TORONTO — As a comic actor, Phil Hartman was versatile and unselfish, so adept at shining in whatever supporting role he was given that his fellow “Saturday Night Live” cast members nicknamed him “the Glue.” He held the show together.
Hartman was rarely front and centre, but that doesn’t mean the Canadian-born comedian — who died in 1998 — didn’t appreciate the odd accolade and he certainly would have enjoyed being inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame, says his brother.
“I think he would have really appreciated it,” said Paul Hartmann, whose brother dropped the extra “N” when he entered show business. “He loved getting his Emmy (for writing on ‘SNL’). He always would play it down — ‘No no, not into it.’ He was stretching it a bit there.
“He was working out his neuroses on TV, and he needed a lot of attention he didn’t get as a child.”
He’s kidding, of course. Because it was actually Paul who wanted to see his brother get attention this time, and he worked tirelessly for years to see it happen.
Phil will be inducted into Toronto’s concrete shrine at a gala this evening.
He’ll be the only posthumous honouree amongst a group that also includes Winnipeg guitar wizard Randy Bachman, Vancouver-based chanteuse Sarah McLachlan, Hamilton-raised CFL great Russ Jackson and Toronto ballerina Sonia Rodriguez. Past honourees who have claimed stars since the Walk of Fame was founded in 1998 include Gordon Lightfoot, Celine Dion and Wayne Gretzky.
For Paul, the “long and arduous journey” to see his brother recognized began years ago when he hopped aboard an existing online campaign by Alex Stevens, a Hartman fan from Whitby, Ont.
Along with fans around the world, they co-ordinated a broad social media campaign to draw attention to their online petition for Phil’s induction. They also rallied for Phil in the media, issuing a press release that made the rounds online and ultimately netted Paul more than 200 interviews with radio, TV and print outlets.
But each year, the Walk of Fame only inducts one Canadian posthumously, and Phil was passed over during the first year of the campaign. And the second. (Beloved author Mordecai Richler took the prize last year, while magician Doug Henning was honoured the year before).
This year, Paul and a team of his brother’s fans stepped up their efforts. They recruited SiriusXM satellite radio to help with the campaign, as well as a bevy of Phil’s famous friends who were more than happy to help out or vote online, a group that Paul says included Rob Lowe, cast members of “Kids in the Hall,” Brent Butt, original “SNL” player Laraine Newman and character actor James Patrick Stuart.
Paul is understandably elated now to see his efforts were successful — and it’s serendipitous that the ceremony should happen to fall two days before what would have been his brother’s 64th birthday.
“It was a major relief to know that I wasn’t going to have to go through another year of battling it out,” the 58-year-old said with a laugh.
One of eight siblings, Phil Hartman was born in Brantford, Ont. The family eventually moved to California, and Phil and Paul were roommates there years later when Hartman broke into comedy as a member of the Groundlings improv troupe in the late ’70s. (Their brother, John, is also in show business as a music agent, manager and executive who has steered the careers of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Sonny & Cher).
“What we really loved was when Phil would get a pay cheque — the first thing he would do is go over to Hollywood Magic and Costume and he’d get some goofy thing,” Paul recalled. “And he’d come back and do Phil shtick, which was usually painful and led to a lot of rolling around on the floor and screaming and yelling.”
Hartman met Paul Reubens while working with Groundlings, co-creating Reubens’s signature Pee-wee Herman character and co-writing the feature film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
Hartman got his big break the following year when he joined the cast and writing staff of “SNL.”
A wry impressionist, Hartman was famous during his eight-year run on the show for spot-on impersonations of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra and Phil Donahue.
He went on to make crucial contributions to the critically acclaimed sitcoms “Newsradio” and “The Simpsons,” on which he used his distinct voice to animate several beloved characters including incompetent lawyer Lionel Hutz and washed-up actor Troy McClure.
Hartman tended to play characters who were glib, slippery, cowardly and egomaniacal, convincingly dissolving into a concession of jerks who had little to do with him but nonetheless became his own.
“Everything he did was brilliant,” said Paul Shaffer, the Canadian musical director on “Late Show With David Letterman” and the host of this year’s Walk of Fame gala.
“His Sinatra impression stays with me, of course. It was the best. He was the best.”
Paul is certainly glad to see those achievements recognized, but wishes he didn’t have to accept the honour on behalf of his brother, who was shot and killed by his third wife Brynn Omdahl before she subsequently committed suicide.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Paul, who lives in Owen Sound, Ont. “You wish there was another way this could happen. I would give up anything, my leg, to have my brother back. And have him getting (his star) on his own.”
He’s glad now to have the campaign behind him, since he admits that reaching for Phil’s star occasionally brought some difficult feelings back to the fore.
“I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that there’s no getting over this,” he said. “Sometimes it hurts more than others. You get around his birthday or the date of the tragedy — lots of heavy emotion. And the last two years, because I keep having to revisit these places because of the Walk of Fame, would get pretty hard sometimes.
“So it’s not one of those things you can heal. It just doesn’t heal. It’s always going to be there, so you learn to live with it, and you love from afar. That’s really all you can do. You wish he was here, you miss him, it’s not going away, and that’s just life.”
The ceremony will be recorded for broadcast on Oct. 14 on Global.
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