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Taking a Bite Out of Bill

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STRIKE UP THE DRUMSTICKS AND HAIL TO THE Beef! With a finger-lickin’ new President ripe for ribbing—and ribs!—in the While House, Phil Hartman’s chuck wagon has come in. In his Chicken McNugget—scarfing impersonation of Bill Clinton, Hartman has at once nailed the fast-food-friendly leader of the free world and brought himself out of the shadows on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. “It’s my little opportunity,” says Hartman, 44, who in seven seasons on SNL has molded his Mr. Average mug (“I’m Mr. Potato Head”) into Ronald Reagan, Ed McMahon—even Barbara Bush.

When Clinton came his way, Hartman first keyed into the voice. “It’s way up behind the eyeballs.” he says. “When I do Clinton, it’s like I’m trying to channel him.” After all, Hartman, who voted for Clinton, considers the Arkansan a kindred spirit—kind of. “He opposed the Vietnam War like I did,” says Phil. “He tried marijuana. He didn’t inhale. I did.”

But Clinton is a son of the South, and Hartman was born in the Great White North—Brantford, Ont., about 60 miles west of Niagara Falls. The fourth of eight kids of Rupert Hartmann (Phil dropped the last n), a building-supplies salesman, and his homemaker wife, Doris, Phil eventually settled with his family in Los Angeles. “I was a loner,” he says. “I surfed.” Although voted Class Clown (’66) at L.A.’s Westchester High, he studied art and went on to design rock album covers. In 1975, “for the psychological release,” he joined the Groundlings, the L.A. improve company that spawned SNLers Laraine Newman and Julia Sweeney. Also in the troupe was Paul Reubens, soon to be Pee-wee Herman. Hartman cowrote the 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and costarred as Kap’n Karl on TV’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Just before he landed on SNL, Hartman met Brynn Omdahl, a former model from Minnesota, whom he wed in 1987 (she’s his third wife). They have a son, Sean, 4, and a daughter, Birgen, 11 months. “Phil’s always funny,” says Brynn, “but if I need to talk seriously, he won’t drive me crazy with jokes.” Away from their rented New York City apartment, Hartman retreats to his chalet-style house in L.A. and loves to sail and scuba dive. He plans to leave SNL after next season to write and star in his own TV show, Chick Hazard, on which he’ll occasionally surface as President Bill. “I hope he’s not offended,” says Hartman, who recently dropped Clinton a friendly note—as yet unanswered. “But you can’t be in this game and not step on a few toes.” Or lick a few fingers.

TIM ALLIS in New York City