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Profile: Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman grew up impersonating celebrities and getting laughs.

"Even at Westchester High in West L.A., I was class clown, because I could do John Wayne, Jack Benny, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and entertain my friends on the senior lawn," he once told an interviewer..

Those characters gave way to more than 70 others after he got his big break on Saturday Night Live in 1986. Aided by wigs, beards, and plastic noses, Hartman created a host of impersonations - President Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Bush, Ed McMahon- that endeared him to TV audiences for eight seasons.

In addition to the impersonations, Hartman, the self-described workhorse of SNL, created such original characters as the Anal-Retentive Chef and the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer - "I fell into some ice and your scientists thawed me. Your modern world frightens and confuses me!"

SNL producer Lorne Michaels once said, "Phil Hartman, I think, is the least appreciated, except here. That kind of ability to do five or six parts in a show where you're playing support or you're doing remarkable character work is different than doing the 'Samurai 'all the time, or well-known or more popular characters."

The Canadian-born Hartman himself once credited his talent to his birth order. "I'm from a large family; I'm a middle child," he once said. "I suppose I didn't get what I wanted out of my family life, so I started seeking love and attention elsewhere."

Born Philip Edward Hartmann -he later dropped the last "n" in his last name - on Sept. 24, 1948, he spent his early years in Brantford, Ontario, 60 miles west of Niagara Falls. He was the fourth of eight children of Rupert and Doris Hartmann. His father was a building-supply salesman, and his mother was a homemaker.

The family immigrated to the United States when Hartman was 10. They settled in Connecticut, moving after a few years to the West Coast. The multi-talented Hartman studied art at Santa Monica City College, dropping out in 1969 to become a roadie with a rock band.. Because of his background, he was tapped to design the band's album cover.

He returned to school --California State University at Northridge - in 1972 to study graphic arts and later developed his own graphic arts business, creating album covers for Crosby Stills & Nash, among other groups.

Hartman's acting and writing debut came in 1975, when he joined The Groundlings, an improvisational comedy troupe based in L.A.

His association with fellow troupe member Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-wee Herman) led to his co-writing and appearing in Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1985. He also appeared as Kap'n Karl in the early versions of the CBS-TV series Pee-wee's Playhouse.

"As an actor, I felt I couldn't compete. I wasn't as cute as the leading man; I wasn't as brilliant as Robin Williams. The one thing I could do was voices and impersonations and weird characters, an there was really no call for that. Except on Saturday Night Live. "

His voice has been used on a number of animated series, including Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace and several characters on The Simpsons.

He joined SNL in 1986, part of a cast that included Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, and Dana Carvey. Hartman scored with his amazing skill at impersonation. Hartman appeared on Saturday Night Live for eight seasons, which he found stressful. He told People magazine in a 1995 interview, "The rejection and back-stabbing could be painful, but the hardest thing was competing against your friends for airtime."

During that period at SNL, the twice-divorced Hartman met Minnesota model Brynn Omdahl, whom he married in 1987. They had two children, Sean, 9, and Birgen, 6.

"Phil's always funny," she once told an interviewer, "but if I need to talk seriously, he won't drive me crazy with jokes."

NewsRadio came along in 1995, with Hartman playing the vain anchor Bill McNeal. The show was a critical favorite, but had difficulty finding an audience. It had several brushes with cancellation, and it was somewhat surprising when NBC announced last week it would come back for another season in the fall.

Hartman's film credits include Cheech & Chong's Next Movie (1980), Three Amigos! (1986), Blind Date (1987), National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), Coneheads (1993) Greedy (1994), Houseguest (1995), Sgt. Bilko (1996), and Jingle All The Way1996).

He was nominated for Emmys for writing for a musical or variety show (SNL) in 1987 and 1989. He won in 1989.

Hartman had as many hobbies as careers. An avid surfer, fisherman and scuba diver, he loved sailing and owned as many as three boats at once - "more boats than the Iraqi navy," he once observed.

He played guitar, often jamming with fellow SNL cast members Carvey (guitar and drums) and Lovitz (keyboard), and took up flying a plane when he was in his 40s.

"I'm the type of guy who's really going to enjoy any free time I have," he once said

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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