The Shocking Murder of Phil Hartman

Hartman is still remembered as a comedy legend in Hollywood, in spite of the horrific circumstances of his death.

Comedian Phil Hartman had an incalculable impact on pop culture in the 20th century, but his legacy ended tragically in murder. Hartman was a long-time star on Saturday Night Live and other TV shows and movies, and was beloved by all his collaborators. Sadly, his contributions to the entertainment industry must live in the shadow of his untimely death.

Hartman is best known to most fans for his work on SNL and Pee-Wee's Playhouse. He was a close friend of Paul Reubens, helping him create the character of Pee-Wee Herman and even co-writing Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Behind the scenes, Hartman was regarded as kind and decent – his nickname among the cast and crew of SNL was "Glue" because he "held the show together." A profile in The Sacramento Bee described him as "a regular guy and, by all accounts, one of show business's most low-key, decent people."

Phil Hartman sighting in Rockefeller Center – February 10, 1994
(Photo: Derek Storm/Getty Images)

Sadly, that legacy now stands at odds with the circumstances of Hartman's death. On May 27, 1998, Hartman was shot and killed by his wife, Brynn Omdahl at their home in Los Angeles, California. Omdahl then died by suicide as well. The crimes shocked friends, family, colleagues, and fans at the time. Here are the details you need to understand this tragic and legendary case.

Hartman's Love Life

Hartman was divorced twice before he married Omdahl. At the age of 22, he married a woman named Gretchen Lewis, but they divorced after two years. That marriage lasted from 1970 to 1972 – before Hartman appeared on TV and gained widespread notoriety. However, his second marriage came at the very beginning of Hartman's comedy career.

In 1982 Hartman married real estate agent Lisa Strain. They were married for three years. That means they were together when Hartman was working with Reubens on The Pee-wee Herman Show for HBO and Pee-wee's Big Adventure. But, they were divorced before Hartman began his tenure on SNL in 1986.

Hartman and Omdahl

Hartman and Omdahl met on a blind date in 1986 and married in 1987. Omdahl was a former model and aspiring actress, and accounts from friends indicate that she was preoccupied with Hartman's success in Hollywood. According to a 1998 report by PEOPLE, Hartman even considered retiring from the entertainment business in order to save his marriage. However, sources close to them say that neither Hartman nor Omdahl ever seemed to want a divorce – only to change their circumstances for the good of their relationship.

Hartman and Omdahl had two children together – a son named Sean and a daughter named Birgen. They were 9 and 6 years old respectively at the time of their parents' deaths, and they were in the house at the time. Omdahl was about 10 years younger than Hartman, making them 40 and 49 years old in 1998.

Phil Hartman Portrait
(Photo: William Nation / Getty Images)

Friends consistently described a very specific dynamic in Hartman and Omdahl's relationship that seems to have contributed to their deaths. At home, Hartman was an introvert seeking solitude and quiet, while Omdahl was boisterous and confrontational. Steven Small said: "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. And in the morning he'd wake up, and everything would be fine."

Omdahl's Addiction

Many friends would ultimately attribute Hartman and Omdahl's deaths to Omdahl's struggles with addiction and substance abuse. Omdahl was in and out of rehab several times during their marriage, seeking treatment for alcoholism as well as dependence on drugs like cocaine and prescription pills. James Robert Parish's 2004 book The Hollywood Book of Scandals details a few episodes where Hartman took the children and went to stay with friends or family while Omdahl was in an angry, drug-addled state.

At the time of the murder-suicide, Omdahl was reportedly in a volatile state with her addiction. Some of the accounts from friends conflict with one another, but several indicate that she had recently broken a long string of sobriety and then taken a short stay in rehab before returning home. Additionally, she was prescribed anti-depressants that could cause serious side effects if mixed with alcohol or other drugs. Several friends indicated that they knew Omdahl was drinking and even using cocaine in the weeks before the murder, and that it was causing problems in their household. However, Small said that Hartman had given Omdahl an ultimatum, promising "that if she started using drugs again, that would end their relationship."

Death

On the night of May 27, 1998, Omdahl met writer and producer Christine Zander for dinner at an L.A. restaurant where Zander confirmed that Omdahl had a few drinks. However, Zander told PEOPLE that Omdahl "was in a good frame of mind" and "seemed content." Other witnesses at the restaurant said the same. They left shortly before 10 p.m. but it's unclear when Omdahl returned home.

Friends said that Hartman and Omdahl had a serious argument when she arrived home, though no one was there to witness it. Following their usual pattern, Hartman finally gave up on the fight and went to sleep. At about 3 a.m. local time, Omdahl attacked Hartman while he slept. Using a .38-caliber handgun that Hartman kept in a safe, Omdahl shot her husband twice in the head and once in the side.

After that, Omdahl got in her car and drove to the home of her long-time friend Ron Douglas, where she confessed to the murder. Douglas did not believe her, but followed her back to her house in a separate car. Once there, Douglas saw the murder scene and called 911 himself at about 6:20 a.m.

Upon arriving, the first thing police did was secure 9-year-old Sean and 6-year-old Birgen who had been in the house the whole time. While they were escorting the children out of the house, Omdahl barricaded herself in her own bedroom with Hartman's remains. The preoccupied police heard a gunshot from inside. They kicked the door down to find Omdahl dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head beside her late husband.

Plans

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Investigators found no evidence that Omdahl had planned this murder-suicide in advance and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Friends said that Omdahl had given no sign of suicidal ideation and had plans with plenty of friends in the near future – including Hartman. Just two days before she had booked an elaborate spa treatment for the two of them.

Likewise, Hartman had many plans for the summer and the years to follow, all of which included Omdahl. One friend said that Hartman had described "a three-year plan" for his own retirement, at which point he hoped to spend all his time with Omdahl and work on their relationship. He hoped to move his family out of Los Angeles. Additionally, Small said that Hartman was optimistic about his marriage just one week before his death, saying: "I asked him how things were with him and Brynn, and he said, 'it's as good as it's ever been.'"

Legacy

In many ways, the tragic story of Hartman's death is well known because of how it clashes with his legacy as a kind, generous, family-oriented person. Thankfully, his death has not sullied that reputation at all. Instead, many friends and colleagues have confessed to feeling guilty over the years, wondering if there were signs they missed or opportunities to help Hartman and Omdahl. Famously, an angry Jon Lovitz confronted comedian Andy Dick, accusing him of having a hand in Omdahl's relapse. Dick recounted this story in a 2007 interview with Tom Green, saying he did not even know about Omdahl's addiction.

Hartman's children were raised by Omdahl's sister and her husband. Hartman left behind a will stipulating that his will be held in a trust fund to be distributed to his children over the course of several years after they each turned 25. It also instructed their next of kin to cremate Hartman and Omdahl and scatter their ashes in Santa Catalina Island's Emerald Bay.

Hartman has been remembered among the greatest comedians of his time and remains an icon with an immeasurable influence on pop culture today. His personal story was detailed in a 2019 TV documentary The Last Days of Phil Hartman, which is streaming now on Peacock and Apple TV+. For more information, fans can also check out the 2015 biography You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman by Mike Thomas. It is available in print, digital, and audiobook formats wherever books are sold.