Phil Hartman, 1948 - 1998

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LOS ANGELES: Phil Hartman was a personality without a story, a successful "Saturday Night Live" graduate without a Belushi legend or a pile of lurid Farley stories. Hartman did impressions; he was a voice man; he perfected the persona of the likable jerk -- but he never really captured your imagination. You never wondered what he did at home.

Phil Hartman has a story now. Surprisingly voluble local police described Hartman's death early Thursday as a possible murder-suicide, painting a scenario in which Hartman's wife killed him, and then -- while police were ushering the couple's second child from their home -- herself.

That ugliness didn't fit him. By all appearances, Hartman was uncomplicated; he was funny, smart and didn't hang around long when things looked to be going bad. He was hard on SNL when he left the show after eight years, ripping his former producers and writers. He went on to a comfortable if less-than-stellar career in movies and television, doing countless cameos and roles as the comic foil. He was a keystone in two of TV's better sitcoms: "The Simpsons" (as Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz) and "News Radio" (as talk-show host Bill McNeil). Both shows will sorely miss him.

Phil Hartman did a great Frank Sinatra; he did a great Ed McMahon. He did a great Bill Clinton. But the most common character was one we could only call Phil Hartman: smarmy, oily, eminently superficial. We assumed that was all there was to know about Hartman, that he made us chuckle and do our own impressions of him. That was apparently the way Hartman wanted it. Now we'll never know.