It has been a long time since we lost Phil Hartman, who I would argue was the best straight man in film history. Yes, I know, everyone will come back saying that Budd Abbot of the Abbot and Costello duo was the best straight man in history. I will tell you why I disagree. Simple, an atypical straight man requires a duo like the chaps mentioned before; Phil Hartman made the audience his comic foil. Hartman didn’t need a Costello; all he needed was an audience. A talent I have not seen since his lunatic drug ridden wife shot and killed him and then herself (with two children in the house). I doubt we will see the likes of him for a long time—if ever.
Hartman was from Canada and began his career in the entertainment industry in the 1970s following around comedy troupes and paying his way by doing their graphic design work. Eventually he met comedian Paul Reubens and the two became friends, often collaborating on writing and comedic material. Together they created the character Pee-wee Herman and developed The Pee-wee Herman Show, a stage performance which also aired on HBO in 1981. Hartman played Captain Carl on The Pee-wee Herman Show and returned in the role for the children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Reubens and Hartman made cameos in the 1980 film Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. Hartman co-wrote the script of the 1985 feature film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and had a cameo as a reporter. Although he had considered quitting acting at the age of 36 due to limited opportunities, the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure brought new possibilities and changed his mind.
In 1986, Hartman joined the cast of NBC’s ailing Saturday Night Live which was on the verge of cancelation and stayed for eight seasons, which was a record at the time and in my opinion the main force that saved the series. Hartman’s talent is seen in a wide array of impressions including Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, Telly Savalas, Ed McMahon, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Barbara Bush, Burt Reynolds, Phil Donahue, and perhaps his best-known impression, former president Bill Clinton. One of the more famous fictional characters played by Hartman on Saturday Night Live was the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. He returned twice to host the show following his 1994 departure and was honored at the show’s 25th anniversary special in 1999 by the members of the cast who worked with him, including Nora Dunn, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz, Mike Myers and Victoria Jackson.
Hartman was also doing voices for the Simpson’s (back in my opinion when it was a decent show) as Actor Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, Attorney at Law. He also had a brief cameo in what may become a cult classic, So I married an Axe Murderer, playing the part of John “Viki” Johnson, the part ranger tour guide on Alcatraz Island. I think because he was the straight man for us viewers, he was always given supporting roles in films. Sure, some roles were larger than others, but what movie was he really the “star” of?
One of his most renowned impressions was of Frank Sinatra—particularly the parody of John McLaughlin, and the McLaughlin Group, with Hartman as Sinatra leading the discussion. This skit was so powerful that Hartman later admitted to Bob Costas that his portrayal of Frank Sinatra in the “Sinatra Group” sketch was very upsetting to members of Sinatra’s family. In fact, he told Costas that, a few years later, he was up for a meaty film role and was not given it due to influence from some of the Sinatras. Well, as I have always said, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” and I am talking to you Sinatras.
Phil, some of us love your jokes, appreciated your style and some of us still miss you.