Phil Hartman finds life after 'SNL' in new series

July 19, 1995|By Steven Cole Smith | Steven Cole Smith,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

From 1986 until his last season, Phil Hartman was the unsung hero of the beleaguered "Saturday Night Live."

Sometimes, he felt on top of the world. "There were times when we would do a show in New York and I would say to myself, 'This is the center of the universe,' " he said. "No other show on television could claim that, say, Mel Gibson is hosting tonight, and Eric Clapton or Paul Simon are doing the music, and Jesse Jackson is making an appearance on 'Weekend Update.' There is no other show like that."

But toward the end of his tenure, the show began to slide, and it slid even further this past year. Only two cast members will return, and a new head writer, Steve Higgins of the recently canceled "Jon Stewart Show," has been hired to head up the creative team.

Creator Lorne Michaels "is an aristocrat about the show, and he has tremendous pride in it," said Mr. Hartman, who spoke at the Television Critics Association summer media tour.

Mr. Hartman is now a supporting star on the prime-time sitcom "NewsRadio," playing Bill McNeal, a pompous, Ted Baxter-like anchorman. This fall, the show settles into a comfortable 8:30 p.m. time slot on Tuesday, between "Wings" and "Frasier."

For a couple of years, Mr. Hartman had been developing a prime-time variety show, similar to the one Martin Short premiered on NBC.

"After Martin Short's show failed," Mr. Hartman said, "I lost my nerve, and 'NewsRadio' was there."

Mr. Hartman misses doing characters of the sort he made famous on "SNL," ranging from a dead-on impersonation of President Clinton to the more obscure ones, such as Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

Mr. Hartman has appeared in several feature films ("Greedy," "House Guest," "Three Amigos"), "and the next step for me is to write and star in a feature film. I'm trying to keep my film career alive and well while I pursue a television career, using TV as a power base."

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