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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

You Might Remember Me

The Life and Times of Phil Hartman

Mike Thomas

St. Martin's Press


Chapter 1

There were already three children—a brother and two sisters—when Philip Edward Hartmann made his debut, all five pounds of him, on September 24, 1948, at Brantford General Hospital in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, then a barely century-old town settled by a collective of Iroquoian Indian tribes not far outside Toronto. Most famously the former home of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and located on the banks of Ontario's Grand River, Brantford also produced The Lone Ranger actor Jay Silverheels, electron microscope inventor James Hillier, and several pro hockey legends, most famously Wayne Gretzky.

Until Phil (or Phippie, as he was also called) was nearly nine, the Hartmann clan lived in tight quarters at 35 Lancaster Street and then 225 Dufferin Avenue. The latter dwelling, a 100-year-old brick cottage on a street lined with chestnut trees, had a small living room to the left as you entered through the front door and two bedrooms on the right. A kitchen and dining room occupied the rear, and as offspring multiplied, Phil's parents Doris and Rupert built an addition with another bathroom and more bedrooms on the home's northwest side. The house was out of place amid its rather upscale surroundings.

"We were the poorest people in the neighborhood," Phil's older sister Martha says. Vacations were out of the question and everything, she remembers, "was kind of a financial struggle." But their mother and father always appeared nattily attired and even belonged to a nearby country club. "There wasn't a lot of money," Martha says, "but [they] always looked really nice. And I felt proud that they were my parents." Still, Phil's oldest brother John says attempts to appear "more affluent than we really were" probably fooled no one.

Beginning when Phil was very young, his parents dreamed of making a new start in the United States. Their aspiration to do so began in 1950, when Phil was around two and they received an exciting offer from Doris's great uncle Hubert Haeussler. A Detroit resident, avid University of Michigan fan, and successful businessman (in retirement, Haeussler would serve as a tour guide for and goodwill ambassador of sorts to his city's foreign visitors), he invited them to drive with him to Pasadena for the January 1, 1951, Rose Bowl matchup between U of M's Wolverines and the California Golden Bears. Thrilled at the prospect of vacationing, an expensive undertaking they never attempted with their growing brood, Doris and Rupert motored down to the Motor City from Brantford, joined up with Haeussler, and then headed west.

When the trio arrived in Pasadena, California, with its near-perpetual sunshine and easygoing vibe, Rupert and Doris were immediately smitten. Who cared (well, besides Haeussler) that U of M bested the Golden Bears in a hard-fought 14–6 victory? This palm-tree-lined paradise, they decided, was their future home. Or somewhere close to it, anyway. Getting there was just a matter of how and when. Exuberant, Doris and Rupert "came right back and took out their papers," Phil's oldest sister Nancy recalls, in eager anticipation of imminent relocation. And they talked up the Golden State to all who'd listen, spurring some to relocate there ahead of them. Then Doris found out she was pregnant again. Daughter Sarah Jane was born in late October, with son Paul following in December of 1953. Nearly four years passed before the Hartmanns migrated south of the Great White North to make a better life.

* * *

In a 1997 interview with Hollywood Online, Phil spoke of growing up in a family that "struggled to make ends meet." He went on to explain that his inability to shed excess weight during adulthood stemmed from scrambling for his share of grub during those lean early years. The craft services tables at his various television and film jobs would become a particular weakness, for he'd find it almost impossible not to partake of free meals. "Hot dogs, donuts—bring in the pizza and the fried chicken," he quipped. "I came from a family where you needed a fork in your hand to reach for some food." Oddly enough, according to Martha, there was a social upside to the Hartmanns's simple lifestyle: "The neighbors loved our family. They loved that we weren't spoiled and they wanted us to hang out with their kids so maybe something would rub off on them."

Those neighbors, the Taylors, had two boys named John and Tom (the latter was Phil's age) and a house that dwarfed the Hartmanns' cottage-like abode. As a youngster, Phil strolled into the Taylors' place at will, as no one in the low-crime area locked the doors of their homes or cars. Martha remembers that one day, as the Taylors were seated at their long table and silently eating breakfast, Phil wandered in and proclaimed, "Good morning, all you happy people!" He had heard the phrase on a local radio broadcast and it struck him as funny. The neighbors "burst out laughing. It made their day." In another instance of Phil's scampishness Nancy was asked to check on him and his younger brother Paul (five years Phil's junior) outside. Doris sometimes tethered the boys to a clothesline so they wouldn't run off if left unsupervised. And it usually worked. But when Nancy went to look for them, she found only Phil's tiny swimsuit—still attached to the rope. Phil himself had wriggled out of it and ran off "stark naked" down the street.

When Phil was in elementary school, he nearly went blind, no thanks to brother John's errant Red Rider BB gun. "You'll shoot your eye out!" went the typical parental admonition, and in some cases it was true. "I had the scare of my life when I was shooting at a Popsicle stick that I had put on the windowsill of a little room Phil and I lived in with our brother Paul," John says. "The BB hit the Popsicle stick and ricocheted off it. Phil was walking up behind me and he screamed and had his hand over his eye. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I've blinded my brother!' And I'm freaking out. He's screaming and crying and yelling, ‘Ow! My eye!' and I run over and I pull his arm away and his eye was there. I'd anticipated seeing it shot out. It was like horror and relief in the same breath. Inhale and exhale."

Thinking quickly, John pulled Phil aside and whispered one of his earliest business propositions:

"Don't tell Mom about me shooting you in the eye."

"Yeah?" Phil wondered what came next.

"And I will take care of you for the rest of your life."

Phil pondered the pitch for a moment and said, "What if I die first? Who will take care of you?"

"Don't worry," John promised, "the big brother always dies first."

* * *

Another near miss occurred at the post office in tiny downtown Brantford. As Phil would remember it during a visit decades later, John shoved him inside the building's revolving door and gave it a mighty spin. Unable to match its velocity, Phil stumbled headfirst into a glass windowpane, which cracked as if smacked by a stone. Fearful they'd be tossed in the clink for damaging public property, both boys quickly split the scene.

A far safer haven was Brantford's only movie theater, where Phil first encountered such big-screen stars as the sultry Marilyn Monroe and Gregory Peck as the whale-obsessed Captain Ahab in John Huston's Moby Dick. The latter made such an impression that Phil and his best friend John Taylor acted out scenes from the film, pretending to harpoon the Hartmanns's dog, Mike, with a broomstick and feeding each other dialogue.

Behind the Hartmann house, beyond a patio and white wooden lounge chairs, was a long and grassy yard filled with tall mulberry bushes. On the other side of them sprouted a well-tended vegetable patch. The so-called victory garden was a holdover from the rationing days of World War II, when growing one's own produce not only aided war conservation efforts but saved money. As John recalls, the Hartmann plot yielded strawberries, carrots, lettuce, and green beans. "One of the agonies of our youth was that instead of running off and playing on the weekends, we had to go out and weed the garden," he says. Abutting the yard was a vacant no-man's-land where neighborhood kids dug holes and made underground huts for, as John puts it, "real and imaginary rivals" in an era when "war was the subtext of all life." There was, he says of those Hiroshima-shadowed days, "massive paranoia" about atom bombs dropping from on high.

Not far beyond the no-man's-land, at the foot of a long hill, was a potato field that belonged to the castle-like Ontario School for the Blind. Opened in 1872 and later renamed the W. Ross Macdonald School, the institution offered traditional studies as well as manual and vocational training to hundreds of students. In winter and on holidays the Hartmann children and other kids from the neighborhood sometimes went sledding and romped on its hilly grounds. During school breaks, they sneaked onto the premises at night to play in barns on the property. The bravest (or most foolhardy) mischief-makers scampered up and slid down the winding slides of rocket-shaped fire escapes. "We goofed around up there even though we knew it was off limits," Nancy says. "We never got caught, but we did come close."

Because he was too young to participate in such hijinks, Phil palled around with his brown teddy bear, Jackie, and proved exceedingly easy to care for. "He'd just hang out with you, whatever you were doing," says Martha, who became Phil's primary guardian when Nancy was called to other duties. Quiet and introspective, Phil increasingly longed to be noticed—most of all by Doris. As he'd confide to Martha in their adulthood, his younger years were spent vying for the attention and affection of their tough and entrepreneurial mother and to a lesser degree their traveling salesman father. Martha, it turned out, had always felt the same way. "When Phil and I talked, we were kind of on the same page about being raised not feeling important," she says. As Phil told late-night host David Letterman decades later, "It was pretty desperate. Couldn't get a lot of attention. That's why I'm craving it so much now." Despite his goofy grin and joshing tone, it was true.

"I have met people over the years who felt it was their destiny to be a star, and I never had the confidence," he'd confide to another interviewer. "I think it was just part of the insecurities that were engendered in me in my childhood, being a middle child in a large family." Being "so withdrawn and so shy" and "just, really, a quiet observer of the stars within our family," he also explained, "created a tension in me that made me need to be appreciated."

In the Hartmann clan, Martha says, "You had to be kind of a problem or really great to get attention." John filled the latter role and then some. Athletic, stylish, handsome, and popular with the girls—"He had a huge, huge ego," Martha says—he naturally attracted a good share of notice, matriarchal and otherwise. "I think my mother favored me in a lot of ways," he says, recalling how she surreptitiously gave him money despite the family's strained finances.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Phil's younger sister, Sarah Jane. Born October 30, 1951, she was afflicted with a then unknown and long thereafter undiagnosed condition called Angelman syndrome. The rare neurogenetic disorder was first described in the mid-1960s by an English doctor named Harry Angelman and is characterized by hyperactivity, frequent laughing and smiling, stunted intellectual growth, and certain behaviors associated with autism, such as hand-flapping and language difficulties. While on vacation in Verona, Italy, Angelman happened upon a Castelvecchio Museum oil painting called "A Boy with a Puppet." Its subject's "laughing face and the fact that my patients exhibited jerky movements," he said, spurred him to write about the curious condition. But the title of his article, "Puppet Children," proved quite unpopular among parents. More disconcertingly, Angelman lamented, initial interest in his study waned quickly and it "lay almost forgotten" until the early 1980s.

Especially during the earliest years of her life, Sarah needed nearly constant assistance. Moreover, no hospital was equipped to properly care for her. So Doris made the decision: they'd keep her at home and do it themselves. That arduous undertaking lasted for a physically straining and emotionally draining half-decade, during which period Doris's energies were almost singularly channeled into Sarah Jane's care. Along with their mother, Nancy and Martha bore the brunt of Sarah's caretaking. Phil watched and listened and absorbed. "She was really a handful," remembers Nancy, whose Phil-sitting responsibilities were passed to Martha soon after Sarah's birth. "For a long time we thought she was just deaf." Her immune system was highly compromised, too. "She was in my room with me," Nancy says, "and every time she'd get sick, there would be a convulsion and a trip to the hospital."

Nancy suspects that Phil and eventually Paul "might have fallen through the cracks some days" because of Sarah's dire condition. She required two people to dress and feed her. And her food had to be specially prepared beforehand due to an underdeveloped swallowing reflex. Because John was older than Phil and better able to process the chaos, he found Sarah's disorder deeply disquieting. "It was a very, very hard thing to deal with. And I can't say I dealt with it very well. My sister, Nancy, was a saint about it. My mother was a saint about it, too."

Given the opportunity, Phil might have told Doris he was sorry.

"The only thing Phil ever said to me about Sarah Jane is he thought it was his fault," John says. "You don't know what it means when you're little and you're centered in your own universe, and he thought what was wrong with her had something to do with him."

The stress of raising Sarah without professional assistance took its toll most acutely on Doris. "She was run through the ringer," Nancy says, and eventually had "kind of a little breakdown and ended up in the hospital for a good long rest." That's when Rupert's brother, Rev. Edward J. Hartmann, leveraged his role as the family's "spiritual head" and demanded that Sarah enter a facility that was better equipped to address her various health issues. "We couldn't keep her well," Nancy says. "She picked up every bug that we'd bring home from school, and so she was in and out of hospitals all the time and she needed so much specialized nursing care. We just weren't able to provide it."

In later years, while married to his second wife, Phil occasionally discussed Sarah and the feelings of worry and shame he'd dealt with as a confused boy living with a sibling who was utterly helpless and seemed hopelessly damaged. Phil also lamented that because Doris kept having babies—daughters Mary and Barbara Jane came after Paul—throughout his high school years, Sarah's absence did little to re-focus her gaze upon him since she remained preoccupied both with child rearing and one moneymaking venture or another to help fill the never-brimming family coffers.

The daughter of a seamstress and a rogue father who split when she was young, Doris Hartmann (née Wardel) hailed from the working-class Canadian town of Port Dover, on the banks of Lake Erie, where her mother Ethel ran a boarding house for fisherman. Prior to that Ethel worked in Detroit at the Florence Crittenton home for unwed mothers, making layettes (infant ensembles that included gowns receiving blankets, bonnets, and booties) and maternity clothes. Later, while living with her grandkids, Ethel made most of their apparel and even their underwear. "She could look at a dress and make it without a pattern," Nancy says. "Just incredibly talented." Ethel's sister was similarly skilled. Their creativity was passed down to Doris.

A self-taught painter and sketch artist who always dressed smartly, Doris ran a beauty parlor out of the Hartmann home in Brantford using a converted space near the front entrance. Patrons sometimes bought her artworks, which she made during limited spare time and put on display. Eventually she relocated her business to a small building nearer to the center of town. Though never a gold mine, its profits nicely and necessarily supplemented her husband's modest income. "She was in charge," John says. "She was the one you'd consider tough." His ex-wife saw the same quality, albeit in later years, remembering Doris as "incredibly creative, artistic, bright—and, boy, you didn't want to cross her, because she'd let you know it and she'd tell you exactly what she thought." John, however, can't recall ever witnessing any overt friction between his parents. "It's not Canadian to fight in front of others," he says. "At the worst of times I never saw them fight or even argue. Doris ran the show and we all went along."

She had a softer side, too, particularly when it came to her treasured boys and cherished clients. "She was a river to her people," John says. "They came to her beauty parlor not just to get their hair done, but to get her advice and counsel and philosophical direction. She took care of a lot of people and got a lot of respect." Adds Paul Hartmann, "My mother was a real entrepreneur. She could turn a garbage can into art. People in our family were always real diligent, hard workers. They knew the meaning of a good work ethic."

* * *

Though Nancy and John (born in early 1939 and late 1940, respectively) were considerably older than Martha, Phil, and Paul, the Hartmann kids had at least one thing in common aside from shared DNA. They called it "Egg Latin," a nonsensical language that had become something of a fad in Brantford. Translating words from English involved placing "egg" in every syllable before the vowel and after the consonant. For instance, Phil became Pheggil and Hartmann Heggartmeggann. Phil and company found it especially handy for cussing around their parents without getting busted. "Fegguck yeggou! Eggat sheggit!'"

The actual words had no quarter in their staunch Catholic household. Doris (a formerly Methodist convert), Rupert, and their entire brood attended Latin Mass every Sunday morning at nearby St. Basil Church. On weekdays, the kids went to St. Basil Elementary and Brantford Catholic High School. Both were within walking distance. "We had a very prominent prayer life in the family," Nancy says.

The Hartmann clan's piety trickled down from Rupert, the son of a devout mother (Helen) who prayed fervently, often with rosary beads in hand. Reserved and stylish, with a pencil-thin mustache like Errol Flynn's and Brylcreemed hair that was often topped by a feathered fedora, Rupert was an Air Force veteran sans wings (he saw no combat due to peritonitis from a ruptured appendix) and possessed a dry but clever sense of humor. Born in New Hamburg, Ontario, Rupert traversed Canada as a beverage deliveryman for Coca-Cola and covered territories that included the Six Nations Indian Reserve. "He was not an aggressive salesman, but he was brilliant, so he could talk you into anything," John says. When it came to matters of discipline, a glance from Rupert and the mere words "Do you want me to get the belt?" did wonders to quell misbehavior. "My father was not a heavy-handed man by any means, and it was always just a threat," Nancy says. "He really had a very gentle nature. I recall very few times when I was disciplined that way and I'm sure the other kids would say the same thing. He was the type of guy who could give you The Look and you knew. Nobody wanted to get The Look from Dad, because we loved him and we didn't want to ever disappoint him."

"There was a different mind-set about how you treated children in those days," John says. "If you were bad, you got punished. You got beaten. And my father hated to do it, I know, but if my mother said that ‘John was bad and he's got to have a spanking,' the spanking consisted of his leather belt across your butt. And it was a real beating. Today you'd get arrested for it; your kid would turn you in."

As far as Paul knows, Phil was whipped only once, after they'd moved from Canada and as the result of a baseball mishap. In general, he says, Phil steered clear of misbehavior at home, thus sparing himself lashings and groundings. "He never got in trouble for anything," Paul says. "He knew what he had to do to achieve what he wanted, and he adhered to the rules and conditions as much as possible and just did it. He never put himself in jeopardy. That was part of his philosophy. It wasn't necessary to do that to have fun."

Back to the baseball mishap: Paul was catching and Phil was batting. As he took his backswing, the bat struck Paul in the face, breaking his nose and knocking out teeth. The younger Hartmann went running home. When Rupert saw his bloodied boy, he was as concerned with Paul's wounds as he was with the cost of mending them. "Any time you got hurt and it meant going to see a doctor, that cost money," Paul says. "With eight kids, if everybody gets hurt once a month, that's X amount of dollars. That doesn't work out." Hence the belt. Typically, though, Rupert was a sweet soul who, as John puts it, "never let us down. He always had a job. He always took care of business. He always was there."

Unlike Doris, who came from modestly educated blue-collar stock, Rupert was raised in a clan of spiritually and intellectually enlightened overachievers. His sister the sister, Mary Andrew (Eugenia), was a respected psychologist and nun who taught at Ottawa University and later the Sorbonne in Paris. "She was a brilliant woman who was very prominent in her order," John says. Rupert's priest brother, Edward, was the dean of men at Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, and a Royal Canadian Air Force chaplain during World War II. Another sister, Clarice, taught high school. Their father John, Phil's paternal grandfather, was a business entrepreneur who ran a popular tavern as well as the Alpine Hotel in Brantford. John Hartmann (grandpa's namesake) claims that during World War II, when one's German heritage was potentially problematic, their grandfather would perch outside his lodge, shotgun in hand, to keep potential marauders at bay. "He was a tough guy and a severe guy," John says. "You look at photos of him and go, ‘Wow, this is a serious cat.'"

The low-key and traditional Rupert, who walked the line between humorousness and seriousness, was decidedly more laid-back. While he was often introverted in public and around Doris, others recall his coming alive in private. He especially liked to spend time with his boys. When Phil and Paul were younger, he toted them along on various errands. And since Doris never drove, Rupert frequently played chauffeur, shuttling his progeny to doctor's appointments, school, and wherever else they needed to go.

What few in his family or circle of friends knew was this: Rupert was a drinker, sometimes a heavy one, but he kept his imbibing largely hidden from view. John recalls seeing his dad inebriated only once, when he was fifteen or sixteen, in Canada. "Come with me!" Doris told her eldest son, leading him to the back of their house. "Open the bathroom window." So John pushed up the window and peered inside. There, passed out on the floor, was Rupert. "I freaked," John says, "and I started to cry. And my mother said, ‘Oh, shut up! Just get in there and unlock the door!'" John did as he was told. Later on, Phil poked fun at Rupert's drinking in a sketch that depicted Doris as the stern taskmistress standing over a blacked-out Rupert, who clutched an empty bottle in his hand. Doris and Rupert both laughed and thought it was funny.

Years afterward, John came across a letter Doris had written in the 1980s telling Rupert in no uncertain terms that he was an alcoholic and she was tired of walking on eggshells around him. Now that their last child (Barbara Jane) had left home and Doris had fulfilled her duties as a mother, there was no reason they should continue living together. After Rupert promised he'd quit—by going cold turkey and without the benefit of drugs or Alcoholics Anonymous, John says—Doris gave him another chance. Rupert, John says, kept his word.

When Phil was eight, in March 1957, after a formal visa presentation in Niagara Falls the previous November, half of the Hartmanns—Rupert, Nancy, baby Paul, and Mike the dog—finally left Canada. Their first stateside stop was Monmouth, Maine, where they'd spend the summer. Doris, Martha, and Phil met up with them in June after the kids were done with school. Sarah Jane did not make the trip, and John stayed behind briefly to paint the house on Dufferin (a condition of its sale). "It was a sad parting," he told the Brantford Expositor of his family's uprooting, "but also an exciting adventure."

Copyright © 2014 by Mike Thomas