How Did Phil Hartman Die? What to Know About the Beloved Comedian's Shocking Murder in 1998 (2024)

How Did Phil Hartman Die? What to Know About the Beloved Comedian's Shocking Murder in 1998 (1)

Phil Hartman appeared to have it all when he was tragically murdered in 1998 at 49 years old.

The beloved Saturday Night Live star —who was nicknamed “Glue” by his castmates for holding the show together during his eight seasons — had just completed filming his fourth season of the critically acclaimed NBC sitcom NewsRadio, where he played pompous radio news anchor Bill McNeal. Hartman was also in the midst of voicing several popular characters on The Simpsons, including the fan favorite Troy McClure. Off-camera, the Canadian-born actor and his wife of 10 years, Brynn, were equally busy raising their two children, then 9-year-old son Sean and 6-year-old daughter Birgen.

This picture-perfect facade would make the events of May 28, 1998, even more shocking: After an alleged argument, Hartman was shot to death while he slept by his wife, Brynn —who then shot and killed herself. The devastating murder-suicide left Hollywood stunned.

“This is just a tragedy beyond description,” Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks’ wife and Hartman’s costar in the 1996 film Jingle All the Way, told PEOPLE in 1998. “Now two children are left without the two most important people in their lives, and with a lifetime of confusion.”

So what led to this tragic turn of events? Here’s a closer look at the death of the television and comedy icon, Phil Hartman.

How did Phil Hartman die?

How Did Phil Hartman Die? What to Know About the Beloved Comedian's Shocking Murder in 1998 (2)

Hartman was shot to death by his wife of 10 years, Brynn, in a shocking murder-suicide.

The NewsRadio star was asleep in their bedroom when Brynn shot him three separate times with his .38 handgun: Twice in the head and once in his right side. All of the shots were fired at close range and he reportedly died instantly from the wounds.

After shooting her husband, Brynn called her longtime friend Ron Douglas and then showed up at his home in nearby Studio City. While there, she informed Douglas that she had killed Hartman —but he refused to believe her, even after she showed him the gun that she used. Douglas eventually convinced Brynn to return home and agreed to follow her there. Upon arrival, Douglas discovered Hartman’s body and called the police.

While Douglas was on the phone with the police, Brynn locked herself in her bedroom (where Hartman lay dead). Once the officers entered her home, Brynn killed herself by shooting herself in the mouth while she lay in bed next to Hartman.

Brynn was later found to have alcohol, cocaine and antidepressants in her system on the night of the murder-suicide, The New York Times reported. Brynn, who had struggled with alcohol and cocaine abuse in the past, had recently begun drinking again after nearly a decade of sobriety.

When did Phil Hartman die?

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The events leading up to Hartman’s tragic death began on the evening of May 27, 1998. That night, Brynn went to the Italian bistro Buca di Beppo with a friend, television producer Christine Zander. While there, Brynn had two drinks and “didn’t talk about any problems,” Zander told PEOPLE. “We made plans to see each other the following weekend.”

After two hours, Brynn returned home —where she and Hartman got into a heated argument. According to Steven Small, Hartman’s friend and attorney, the comedian “made it very clear that if she started using drugs again, that would end the relationship.”

Small also noted that the couple’s arguments followed a similar pattern: “She had to get amped up to get his attention, and when she got amped up, he would simply go to sleep. He would withdraw,” Small told PEOPLE. “And in the morning he’d wake up, and everything would be fine.”

But in this instance, things were not “fine.” Shortly before 3 a.m. on May 28, 1998, Brynn shot Hartman three times while he lay sleeping. She killed herself nearly four hours later, shortly before 7 a.m., as police swarmed her home.

Where did Phil Hartman die?

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Hartman was shot and killed in the bedroom of his $1.4 million Encino, Calif. home. Hartman and Brynn had moved into the four-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home a few years prior after relocating from New York to California, per the Los Angeles Times.

At the time of his murder, his two children —then 9-year-old Sean and 6-year-old Birgen — were asleep in their bedrooms.

Sean told police he had heard some sounds he described as “the slamming of a door” when Hartman was shot, a source close to the family revealed to PEOPLE. He was outside and his sister, Birgen, was being escorted out of the house by police when their mother died by suicide.

How old was Phil Hartman when he died?

How Did Phil Hartman Die? What to Know About the Beloved Comedian's Shocking Murder in 1998 (5)

Hartman was 49 years old when he was shot and killed in his home.

“I think in my old age, I’ve come to realize just how precious everything is and I try to value the many blessings that have been bestowed upon me,” Hartman said in a 1998 interview (the same year he died), according to the ABC News special The Last Days of Phil Hartman.

He continued, “But there’s also this sense of vulnerability if fortune took a turn for the worse, and that you live with the awareness that anything could happen in this world.”

What was the public reaction to Phil Hartman’s death?

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Hartman’s murder sent shockwaves throughout Hollywood, especially among those close to the Saturday Night Live star. The Groundlings —the L.A.-based improv group where Hartman got his start — canceled their performance scheduled for the evening of May 28, Entertainment Weekly reported. Rehearsals for The Simpsons, where Hartman voiced several characters, were also called off the day he was killed.

Immediately following his death, friends of the comedian gathered at the Los Angeles home of Jon Lovitz, Hartman’s close friend and former SNL costar, to process the devastating news.

“Everyone was telling stories about Phil,” Ron del Barrio, Hartman’s golf instructor,told PEOPLE about the gathering. “But when they’d start to laugh, they’d immediately lose it. They couldn’t believe they were talking like he was gone.”

The shock and disbelief over Hartman and Brynn’s deaths was compounded by the fact that few knew of any troubles in their longtime marriage.

“The thing that freaks everyone out is that this was not them,” Wilson told Entertainment Weekly. “He was a great dad, she was a really good mom. This is so uncharacteristic of how they were together.”

What is Phil Hartman’s legacy?

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In the years since his death, Hartman has been remembered as one of the greatest comedy and television talents.

In 2007, Entertainment Weekly ranked him 87th on a list of the 100 greatest television icons of all time, and in 2015, Rolling Stone named him one of the 10 greatest Saturday Night Live performers in the show's 40-year history. Thanks to the efforts of his surviving family, Hartman also has stars on both the Canada and Hollywood Walks of Fame.

“It’s a happiness to know that what I always knew everybody now acknowledges,” his brother, John, told CBS in 2014. “Phil was an incredibly gifted artist.”

Hartman’s former SNL castmates Dana Carvey and David Spade also honored his amazing life and career with a two-part special on their Fly on the Wall podcast, recorded around the 25th anniversary of his death in 2023.

“Everyone remembers how great he was,” Spade told PEOPLE about Hartman’s legacy. “He could be the game show host or the lead, or he could do those thankless parts — like the elevator man or the dad — and just come through with the extra laughs. You could give him Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, which is such a weird part, and then you’d watch him do it and be so weirdly hysterical.”

Carvey added, “His range was extraordinary.”

What happened to Phil Hartman’s children?

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Following the deaths of Hartman and his wife Brynn, their two children —son Sean and daughter Birgen — were raised by Brynn’s sister, Katharine Wright, and her husband in Wisconsin. Hartman left his estate (valued at around $1.2 million) to both of his children, who spent the rest of their childhood out of the spotlight, CBS reported in 2013.

Sean and Birgen have continued to lead rather private lives as adults. According to an ABC News special in 2019, Sean was pursuing his dreams of being an artist and musician, while Birgen had started her own business.

“I believe my sister would be very proud of how Sean and Birgen have grown up and the people they’ve turned into,” Brynn’s brother Greg Omdahl told ABC News.

Birgen, who married in 2018, has paid tribute to her late father in rare social media posts. She wished Hartman a happy Father’s Day on Instagram in 2016, writing in the caption, “This dapper dude will always have my heart.” Birgen also honored what would have been Hartman’s 74th birthday in September 2022 with a naturally funny message on X (formerly Twitter).

“My dad's 74th birthday today! Thanks for the personality disorder!” she wrote, along with two pictures of the beloved actor dressed up as a cat for a sketch.

Birgen also attended the 40th anniversary special of Saturday Night Live in 2015, according to Huffington Post, and spoke to The Hollywood Reporter around the 25th anniversary of The Simpsons about her father’s comedic legacy.

“It’s great that people still love and remember my dad’s characters on The Simpsons,” she told the outlet. “Even after 20-plus years, I still see people quoting Lionel Hutz or sharing Troy McClure memes. The fact that those characters have carried themselves into the modern day and have remained relevant is just so cool to see, and I think my dad would have been proud of that.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

How Did Phil Hartman Die? What to Know About the Beloved Comedian's Shocking Murder in 1998 (2024)

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