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December 1, 1996
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The jerky guy
Phil Hartman carves out a career for himself as the guy everyone loves to hate
By BOB THOMPSON


Sunday, December 1, 1996

HOLLYWOOD -- Phil Hartman looks like a geography teacher, sounds like a used car salesman and acts like he runs a smarm-charm school.

Well, he doesn't act like that all the time, but when you remember Phil Hartman, you usually recall the sniveling sneak he plays so well.

"I call it the weasel parade," says the 46-year-old former Saturday Night Live veteran.

For example, get a load of Hartman's annoying newsman (I know, aren't they all?) on the TV sitcom, NewsRadio. He refines the jerk job as Arnold Schwarzenegger's next-door neighbor in the recently released Jingle All The Way, and before that he was the officer you loved to hate in Sgt. Bilko.

Throw in the voices of lawyer Lionel Hutz and actor Troy McClure from The Simpsons cartoon, and you have a complete set of "the jerky guys."

Odd thing about Hartman is that he always thought he'd be just another "working guy" who had little or no interest in showbiz.

He grew up in Brantford, Ont., but after a few moves his family (there were eight children) ended up in southern California, where he won lots of laughs from high school classmates, but graduated to an art school a few years later.

"I really do feel like an outsider who became an actor," says Hartman.

What he was into was rock albums, and not just listening to them.

"Yeah, I was a graphic designer," he says. "I did over 40 album covers, including the white Poco album. That's the only piece I have up in my office. I also designed that Crosby, Stills and Nash logo, but they didn't give me a credit on the CD retrospective."

He's not bitter, just amused. In fact, that's how Hartman got to where he is today. He's one funny customer.

He was also a little lonely working at his graphic designer desk every day, by himself, usually entertaining only himself, with flights of voice fantasies.

"I had to find an outlet," recalls Hartman. So he joined the comedy revue troupe, The Groundlings, in 1975. "I more or less started taking workshops for the fun of it, and 10 years later, I was still doing it for the fun of it."

SNLers Laraine Newman and Julia Sweeney came from that group. So did Paul Reubens, whose alter ego Pee-wee Herman was a stepping stone for both Reubens and Hartman.

They made a name for themselves with a summer stage show in 1981. Hartman co-wrote the hit 1985 movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure and even co-starred as Kap 'n' Karl on the TV morning show Pee-wee's Playhouse.

Hartman more or less cemented his reputation -- good voices, good writer, steady straightman -- with his SNL gig, where his Bill Clinton became an essential part of the show.

Typical of Hartman, he looks back on those years and cringes. Less abrasive and not as blindly ambitious as his buddy comedians, he found some of his ego-driven comedymates to be mean-spirited and vengeful.

"I still don't speak to Paul Reubens," he says, referring to his former partner. "We just had a falling out and never put it back together."

If Hartman stands mostly alone in the comedy world, the isolation has more to do with the easy-going kind of guy he is. "Well, not totally easy going," admits Hartman.

By comparison, Hartman is a relatively stable, self-deprecating and honest kind of comedy performer, who confesses to borrowing and to stealing wherever he can.

"My ultimate favorite was Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, but I'm a really big fan of Bill Murray.

"He's been a great influence on me -- when he did that smarmy thing in Ghostbusters, then the same sort of thing in Groundhog Day.

"I tried to imitate it. I couldn't. I wasn't good enough. But I discovered an element of something else, so in a sick kind of way I made myself a career by doing a bad imitation of another comic."

In other words, Hartman is a borrower. "I know who I am as a person," he jokes, "but as a comic actor I'm still trying to figure it out."

What he knows for certain is that he's found his place in the showbiz scheme of things -- and he's loving it.

"It's fun," he says, "coming in as the second or third lead. If the movie or TV show bombs, you aren't to blame."

Hartman switches to his smarm-charm man: "Hey, I'm the bad guy, the jerky guy, I did all I could to make it interesting."

And then some.

THE PHIL HARTMAN FILE

ON Actor Troy McClure: "Yes I'm looking forward to his live-action movie, publicizing his Betty Ford appearances."

ON His cheating next-door-neighbor character in Jingle All The Way: "I actually had a neighbor like that. He'd tell me about all of his conquests in the neighborhood, like my wife was excluded. I didn't think so."

ON Appearing on The Dating Game in the late '70s: "I won," he says of being chosen as the successful bachelor by a bachelorette. "That was the worst part of it. The other two guys were dolts. What did it? She asked me, if I was a street sign, what would I be? I said, `Slippery when wet.'

"Yes, and as you might have expected, she stood me up."


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