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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.