Among the inductees at this year’s Canadian Walk Of Fame is comedian Phil Hartman. He's best-known for his work on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and NewsRadio, and the award is the result of years of work by his fans and family.
Canada's Walk of Fame was created in 1998 as a permanent monument recognizing accomplished Canadians; it incorporates figures from the worlds of sports, science, and the arts, and includes Mordecai Richler, Jean Beliveau and Daniel Lanois on its past honorees list. This year’s Awards Ceremony happens September 22nd, and will be broadcast nationally in October. Along with Hartman, 2012 inductees include musicians Sarah McLachlan and Randy Bachman, ballerina Sonia Rodriguez, quarterback Russ Jackson, and the Canadian hockey team from the 1972 Russia-Canada Summit Series.
Phil Hartman was a familiar face -and voice -to people who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Every Saturday night, he'd perform a variety of refreshingly absurd characters including Anal-Retentive Chef, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, a singing Frankenstein, as well as uproarious impressions of Ronald Reagan, Phil Donahue, Frank Sinatra, and (famously) Bill Clinton, among many others. He voiced the smarmy Troy McClure on The Simpsons (“You may remember me from...”) and shyster lawyer Lionel Hutz. Later he would confirm his legacy in TV comedy with the role of egomaniac newsman Bill McNeal in NewsRadio. In many ways, television culture of the 1990s sounded an awful lot like Phil Hartman.
Born in Brantford in 1948 and raised in the U.S. from the age of ten, Hartman never set out to be an actor, much less a comic one; rather, he trained as a graphic designer, and in his early years, designed over forty album covers, including ones for rock bands America and Poco. But Paul Hartmann says his brother was destined to be an entertainer.
“He'd been doing it all his life in one fashion or another,” he says wistfully, from his home in Owen Sound. “(Phil) was always gregarious and outgoing, and he always knew what he had to do to achieve what he wanted in life... so he had a focus a tad bit like the Anal-Retentive Chef!”
In the 1970s, Hartman helped emerging comedian Paul Reubens develop the Pee-wee Herman character, and later co-wrote the screenplay for Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Following roles in the films Jumpin' Jack Flash and Three Amigos!, Hartman auditioned for Saturday Night Live, where he remained from 1986 to 1994. In 1989 he won an Emmy for his work. He went on to act in a variety of comic films, including Sgt. Bilko and Jingle All The Way. Hartman's life was cut short in 1998 when his wife shot him in their Encino, California home. The death sent shock waves across the entertainment world, to say nothing of the effect it had within the immediate family.
"It's the kind of loss that is immeasurable in your life," notes Hartmann, sighing heavily. "This is a theft. You feel completely ripped off ... there's no reasons for why. You go through the self-blame stage: what did I do? What did I miss? Why didn't I see something? You're sitting there, your family all feeling the same way, and then, it flies out and the fans feel it too."
In 2009, when Hartmann connected with supporters eager to see Phil included on the Walk (which has a physical locale, in Toronto's fashionable King Street West neighborhood), he was genuinely stunned by their level of passion and adoration. "We got a whole new view of what it is to be a fan," he says.
Paul Hartmann discovered his brother, Phil Hartman, was quite the perfectionist. "He kept every report card he ever got in his life," he says, " I found them all, and they were in order! Same with every cancelled check he'd ever written... you'd find these things and go, wow… too much."
Shortly thereafter, Hartmann was deluged with interest from broadcasters across Canada. In a space a few short weeks, Hartmann did close to 200 interviews for radio, TV, and print. The 2011 tsunami delayed campaign plans but allowed him and his group of supporters to organize for 2012. SiriusXM Canada's Laugh Attack channel devoted its recent April programming to Hartman, and featured clips as well as memories from friends, fans, and family. The campaign also inspired the public support of numerous celebrities including Tom Arnold and Rob Lowe.
News of Hartman's induction came hot on the heels of a flurry of social media activity. It was no small feat to get the honor; the Walk Of Fame relies on public votes, and the comedian beat out other as-yet unrecognized Canadian luminaries like Yvonne De Carlo and Oscar Peterson. It took Paul Hartmann and his team three years of hard work to have his brother receive the prestigious nod.
“Phil would love all this stuff," brother Paul says, "he'd be glad he's being honored in his homeland. A lot of this was done as a healing thing for fans as much as it was for us, and that contact we've had with the fans for the last three years, it's already changed things.”
The next task is to get Phil Hartman on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. The inaugural Phil Hartman Comedy Award was presented this past August at the Canadian Comedy Awards. There’s also a book in the works (due in 2014) to be penned by Mike Thomas, who wroteThe Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater (Villard), as well as a cartoon series based on Hartman’s unproduced scripts. Things are moving, and Hartmann is pleased. The induction to Canada's Walk Of Fame is “the first big step... and it signifies a celebration that’ll last a few years.”
It's especially poignant, given that Hartman would've turned 64 just two days after the ceremony, on September 24th. "Fans really experienced the loss the same way we do, as family members,” his brother says.
Does he have a personal favorite, amidst his brother’s colorful cavalcade of memorable characters?
“I loved his maniacal Ronald Reagan,” he says, softly laughing, “and I loved Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.”