Phil Hartman was 49 when he died. He was a successful actor, comedian, screenwriter, and graphic designer. You may recognize his voice as he voiced the Simpsons characters Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz. He had been on Saturday Night Live for 8 years and he won an Emmy for his work on that show.
He often played supporting roles, rather than the lead part. He said “throughout my career, I’ve never been a huge star, but I’ve made steady progress and that’s the way I like it”,and “It’s fun coming in as the second or third lead. If the movie or TV show bombs, you aren’t to blame.”
He had been in movies including: Houseguest, Sgt. Bilko, Jingle All the Way, and Small Soldiers.
Phil seemed like a nice guy. He had been described as “a regular guy and, by all accounts, one of show business’s most low-key, decent people.”
Phil had been married a few times in his life. He married a woman named Gretchen Lewis in 1970 (he would have been around 22) and they divorced in September 1972. He then married real estate agent Lisa Strain in 1982, and their marriage lasted three years. Lisa told People magazine that Phil was reclusive off screen and “would disappear emotionally … he’d be in his own world. That passivity made you crazy.”
Lisa has said that she and Phil divorced in 1985 because ‘we were both unable to do the work necessary to make a good thing better,’ but remained friends, she said. ‘He was a quiet man and a sensitive and gentle person.’
In 1986, Phil met his final wife – Brynn Omdahl – I have read some articles that say they met on a blind date, and others say they met on a photo shoot where Brynn was working as a model. They married in 1987. Brynn was born Vicki Jo Omdahl on April 11, 1958. She was around 10 years younger than Phil.
The couple had two children together -Sean and Birgen. Sean was born in 1988 or 1989 (it’s been reported both ways) and Birgen was born in February 1992.
The Hartman marriage was tumultuous. It has been said that Brynn was intimidated by Phil’s success – she had also tried to make it as an actor and had failed to really do so. She had small parts in North and Third Rock from the Sun.
She was reported to have been jealous and often verbally and/or physically abusive, even sending a letter to his ex-wife, threatening to “rip [Strain’s] eyes out” if she spoke to him again.
This letter was sent after Lisa sent a card to Phil and Brynn, congratulating them on the birth of Sean.
Lisa contacted Phil after she received the letter, to let him know of the contents. He said he was partly to blame because Brynn had asked him once if Lisa was his soulmate, and he said yes.
Over the years, Phil worked to get Brynn acting roles and he even considered retiring to save the marriage.
Brynn became increasingly reliant on drugs and alcohol and she went to rehab several times during the course of the marriage.
Brynn was also jealous of the working relationship that Phil had with SNL associate Jan Hooks. Letters that Brynn has written and never sent to Jan would eventually be discovered. In her writing, she warned Jan to stay away from her husband.
The last day of the lives of Phil and Brynn was May 28, 1998.
The night before, May 27, Brynn went to Buca di Beppo restaurant in Encino, California, with producer and writer Christine Zander, who said Brynn was “in a good frame of mind.” They had drinks.
When Brynn arrived home, she argued with Phil. It was said to be a ‘heated’ argument.
Some articles state that the couple argued about Brynn’s alcohol use. She had apparently hit her daughter once while she was intoxicated. Phil is alleged to have told her that he would take the children and leave her if she used drugs again.
Phil went to bed following the argument.
Sometime before 3am on May 28, Brynn entered the bedroom where Phil was sleeping. She fatally shot him once between the eyes, once in the throat, and once in the upper chest with a Charter Arms .38 caliber handgun.
Brynn had snorted cocaine before the murder, had also been drinking alcohol and she was taking Zoloft.
Brynn left the property and drove to the home of her friend, Ron Douglas. She told him about the murder and he did not believe her. He did find a revolver in her purse – he took the gun from her and placed it in a plastic bag. They drove back to the Hartman home in separate cars.
While Brynn was driving back home, she called another friend to tell them about the murder.
When Ron arrived and he saw Phil’s body, he called 911 at 620am.
The dispatcher asked Ron where Hartman had been shot.
“I think around the head and the neck,” Ron said. “I just got here.”
Brynn had locked herself in the master bedroom of the home, where Phil’s body was.
When police arrived, Ron escorted Sean (9) out of the house and a police officer carried Birgen (6) to safety. As they were leaving the property, they heard a single gunshot wound. Brynn was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
“We know for sure (Brynn Hartman) inflicted her own gunshot wound, and she apparently shot herself as the officers were in the house,” said Lt. Anthony Alba of the Los Angeles Police Department. “Mr. Hartman had been dead for a while. He did not die at the same time that Mrs. Hartman apparently killed herself.”
Brynn was found laying dead in the marital bed next to her husband.
Brynn’s autopsy showed that she had an alcohol level of .12 percent, along with traces of cocaine and the prescription anti-depressant Zoloft in her blood, said County Coroner’s Investigator Craig Harvey.
The alcohol level is well above the .08 percent level at which a driver is legally under the influence in California.
“Between the cocaine and alcohol, the two of them most definitely intensified the other’s effects,” Harvey said. “The Zoloft is kind of a wild card.”
Harvey added, “According to our toxicologist, it would appear that the usage (cocaine) was approximately five hours or so prior to death. A fairly recent ingestion.”
Phil had been taking an over-the-counter cold medicine, but no prescription or illegal drugs were found in his body.
The Hartman’s left an estate worth $1.23m to their children. The children were going to be raised by Brynn’s sister Katharine Wright and her husband, Mike, who publicist Stan Rosenfield said are the children’s guardians. The Wrights, who have no children of their own, live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
The wills specified that the Hartman children would each get a third of their inheritance when they reach age 25 or receive a bachelor’s degree from a four-year accredited university. They will receive half of the remaining money when they turn 30 and the remainder when they turn 35.
The Hartmans directed in their wills that the first guardian who consents to take care of the children be given $50,000 from their estate, Rosenfield said.
The wills also specified cremation. Phil asked that his ashes be scattered over Santa Catalina Island’s Emerald Bay. Brynn didn’t specify what she wanted done with her ashes.
After the murder-suicide, friends of the couple spoke about their shock and dismay.
A friend of Phil Hartman’s, actor Steve Guttenberg, told CNN he saw no signs of martial trouble, describing the Hartmans as “a very happy couple, and they always had the appearance of being well-balanced.”
Susan Kaplow, a neighbor in the upscale San Fernando Valley neighborhood, said Brynn appeared happy in the days before her suicide.
“She left me a really happy message yesterday,” Kaplow said. “Everything was fine. We leave each other silly messages all the time.”
Actor-comedian Steve Martin called Phil’s death “a great tragedy” and said he was “a deeply funny and very happy person.”
However, the police stated that the murder-suicide was caused by “domestic discord” between the couple. A friend said Brynn “had trouble controlling her anger … She got attention by losing her temper”.
In the aftermath of the event, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed in 1999 by her brother Gregory Omdahl, against Pfizer, the manufacturer of Zoloft, and against her child’s psychiatrist, Arthur Sorosky, who had provided samples of the antidepressant to Brynn.
The case alleged that Zoloft actually drove her to insanity and that this insanity caused her to shoot her husband and herself to death. Pfizer has settled the case out of court in a private agreement.
Phil’s friend and former SNL colleague Jon Lovitz has accused actor Andy Dick of reintroducing Brynn to cocaine, causing her to relapse and suffer a nervous breakdown.
Andy claims that he knew nothing of Brynn’s addiction issues. Jon and Andy have had public fights over the years – in 2006 Jon claimed Andy approached him at a restaurant and said, “I put the Phil Hartman hex on you; you’re the next one to die.” Jon then had him ejected from the restaurant.
You can view Phil’s autopsy here.
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One thought on “The Hartman Family murder-suicide”
Liv – you seem to have an interest in the mental health connection to true crime, which would be great. Your article about the Hartmann family tragedy mentions the connection between SSRI antidepressants (Brynn was on Zoloft), murder and suicide, which has never been thoroughly discussed (publicly). The behavior of Dharmesh Patel, as you described in your recent article, raises the question – was he on an SSRI when he drove off the cliff? If you have an interest in exploring the SSRI connection to true crime, I encourage you to visit https://knowyourdrugs.org/tour/