LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — It was 15 years ago this month that the world lost funnyman Phil Hartman.
KCAL9 Anchor Sharon Tay sat down with John Hartman, the comic’s younger brother, to discuss the painful anniversary as well as a new compilation of Hartman’s antics.
It was the morning of May 28th, 1998.
John Hartman answered the phone. It was his doctor’s wife. “She was crying. She said, your brother lives in Encino, right?’” I said ‘Yeah.’ And she said, ‘There’s been a shooting at his house.’”
Hartman remembers, “My first thought was, ‘It’s not true.’”
He turned on the TV and heard the news. And then he thought, “Where are the children?”
Phil and Brynn Hartman had two children, 9-year-old Sean and 6-year-old Bergen. Police on the scene theorized Brynn murdered Phil with a .38 following a violent argument and then turned the gun on herself.
When John Hartman saw his niece in the arms of an officer running out of his brother’s house, that’s when the adrenaline hit. “I jumped in my car, buzzed down the hill and went to Encino. It was taped off for blocks.”
This kids were already in police care. “They had no idea what was going on,” says Hartman, “No idea whatsoever. When Sean said, ‘What are we doing here?’ I decided in that instant that I would never lie to them. And I just said, ‘Sean, mommy and daddy are dead.’”
Hartman recalls, “Sean didn’t scream. But he cried and said ‘No.’ And Bergen started crying. And I said come here and they cried.”
The Hartman children were raised by Brynn’s sister, in the Midwest, and under a different family name. John did not want to share images of them today — he and his family have vowed to protect their privacy.
The will specified Brynn’s sister would have custody of the children and for her brother to be custodian of the estate. Hartman says that was a “mixed bag,” for his family. “I started with my mother. And said, ‘Ma, we have to do the right thing here. These people did not kill Phil. And they’re good people.’ I was trying to keep the two families as one.”
Following the murder-suicide the coroner told Hartman that Brynn was on Zoloft and drinking alcohol and “she did not know what she was doing. Or why she was doing it, I took that as true. And I forgave her in that moment.”
Hartman took a while to heal emotionally, he says candidly, “It took a while to get through it. About five years. It took a lot of hard work.”
A recording called “Phil Hartman’s Flat TV” is a series of bits and sketches Hartman did before his “Saturday Night Live” or Groundlings days. But the material was lost for decades and only found after he died. John released the material as a CD and now wants to turn it into a cartoon. He played 28 different characters.
John considers the find a treasure. “It was the thing left he had done all on his own and it was uncensored” including a day in the life of a dysfunctional Valley family called “The Sphinxters.”
In his spare time, when John isn’t authoring books on music or working on his new documentary about the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, he is working to preserve his brother’s legacy.
Last year, Phil Hartman received a star on the Walk of Fame in Canada. The Hartmans are trying to get a similar honor bestowed upon Phil in Hollywood.
Says John Hartman, “Phil was a great source of pride for our family. To my brothers and sisters and I. Phil is a giant and a hero.”