Obituary: Phil Hartman

WHEN the actors providing the voices of The Simpsons cartoon series threatened to go on strike earlier this year unless they got hefty pay rises, the news made headlines around the English-speaking world. It gave viewers the chance to put faces to the names they regularly see on the credit sequences and to realise how versatile those performers can be, since they often lend their talents to several characters.

Alongside Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson, but also his friend Nelson Munce and Todd Flanders, the neighbour's kid), Dan Castellaneta (Homer, Grampa Simpson, Krusty The Clown, Barney Grumble, Mayor Quimby etc), Hank Azaria (Moe the bartender, Apu the convenience store owner, Chief Wiggum, Superintendent Chalmers and 25 others) and Harry Shearer (Mr Burns, his sycophantic assistant Smithers, Homer's neighbour Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, newscaster Kent Brockman and a host of others) and the many celebrity guests (including Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, and U2 in the 200th episode), Phil Hartman didn't warrant a huge mention.

Yet Hartman contributed to 49 episodes of the long-running cartoon series. He was the voice of Moses, of Under-Secretary of State Evan Conover, of the fast-talking salesman Lyle Lanley, of Homer's inept lawyer Lionel Hutz and, most famously, portrayed a fading celebrity, Troy McClure, who introduced himself with the immortal: "Hi, I'm Troy McClure, you may remember me as the star of . . ." whenever he appeared in yet another infomercial interrupting the Simpson family's compulsive television-watching. There were similarities between the comic actor and his vocal cartoon creation but, considering his late start in the world of show- business, Hartman's star was very much in the ascendant.

Born in Brantford, a small town in Ontario, Canada, Hartman followed his parents and seven siblings first to Connecticut and then, in the late Sixties, to Los Angeles. He often entertained schoolfriends with his impersonations of John Wayne, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, but wouldn't make a career out of this skill until the mid-Seventies. He originally studied graphic design and, when he wasn't working in advertising, created artwork for Crosby, Stills & Nash and other rock acts of the day.

Theatre workshops offered an outlet and a release for Hartman's acting abilities, and in 1975, he joined the Groundlings, a Los Angeles comedy troupe specialising in improvised sketches. While he was part of that ensemble, he met Paul Reubens, a comedian who would soon fashion a new image for himself as the colourful and outrageous Pee-Wee Herman. The two collaborated on the script for the 1985 film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in which Hartman guested alongside his friend.

The following year, Hartman appeared in Three Amigos (featuring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short) and joined the cast of NBC's Saturday Night Live, American television's number one satirical comedy show. The show had already provided the springboard for talents like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, who had been part of its repertory cast.

Over the following eight seasons, Hartman's uncanny ability for mimicry came to the fore as he lampooned everyone from Ronald Reagan to Frank Sinatra via Jack Nicholson and the television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. The election of Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992 provided Hartman with another chance to shine. His Clinton, complete with sincere, southern vocal inflections, proved so spot-on that the president had no recourse but to congratulate his impersonator. Coincidentally, both played the saxophone too.

From that point, Hartman's career really took off. "I started doing Clinton and then I was on the cover of TV Guide [America's best-selling listings magazine]. I became a household name," he later reflected. "I didn't have to look for work any more. Work came to me. Like a tremendous amount of commercials and voice-overs."

The smarmy delivery of a Hartman character had often been used to introduce or narrate sketches on Saturday Night Live. In 1990, while fleshing out The Simpsons' rich array of cultural references, high- and low-brow, the show's creator Matt Groening decided to hire Hartman to become the voice of has-been actor Troy McClure.

Having quit Saturday Night Live in 1994, Hartman, who had become a US citizen, could concentrate on The Simpsons and various small but lucrative appearances in movies such as Coneheads (1993, with Dan Aykroyd), House Guest (1995), Sgt Bilko (1996, with Steve Martin) and Jingle All the Way (the poorly received Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle of Christmas 1996).

By then NBC had found a suitable vehicle for Hartman's talents with the launch of the sitcom NewsRadio, in which he played Bill McNeal, a self- important radio announcer. The series never quite delivered the ratings the US channel expected and has not been shown on British television, possibly because the format closely resembles Channel 4's newsroom series Drop the Dead Donkey. Ostensibly an ensemble piece, NewsRadio nevertheless often revolved around Hartman's character and may now be cancelled following his death.

Philip Edward Hartmann (Hartman), actor, comedian, impersonator, scriptwriter: born Brantford, Ontario 24 September 1948; three times married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles, California 28 May 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...