He was in a different league than the rest of the comic actors on "Saturday Night Live." When you think of the characters that inhabited that show over the years, you remember that Gilda Radner was Roseanne Rosannadanna, Jon Lovitz was Tommy Flanagan, John Belushi was the Samurai, Nora Dunn was Pat Stevens, Eddie Murphy was Mr. Robinson, and Chevy Chase was Chevy Chase.
Phil Hartman won't be remembered for a single character he created on the show. His idiotic and overrated Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer is as forgettable as the entire 1980 cast of SNL.
However, Hartman will be remembered as, by far, the best impressionist the show ever had. Sure, Aykroyd did a good Tom Snyder. Yes, Dana Carvey did the definitive George Bush and Ross Perot. Of course, Billy Crystal had Sammy Davis Jr. down pat. But in watching Aykroyd or Carvey or Crystal, their impressions were just transparent enough to guarantee that you saw their own personalities as part of the people they impersonated.
Not so with Hartman. He really was Bill Clinton at McDonald's. He captured Donahue's ego and persona perfectly. His Johnny Cash was right on the money. He became Ed McMahon when he belted out, "You are correct, sir!!" In nearly every instance, his was the definitive impression.
No one has ever done a better Sinatra, not even Paul Anka. Joe Piscopo had been the leader in the Sinatra imitator field, but his was too passionate a tribute to Frank. When Hartman started doing his bitter, worn down by the years, chip on his shoulder version of Sinatra, he didn't just find a new angle on the man, he also left poor Piscopo in the dust (where he still languishes, by the way). I recall falling off the chair laughing while watching the "McLaughlin Group" sendup with Phil/Frank asking a question of panelist Sinead O'Connor (Jan Hooks in a bald cap), and calling her "Sign-aid" and "Cueball." Merciless and hysterical.
I was never a "NewsRadio" fan, and don't think that's where Phil did his best work. His talent was also wasted in movie trash like "Greedy" with Michael J. Fox, "Jingle All The Way" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and "Sgt. Bilko" with Steve Martin (the latter was incredibly bad, and didn't even take advantage of the fact that Hartman did an amazing Phil Silvers!). His best work was undeniably on "SNL" and also on "The Simpsons," where he was a great utility voice. In particular, his unctuous Troy McClure character was a riot.
Until his death, I didn't know much about his pre-"SNL" days, except that he was part of the legendary Groundlings improvisational troupe in Los Angeles. It was there that he met Paul Reubens, with whom he wrote "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." Before doing comedy, he had been a graphic designer, working on album covers like Poco's "Legend." He also created the logo for Crosby Stills & Nash, among others. I'll bet that with a visual mind like that, he could actually picture the people he was imitating, which probably facilitated his ability to become them.
In any interview, Hartman was a money-in-the-bank guest. He was always inevitably persuaded to do an impression or two. When he did, he would slip in and out of them seamlessly, sometimes changing from one voice to another at a moment's notice. It was that natural feeling that made his work so appealing. It never seemed forced; it never had a "hey, look at what I can do" quality.
That ability to subvert his own personality within his impressions kept him from being considered a "star" in the public's eye. It's a miscarriage of comic justice that Chris Farley led an overblown tabloid life but in death was hailed as "a brilliant comedian," while Phil Hartman was truly a brilliant comedian in real life who, in death, will now be nothing more than tabloid fodder.
It's said that just before Hartman tried out for "Saturday Night Live," desperate for work, he had auditioned to become the prize announcer on a new version of "Let's Make A Deal." For whatever reason, they turned him down, and Lorne Michaels hired him instead. If it had gone the other way, we would have all missed out on quite a deal, and some damn good comedy, too.