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Phil Hartman: 25 years after the actor’s tragic death, his work still resonates

<i>Alan Singer/NBC/Getty Images</i><br/>(From left) Dennis Miller
Alan Singer/NBC/Getty Images
(From left) Dennis Miller

By Lisa Respers France, CNN

(CNN) — Twenty-five years after Phil Hartman’s tragic death, his memorable comedic work still brings joy to audiences.

Hartman was fatally shot by his wife Brynn Omdahl on May 28, 1998, before she died by suicide hours later. The tragedy that unfolded inside the their home in Encino, California, came as a shock to the public.

Beloved by his fans and colleagues, Hartman was 49 and riding high in his career at the time of his death – having become famous as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” and voicing multiple characters on “The Simpsons.”

“Everyone loved him from the Groundlings to ‘Saturday Night Live” to ‘NewsRadio,’” his friend and fellow “SNL” cast member Jon Lovitz recalled in a conversation with Howard Stern in January. “And comedians … they’re very, very competitive, you know, and someone always has a problem with somebody, but not Phil.”

Hartman was a private person who preferred the spotlight on his work rather than his personal life.

That work included eight seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” where his impressions of Frank Sinatra and President Bill Clinton set a gold standard.

His frequent turns voicing characters like Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz on “The Simpsons” remain fan favorites.

Hartman’s final role, as vain news anchor Bill McNeal in NBC sitcom “NewsRadio,” seemed perfect for a man who could deliver funny dialogue with the smarmiest voice.

An introverted former graphic designer, Hartman was discovered when he got invited to join the Groundlings improv group after wowing the crowd when they asked for volunteers from the audience.

As skilled as he was on stage, Hartman also craved quiet.

“My sense of Phil was that he was really two people,” his second wife, Lisa Jarvis, told ABC after Hartman’s death. “He was the guy who wanted to draw and write and think and create and come up with ideas. He was the actor [and] entertainer, and then he was the recluse.”

“Seeing Phil at The Groundlings was Phil being truly Phil,” she added. “You know, as time goes by, you understand that his personas are his protection and [they] are his personality.”

In 1987, he married Omdahl, his third wife, with whom he started a family.

While they faced challenges in their marriage, the couple reportedly reveled in being parents to their son, Sean, and daughter, Birgen.

Now adults in their 30s, the two declined to speak with CNN for this article.

In an interview shortly before his death, Hartman reflected on his appreciation for his life and the success he had found.

“I think in my old age, I’ve come to realize just how precious everything is and I try to value the many blessings that have been bestowed upon me,” Hartman said. “But there’s also this sense of vulnerability if fortune took a turn for the worse, and that you live with the awareness that anything could happen in this world.”

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