Flashback: Phil Hartman On His Big 'SNL' Break in 1989: 'It Gave Me A Career, Which I Didn't Have!'

by Denny Directo 7:54 PM PST, February 12, 2015
Playing Flashback: Phil Hartman On His Big 'SNL' Break in 1989: 'It Gave Me A Career, Which I Didn't Have!'

Phil Hartman proved to be one of Saturday Night Live's biggest stars during his eight season run (1986-1994) on the late-night sketch comedy show. And when ET first met the actor in 1989, just three years after his debut, it was clear just how much the show meant to him.

"It’s hard to put into words what an exciting thing it is to do this show," he told ET. "I've done commercials, I've done movies, I've performed on stage-- this is the best of all them rolled into one."

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Hartman was recommended to SNL creator Lorne Michaels by fellow comedians such as Penny Marshall and cast members Laraine Newman and Jon Lovitz, who Hartman worked with early in his career. Lovitz told ET that Hartman initially turned the opportunity.

"He got offered the show and then he turned it down," Lovitz recalled. "He goes, 'I really don't want to be famous. I don't want to do it.'"

As fate would have it, Hartman quickly became a formidable force on SNL-- best known for his spot-on impressions of President Reagan, President Clinton and Frank Sinatra, as well as creating memorable characters such as Frankenstein, Frozen Caveman Lawyer and Anal Retentive Chef.

"For someone who does improv comedy, that was the television show," Hartman told ET in 1989. "It gave me a career, which I didn't have!"

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A rock-solid performer, Hartman's range of talents transcended far beyond Studio 8H. During his time at SNL, he also began doing guest voiceover work on The Simpsons and landed small roles in Coneheads (1993) and So I Married an Axe Murderer. Following his departure from SNL in 1994, after eight seasons, he made the move to primetime on the sitcom Newsradio.

But it was Saturday Night Live where it all began, and his love and appreciation for the TV show that made him a star was perhaps most evident when ET caught up with Hartman when he returned to host in 1996. "Eight years, 153 shows-- the fragrances in the hallways summon memories," he said. "I had the most fun of my life here."

In 1998, at the height of his career, Hartman was shot and killed by his third wife, Brynn Omdahl Hartman in a disturbing murder-suicide. While his shocking death was a tragedy, his SNL legacy is a treasure.

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