Looking more like the CEO of a law firm than a comedian, Canadian actor Phil Hartman has had a successful career playing against his physical appearance with an off-kilter sense of humor. He entered show business as a graphics designer; among his better-known artistic renderings was the official logo for the rock group Crosby, Stills and Nash. In the early '80s, Hartman was a member of a comedy troupe called the Groundlings, where he made the acquaintance of comedian Paul Reubens. In collaboration with Reubens, Hartman helped create the character of child/man Pee-wee Herman, cowriting the screenplay of Reubens' 1985 movie vehicle Pee-wee's Big Adventure and portraying the grimy Kap'n Karl on the Saturday-morning TV series Pee-wee's Playhouse (1986-90). When asked later on if he was bitter over the way Reubens grabbed all the glory for the Pee-wee concept, Hartman characteristically made a self-deprecating joke, though it was decidedly at Reubens' expense. Before signing with NBC's Saturday Night Live, Hartman appeared as part of a comedy ensemble on the 1985 summer replacement series Our Time. Hartman's greatest comic strength lay in his celebrity impersonations, which he trotted out to maximum effect on both SNL and the Fox cartoon series The Simpsons. Hartman claimed that he had 99 celeb voices in his manifest, including a deadly funny impersonation of President Bill Clinton, which became an audience favorite on SNL and Jay Leno's Tonight Show where he often made guest appearances. Hartman remained with Saturday Night Live from 1986 through 1994, sharing a 1989 Emmy for "outstanding writing;" at the time he left the show (making pointed comments about the deteriorated quality of the writing staff), Hartman had set a record for the largest number of appearances (153) as an SNL regular. In 1995, Phil Hartman began a weekly assignment in the role of a pompous, self-centered (much like Ted Knight's character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) anchorman on the network sitcom Newsradio. When not appearing on the series, Hartman was a successful TVcommercial voiceover artist and pitchman and also occasionally acted in feature films, including Blind Date (1987), Jingle All the Way (1996) and The Second Civil War (1997).
In his personal life, Hartman was totally unlike the characters he usually played and was loved and respected for his humbleness, his affability and his generosity; he frequently donated his time to charities. It was therefore a terrible shock when on May 28, 1998, he was shot to death while sleeping in the bedroom of his Encino, California home. His wife Brynn Hartman committed the murder and then shot herself shortly after police removed the couple's two small children from the premises. Later reports stated that despite putting on a good public face as a couple, the two had been trying for years to resolve their difficulties and that drug and alcohol use on the part of Brynn were a factor in the tragedy.