Hartman's eight-year run on SNL--one of the longest of any player--started in 1986, and he quickly became the reliable backbone of the show (his on-set nickname, according to creator Lorne Michaels, was "the Glue"). Hartman may not have possessed the breakout charisma of costars Chris Farley, Dana Carvey, and Myers, but his conventional-guy demeanor provided a secret weapon: With it, he could momentarily fool audiences into thinking he was the straight man. Then he'd cock an eyebrow, lace his rich baritone with irony, and deliver a punchline like a fast slider--you barely saw it coming until you started laughing. His dead-on impersonations of Establishment slicksters like Phil Donahue, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Swaggart, and, most famously, Bill Clinton snuck up on viewers but were ultimately as incisive as any on the show. Certainly he was the least egomaniacal performer to emerge from the hothouse atmosphere of SNL. "He didn't need to be competitive," says Three Amigos! costar Martin Short. "Those needs come from uncertainty. His ego was very well placed because he knew he had talent."
Hartman did manage to parlay his smooth wise-guy persona into movie roles, albeit mostly supporting bits in light comedies like Sgt. Bilko and Houseguest. The big payday came from commercials, where, by his own account, he made a sizable chunk of his multimillion-dollar fortune, hawking for giants (from Cheetos to MCI) and small fries alike. As he told Hollywood Online in 1997, "I have no illusions about my stature in show business. I'm kind of at an intermediate level of celebrity where pretty much everybody knows who I am, but I haven't had the big breakout role that will take me to the next level. Sooner or later it will happen."
That day may have been near: Small Soldiers, in which he has a key role, was already generating buzz before he died. He had also planned to star in the indie comedy The Day of Swine and Roses with Jon Lovitz in August. And just three weeks ago, Simpsons creator Matt Groening offered him a few roles on his new Fox mid-season animated sitcom, Futurama.
In truth, Hartman may have underestimated his contributions and fame: "Steve Martin said to me, 'I don't know if Phil knew how beloved he was,'" says Short. Without Hartman's patriarchal McNeal, NBC's critically lauded but poorly rated NewsRadio will seem hollow. "There isn't anyone in the world talented, funny, or lovable enough to fill his void in the show," says exec producer Josh Lieb. Some have wondered if it will continue; chances are it will, but a final decision won't be made for weeks. "We'll have to talk about what needs to be done," notes NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer, "but it's too crass to consider that right now."
The Simpsons had plugged Hartman's voice into more than 50 episodes as four different characters, two of which--former B-movie idol Troy McClure and rent-a-lawyer Lionel Hutz--were regulars. "He was a master," says Groening. "I took him for granted because he nailed the joke every time." Hartman's voice will surface posthumously this fall in episodes he'd already dubbed, but after that, his characters will likely be laid to rest.