H’w’d mourns Hartman

Popular comedian a murder victim

Execs and creative talent were reeling at the news of the killing of Phil Hartman, who was shot Thursday while he was sleeping at his Encino home in what police are calling a murder-suicide. Hartman’s wife, Brynn, apparently shot herself to death as police arrived.

The 49-year-old Hartman had apparently been dead for hours when officers from the Los Angeles Police Dept.’s West Valley Division were sent to the house in response to a call of shots fired at 6:20 a.m.

The comic actor was part of the ensemble cast of NBC’s “NewsRadio” and a recurring voice actor on Fox’s “The Simpsons.” He also was a key player in the cliffhanger season wrap of NBC’s “3rd Rock From the Sun,” and is one of the leads of DreamWorks’ summer film, “Small Soldiers.”

There was no word Thursday from “NewsRadio” producer Brillstein/Grey Communications or NBC on the future of the sitcom, headed into its fifth season this fall.

As a guest star in the season finale of Carsey-Werner Co.’s “3rd Rock,” Hartman kidnapped the character played by regular French Stewart. A rep for Carsey-Werner on Thursday said next season’s opening episode had not yet been shot, nor had a decision been made about how to resolve the storyline.

Characters silenced

Hartman’s death also leaves a vocal void on Fox’s “The Simpsons.” The actor breathed life into such characters as fading B-movie star-cum-infomercial host Troy McClure and shyster lawyer Lionel Hutz. Hartman’s last recording session for “The Simpsons” was April 22 as McClure, according to Fox.

Detectives from LAPD’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division spent the day gathering evidence at the Hartmans’ $1.4 million, 4,000-square-foot gated home, as throngs of reporters and news crews camped outside.

In the case of high-profile investigations or deaths involving celebrities, RHD detectives from the LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters are called in to handle the case instead of investigators working out of the local police station.

Police spokesman Lt. Anthony Alba said detectives were investigating the crime as a murder-suicide, and were trying to de-termine the motive.

Responding to gunfire

Someone had called 911 to report the sound of gunfire coming from inside the two-story house in the 5000 block of Encino Avenue. As officers arrived, they saw a boy — the couple’s 9-year-old son — standing in the open doorway to the home and immediately took him outside. When the officers entered the house to find the boy’s 6-year-old sister, they heard a gunshot coming from the master bedroom. There they found Hartman’s body on the bed and his wife’s on the floor, dead from an apparent gunshot wound to the head. Brynn Hartman was 40.

Hartman appeared to have been dead “for a while,” Alba told Daily Variety. The actor’s brother was called to the home to help identify the bodies.

Hartman was born Sept. 24, 1948, in Branford, Ontario, Canada. Along with seven siblings, he was raised in Connecticut and L.A. After studying graphic design at Cal State, Northridge, he designed album covers before joining the L.A. improv comedy group the Groundlings in 1975.

While there, he worked with such performers as Paul Reubens, which led to his co-writing credit on the 1985 feature “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

But it was Hartman’s regular appearance on “Saturday Night Live” from 1986-94 that propelled him to stardom. His extensive repertoire of impressions and his dead-on characterizations of luminaries ranging from Frank Sinatra to Ted Kennedy to the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart made him a fan favorite during his run on the NBC series.

Feature credits

His feature credits included “Jingle All the Way,” “Sgt. Bilko,” “Coneheads,” “House Guest,” “So I Married an Ax Mur-derer” and “Blind Date.” Hartman was widely seen and heard in the advertising world, both as a voiceover personality and on-camera celeb pitchman. His recent commercial work included radio and TV spots for telco giant MCI Communications, McDonalds, Cheetos snacks and Glendale Federal Bank.

Hartman’s real-life persona ran counter to the self-centered characters he frequently played. He was generous with his time, often hosting or participating in charity events, such as Nancy Davis’ Race to Erase MS. Hartman and Lisa Rinna recently ap-peared on VH1 to help raise money for the charity through commercials encouraging viewers to call in pledges.

“Everyone at NBC mourns the tragic passing of Phil Hartman,” said NBC West Coast prexy Don Ohlmeyer. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Phil’s family and friends at such a difficult time.”

“Everyone at ‘The Simpsons’ is devastated by the death of Phil Hartman,” show creator Matt Groening said in a statement. “His brilliant comic acting and easygoing enthusiasm made him a joy to work with, and he will be sorely missed.”

Final episode

Groening last worked with Hartman on April 22, when the actor reprised his Troy McClure character for an episode airing in the fall.

“Small Soldiers” director Joe Dante said the actor had done a day’s looping on the project less than a week ago, his final work on the picture, “and that’s the last time I saw him.”

“He went to the wrong studio,” Dante recalled with a laugh. “We were looping at Paramount and he went to Fox. He was good at that. He called and said, ‘Oh, I’m in the wrong studio! I’ll be right there!’ ”

Dante had previously directed Hartman in HBO’s “The Second Civil War,” in which the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member played the U.S. President.

Since its debut in March 1995, “NewsRadio” had been a critical favorite but never a big ratings winner for the Peacock web. The series had been on the brink of cancellation this season, but was picked up for the fall after Brillstein/Grey agreed to give NBC a profit-participation stake in the show (Daily Variety, May 18).