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Hartman, comedy found each other

ENCINO, California (CNN) -- Actor-comedian Phil Hartman's death ended a brilliant comedy career that ranged from stand-up to television to the silver screen.

Hartman was known for dead-on impersonations and an intensely comical style reflected during his award-winning gig on "Saturday Night Live" and, most recently, in his role as the egotistical, vain anchor Bill McNeal on "News Radio."

He has also starred in numerous films, including "Jingle All the Way," "Blind Date," "Three Amigos," "Coneheads," "Fletch Lives," "So I Married an Axe Murderer," "Sgt. Bilko" and "House Guest."

Canadian-born comedian

Like Dan Aykroyd, the late John Candy and numerous other comics, Hartman was born in Canada. Unlike the others, he grew up in the United States -- Connecticut and Southern California. One of eight children, he once described himself as the class clown of his high school.

"I'm from a large family; I'm the middle child," he once said. "I suppose I didn't get what I wanted out of my family life, so I started seeking love and attention elsewhere.

"Even at Westchester High in West L.A., I was class clown, because I could do John Wayne, Jack Benny, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and entertain my friends on the senior lawn," he remembered in a 1995 interview. "But I never seriously considered it as a career choice."

Hartman as Clinton
Hartman's impersonation of a McDonald's-loving Bill Clinton was just one of many character portrayals the comedian perfected

He would later go on to study graphic design at California State University at Northridge, a Los Angeles suburb, and win a job in that field.

"I was working 12 hours a day at a drawing board all by myself, and I was going nutso," he said. "So I joined an improv group, The Groundlings. I just started getting up on stage and talking. And I loved it. I did it for 10 years just for the fun of it."

But success still awaited him.

'Groundlings' break

In 1978 he began working with fellow Groundlings performer Paul Reubens, now known as Pee-Wee Herman, which later led to Hartman's co-writing credit on the feature film "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure."

His success in screenwriting was not matched in the acting department, at least not early in his career.

"As an actor, I felt I couldn't compete," he once said. "I wasn't as cute as the leading man. I wasn't as brilliant as Robin Williams. The one thing I could do was voices and impersonations and weird characters, and there was really no call for that. Except on 'Saturday Night Live.'"

Hartman received another "break" into the business -- on a popular game show.

"I ended up on 'The Dating Game,' and I won -- which was the worst part of it," he recalled. "They told us, 'If you win, act excited.' So I acted like a complete idiot. I was sitting on a stool kicking my feet. I looked so stupid. ... And then she stood me up.

"I won only because of my improv skills. She had asked 'If you were a street sign, what would you be?' And I said, 'Slippery when wet.' The audience loved it, so she picked me by default."

Longtime SNL member

Hartman eventually won a part on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1986-1987 season. He stayed with the show for seven years, winning an Emmy for his collection of skits in the 1990-1991 season.

But he was best-known on the show for his impersonations of leading political and celebrity figures, including Frank Sinatra, Jack Nicholson, Phil Donahue, Ronald Reagan and Sen. Ted Kennedy.

"I recently made a list of all the characters and voices I've done. It came to 99," Hartman told an interviewer in late 1992.

A career highlight came in 1993 when Hartman came face to face with one of his favorite targets of impersonation -- President Clinton. The meeting took place at a Democratic fund-raiser.

Hartman Interviews
Hartman talked with CNN's Bill Tush in 1993 (left) and was in Los Angeles with Dan Aykroyd in March 1996

"The first thing I said to him is 'I guess I owe you a few apologies,'" Hartman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He laughed and was just very warm and gracious."

Hartman eventually left "SNL," finding the work to be too stressful. He told People magazine in a 1995 interview, "The rejection and backstabbing could be painful, but the hardest thing was competing against your friends for air time.

"It was literally a situation where you felt the most unbridled glory and the most excruciating emotional agony. What's the line -- laugh all your laughter, cry all your tears? And revel in the glory of it all," Hartman said.

"SNL" also kept Hartman away from his California home.

"I like New York, but I love California," he once said. "I'm a yachtsman, and I've got three boats just sitting in Marina Del Rey begging me to come back and make sense of all the maintenance fees I've been paying."

Known for weasel villains

Hartman eventually found the character that he would become known for as an actor: the weasel villain. He capitalized on this role in movies like "Jingle All The Way" and on the TV series "The Simpsons," as the voices of several characters including attorney Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure.

"I just want to be funny, and villains tend to be funny because their foibles are all there to see," he said.

"NewsRadio" came next in 1995, but he had said he was considering leaving the show.

"The first few years of doing Bill McNeal still felt fresh to me, because I was expanding and learning about the character. But after three years, we've pretty much explored the depth of this guy," he says.

Nonetheless, many television critics felt his TV and movie work was well-regarded because unlike many of his Saturday Night Live cohorts, he had gracefully chosen a style that worked for him.

"He was one of the few people from SNL who realized that ensemble was the way for him to go," said Mary Murphy, a senior writer at TV Guide. "He never tried to break into major movie roles ... he really understood that this was his strength. He was a strong ensemble player, and really an original."

Family man

In his spare time, Hartman said he enjoyed spending time with his family.

Hartman was considered an expert sailor and scuba diver. He also surfed with actor pals Tom Hanks and Woody Harrelson.

But his true love remained with comedy.

"I come from that Jonathan Winters sensibility, where I kind of 'trip' -- I just go with it," he once said. "It's transcendental, because I'll go into a sketch and come out of it and it's like waking up from a dream. The more I get that feeling, the happier I am."

In 1995, he remarked on the steady rise of his career.

"One of the remarkable things about my career is that it has been marked by steady, incremental progress. No sudden spikes up, and no sudden downfalls, either," he said.

"I've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams -- financially, and the amount of fun I have in my life."

The shooting, apparently at the hands of his wife, has left Hartman's friends seeking answers.

"Whenever I would see them they were always a happy couple," actor Steve Guttenberg, who met Hartman in The Groundlings, said. "They always had the appearance of being real well balanced."


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