it’s sad to ponder what other brilliance Hartman may have had in store, as well as the horrific state of affairs that silenced both him and Brynn.

For more on Phil and Brynn Hartman, watch the “Jealousy” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Most Evil on ID GO now!

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Main photo: Phil and Brynn Hartman [Getty Images]