The Murder of Comedian Phil Hartman by His Wife, Brynn, Left a Legacy of Laughter, Two Children and a Terrible Question: Why?

By Alex Tresniowski
June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

The grisly details would emerge soon enough. For now, Phil Hartman’s stunned friends wanted only laughter. And so, just hours after receiving word on May 28 that Hartman had been fatally shot in his sleep by his wife, Brynn, who then orphaned the couple’s two young children by shooting herself in a bedroom of their $1.4 million Encino house, several of the comic’s buddies met at the L.A. home of Jon Lovitz, Hartman’s close pal and former Saturday Night Live castmate. “Everyone was telling stories about Phil,” says Ron del Barrio, Hartman’s golf instructor, of the gathering that included SNL alum Laraine Newman. “But when they’d start to laugh, they’d immediately lose it. They couldn’t believe they were talking like he was gone.” A distraught Lovitz cursed, shook his head and cried, “I don’t understand how this could happen.”

How the 10-year marriage of one of Hollywood’s most amiable celebrities could end in a bloody murder-suicide was a question that vexed friends and fans alike in the days following Hartman’s death. What could possibly have triggered the savage rage that prompted a loving mother to leave her children parentless? “This is just a tragedy beyond description,” says Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks’s wife and Hartman’s costar in the 1996 film Jingle All the Way. “Now two children are left without the two most important people in their lives, and with a lifetime of confusion.”

What made the tragedy more puzzling was that, on the surface at least, the Hartmans’ marriage was as robust as his career. The Canadian-born Hartman, 49, was an enormously talented and popular performer—lauded for his stinging impressions of Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra on Saturday Night Live, the goofy characters he voiced on The Simpsons and for his role as pompous anchor Bill McNeal on the NBC comedy NewsRadio, which had recently been renewed for a fourth season. He had also starred in such movies as 1994’s Greedy (with Michael J. Fox) and 1996’s Sgt. Bilko (opposite Steve Martin) and most recently lent his baritone to the children’s action comedy Small Soldiers, due in July. And while Hartman worked, Brynn—a former model who jettisoned her own acting plans—raised their son Sean, 9, and daughter Birgen, 6. “They always seemed happy,” says Todd Red, a bartender at Buca di Beppo, where the Hartmans celebrated her 40th birthday recently. “They always held hands and laughed and seemed like they were having a good time.”

Yet Hartman, a master mimic, may have just been playing another role. His relationship with Brynn, his third wife, was far more troubled than their public appearances allowed. The Hartmans were emotional opposites: Brynn, say several of the couple’s friends, was volatile and insecure about her husband’s fame, while Phil, an outwardly genial man, was often sullen and withdrawn in private. Lawyer Steven Small, a friend of Hartman’s, says the comic once told him, “‘I go into my cave and she throws grenades to get me out.'” Adds Small: “Phil was always very open with the public, but at home he retreated inside.”

That combustible mix was undoubtedly aggravated by another factor: Brynn’s substance abuse problems. A recovering alcoholic and cocaine user, Brynn had recently resumed drinking after a decade of near-sobriety. “She admitted she’d had a couple of episodes when she’d fallen off the wagon,” says a friend, songwriter Linda Thompson. “I remember her saying she didn’t want to be an addict.” In the last few months, Brynn had been in and out of rehab; earlier this year she checked into an Arizona clinic, where she stayed for only four or five days before leaving. Several days before the homicide, Brynn—who had been taking an antidepressant that can cause violent outbursts if mixed with alcohol or drugs—began drinking and using cocaine again, according to her close friends. Brynn’s erratic behavior from drug use, says a TV producer who knew the Hartmans, led their housekeeper to quit 10 days before the shootings. And Jeannie Petersen, a childhood friend of Brynn’s who stayed in touch with her, says Brynn wanted out of the marriage. “Sometimes she’d call me and she’d be real hurt,” Petersen says. “He wouldn’t give her a divorce. For two years she was trying to get it.” Others say it was Hartman who wanted out. “This,” says the TV producer, “was not a happy household.”

The Hartman saga approached its deadly denouement the evening of May 27, which began with Brynn’s visiting the Italian bistro Buca di Beppo with her friend Christine Zander, a supervising producer with the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. “She was in a good frame of mind,” Zander told PEOPLE. “She seemed content.” Brynn nursed two Cosmopolitans (vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice) over two hours and “didn’t talk about any problems,” says Zander. “We made plans to see each other the following weekend.”

Later that night she returned to her Encino home and had a heated argument with Hartman. “He had made it very clear that if she started using drugs again, that would end the relationship,” says Steven Small, who also notes that the couple’s arguments followed a familiar pattern: “She had to get amped up to get his attention, and when she got amped up, he would simply go to sleep. He would withdraw. And in the morning he’d wake up, and everything would be fine.”

But this time, Hartman’s ostrich imitation had fatal consequences. Shortly before 3 a.m., Brynn shot Hartman three times as he slept, twice in the head and once in his right side. She used a .38-caliber handgun, one of several weapons Hartman kept in a safe in his home. According to a source close to the family, their son Sean, who had been in his bedroom upstairs, told police he had heard some sounds he described as “the slamming of a door.”

Following the shooting, Brynn fled the scene and drove to the home of Ron Douglas, a longtime friend of hers. She confessed to Douglas what she had done, but he didn’t believe her. She made a second call to another friend and again confessed to the crime. Brynn then returned to her Encino home with Douglas, and at 6:20 a.m. he called 911. Police arrived quickly and escorted a frantic Sean to safety. As they were taking a terrified Birgen out of the house, officers heard a gunshot inside. Storming the bedroom, they found the bloodied Hartman on the bed and Brynn, with a single gunshot to her head, next to him.

Devastated friends described Brynn as a wonderful mother who was devoted to her children. “She was always hanging out with them, always driving them around,” says her close friend Andrea Diamond, a homemaker. “She wasn’t feeling trapped in motherhood.” Diamond rushed to the Los Angeles jail where Sean and Birgen were sheltered after the shootings, bringing them McDonald’s french fries and holding them as they cried and fell into uncomprehending silence. The children are now staying with Hartman’s brother John, a Los Angeles record-company executive, until, as stipulated by the Hartmans’ wills, they are taken in by Brynn’s married sister Katherine Kay Wright, 29, who lives in Eau Claire, Wis. Hartman’s will, which estimates his worth at $1.2 million, also states his desire to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over Emerald Bay on California’s Catalina Island. A separate memorial for Hartman, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, was planned for June 3.

Before this incident made Phil Hartman a household name, he was as humble and unassuming as a Hollywood star could be. The fourth of eight children, Hartman was born in Brantford, Ont., to Rupert Hartmann (Phil later dropped the second n), a building materials salesman—who died, at 83, just weeks before his son—and his wife, Doris, 79, a homemaker. Hartman told PEOPLE in 1993 that as a youngster he “didn’t make any waves.” Even as an adult, he said, “I have a passive, people-pleasing, middle-child mentality.”

Hartman also had an artistic streak that led him to California State University, Northridge, where he majored in graphic design. After graduating he designed art covers for such rock groups as Poco and Crosby Stills and Nash before joining an L.A. improv group, the Groundlings, in 1975. “He was always gentlemanly and kind, which is rare in comedy,” says fellow Groundling Patrick Bristow. “Phil was everybody’s big brother.” His improv work landed Hartman a performing gig on Saturday Night Live in 1986, and when he left eight years later his participation in 153 episodes had set a record. “His nickname was ‘the Glue,'” says SNL creator Lorne Michaels. “He kind of held the show together. He gave to everybody and demanded very little. He was very low-maintenance.”

But that same low-key demeanor served him less successfully in his personal life. Hartman’s first brief marriage was to Gretchen Lewis in 1970; his second, to real-estate agent Lisa Strain in 1982, ended less than three years later. “He would disappear emotionally,” says Strain. “Phil’s body would be there, but he’d be in his own world. That passivity made you crazy. And when I’d protest, he’d say, ‘You’re getting in the way of my career, and this is who I am and what it’s going to be like.'”

Hartman’s reclusiveness would again become an issue in his third marriage, to Brynn, the former Vicki Omdahl of Thief River Falls, Minn. The daughter of Donny, 59, a former engineer who is now a partner in the Lantern, a popular Thief River Falls restaurant, and Connie, 58, who runs a retail shop, Omdahl was “just another student, an ordinary young lady,” says her Lincoln High School principal Terry Soine. Determined to change that, Omdahl dropped out of high school, married and divorced Doug Torfin, a telephone operator, and did some modeling in Minneapolis before heading to California and acting lessons. “She was always looking to find herself,” says a friend who has known Brynn since she was 18 and who notes that she changed her name several times. “When I met her, she was Vicki; then she became Vicki Jo, then Brindon and then Brynn. I’d laugh and say, ‘Who are you this week?'”

In fact, Brynn was plagued by a powerful insecurity that was not assuaged by her 1987 marriage to Hartman. She was working as a Catalina swimsuit model when she met him on a blind date in 1986. “He had never had a ‘babe’ before, and she was it for him,” says a friend who knew the couple in their early days. “He married his dream girl.” But Brynn’s friend Suzan Stadner says that Brynn soon “felt intimidated by Phil. He was this confident guy on the way up.” When Hartman was tapped by Saturday Night Live, they moved to a tiny apartment in Manhattan, where Brynn took acting lessons and looked after their young children. “She would tell me she felt secluded and totally cut off,” says Stadner. In the opening credits to Saturday Night Live, Hartman could be seen sitting in a booth next to Brynn, whose face was never shown. “‘I kept trying to get my face on-camera, but the damn director kept telling me to turn away,'” Brynn complained to Stadner. “‘I was so frustrated.'”

Frustration would prove a major theme in the Hartman marriage. “Brynn didn’t have her own identity,” says an L.A. friend, Shelley Curtis. “She was a little confused and lost in the Phil Hartman game.” Low self-esteem led Brynn to undergo several cosmetic surgeries. “I understood her need to spruce up her exterior because she didn’t think she had an interior,” says Stadner. A plastic surgeon who operated on Brynn says she was “very insecure. She wanted to be this perfect wife of a Hollywood actor.” Metza Giezing, the Hartmans’ former New York City nanny, says some of the surgery was Phil’s idea. “He thought her face was too round and wanted her chin to be more square,” says Giezing.

Tensions in the marriage mounted as steadily as accolades for Hartman’s talent. “He told me she’d create scenes and throw fits,” says his second wife, Strain, who sent Hartman a letter congratulating him on the birth of his son in 1988. “Brynn wrote me back four pages of the most hideous vitriol you could imagine,” says Strain. “I called Phil and said, ‘Do you have any idea who you are married to?’ And he said, ‘You should’ve seen the letter she wanted to send.'” Strain says Hartman “wanted to do whatever he could to make this marriage work.” And yet he couldn’t stop his habit of drifting away from the woman who needed him most. “It was a pleasure to see how Phil interacted with people,” says his pal Small. “And yet I have a feeling that Brynn got none of that.”

Even so, neither partner had given up on the marriage entirely. Hartman, who made around $50,000 per episode on NewsRadio, had been talking about retiring to Catalina Island. “He had a three-year plan,” says Debbie Avellana, a friend and waitress at Armstrong’s on the island, where Hartman often vacationed. “His attitude was that his wife should hang on for a couple more years and then they would get to be together all the time.” The week before he died, says Small, “I asked him how things were with him and Brynn, and he said, ‘It’s as good as it’s ever been.’

Brynn, too, was looking to the future. Only two days before the shootings, she booked an appointment for her and Phil to enjoy an “Endless Courtship” treatment at the Skin Spa near their home. “I know they were both really looking forward to the summer,” says her friend Andrea Diamond. “They were just trying to get through the month of May.”

Even that fateful night, Brynn gave no hint that anything was amiss as she relaxed in Buca di Beppo. “The only thing unusual was she was there without Phil,” recalls bartender Todd Red, an aspiring actor whose career Hartman would always ask about. Brynn and her friend Christine Zander “seemed to be having fun,” Red adds. “They were smiling and laughing.” Around 9:45 p.m. they got up to leave. “Goodbye, it was good seeing you,” Red called to them. Brynn, smiling, responded, “‘I’ll be back real soon, and I’ll be sure to bring Phil next time.'”

Alex Tresniowski

Ken Baker, Amy Brooks, Todd Gold, John Hannah, Danelle Morton, Monica Rizzo and Irene Zutell in Los Angeles, Mitchell Fink and Cynthia Wang in New York City, Barbara Sandler in Chicago and Margaret Nelson in Thief River Falls