While opposites often attract, Phil Hartman’s marriage to Brynn Omdahl turned into a boiling pot of insecurity and intimidation that tragically ended in bloodshed and their children orphaned.
On May 28, 1998, when news broke that comedian-actor Phil Hartman got murdered by his wife, Brynn, it sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry.
“They always seemed happy,” said Todd Red, a bartender at Buca di Beppo, where the Hartmans celebrated Brynn’s 40th birthday. “They always held hands and laughed and seemed like they were having a good time.”
But those close to the Hartman’s knew that below the surface of Phil’s booming career and seemingly stable marriage lurked a volatile relationship with his wife.
As emotional opposites, Phil often withdrew into his own world, a characteristic that his wife before Brynn knew well. Lisa Strain married Phil in 1982, but their union fell apart less than three years later.
“Phil’s body would be there, but he’d be in his own world. That passivity made you crazy. And when I’d protest, he’d say, ‘You’re getting in the way of my career, and this is who I am and what it’s going to be like,'” Lisa told PEOPLE.
The same characteristic added to the troubles in his marriage and made Brynn’s feelings of insecurity worse. “Brynn didn’t have her own identity. She was a little confused and lost in the Phil Hartman game,” a friend, Shelley Curtis said.
When Brynn and Phil met on a blind date in 1986, she worked as a Catalina swimsuit model and aspired to become an actress, while Phil landed his gig on “Saturday Night Live.” They fell in love and married the following year.
Even though Phil had “married his dream girl,” she felt “intimidated” by his confidence and growing success as an actor. The couple moved into a small apartment in Manhattan, and Brynn took acting lessons while she looked after their growing family. “She would tell me she felt excluded and totally cut off,” a friend of Brynn, Suzan Stadner told PEOPLE.
While Phil outwardly showed himself to be engaging and giving, friends of the Hartman’s said he often got withdrawn and sullen in private. “Phil was always very open with the public, but at home, he retreated inside,” lawyer Steven Small said.
His tendency to withdraw, hurt Brynn. Her lack of belief in herself drove Brynn to undergo several cosmetic surgeries to make herself look as good as possible on the outside.
Brynn also tried to get rid of her feelings of worthlessness by abusing drugs and alcohol and fought with Phil at home to get his attention.
Phil tried to smooth things over and wanted Brynn to “hang on for a couple more years” as he had a plan to retire. Having realized that she had a problem, Brynn then stopped the substance abuse.
But after ten years of sobriety, Brynn started drinking and using cocaine again. “She admitted she’d had a couple of episodes when she’d fallen off the wagon. I remember her saying she didn’t want to be an addict,” songwriter and friend, Linda Thompson said.
In the months that followed Brynn frequented rehab clinics while on medication for depression. The antidepressant she was on can cause violent outbursts when mixed with drugs and alcohol. Several days before the murder, Brynn started using cocaine and drinking again. Her behavior changed so much in a short time that their housekeeper quit shortly before the tragic day.
Phil, however, showed no signs that anything was amiss. The week before Phil died, he spoke to Steven and touched on Phil and Brynn’s marriage during their conversation. “I asked him how things were with him and Brynn, and he said, ‘It’s as good as it’s ever been,’” Steven said.
Two days before she shot Phil, Brynn booked them an “Endless Courtship” treatment at the Skin Spa and even seemed in good spirits on the evening of May 27, 1998.
She went out to dinner with a friend, and when Brynn returned home with their two children, Sean and Birgen asleep in bed, she got into a heated argument with Phil.
He threatened to divorce her if she used drugs again and went to bed. Before 3 am, Brynn went into their bedroom with a .38 caliber handgun and shot Phil twice in the head, and once in the side while asleep.
She drove to a friend’s house and confessed what she had done, but her friend didn’t believe her. They went back to Phil and Brynn’s home, and as soon as the friend saw Phil, he called 911. Brynn locked herself in the bedroom, and after officials had both the children out of the house, she shot herself.
"Officers responding arrived to find the couple's nine-year-old, Sean, fleeing out the front door. They took the boy to safety, then returned to get his six-year-old sister, Birgen. A single shot was heard," the Sun-Sentinel reported.
According to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, Brynn had mixed anti-depressants, alcohol, and cocaine on the day she shot Phil.
In 2015, “Saturday Night Live” paid tribute to their alum with an anniversary special in his honor. It featured some of his many memorable impressions that included Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton.
His daughter, 23-years-old at the time made a stunning appearance on the special dedicated to their father. Birgen had kept a relatively low public profile over the years looked elegant black and white long-sleeved dress.
Sadly, in 2019, news of the death of another early favorite on “Saturday Night Live” broke. The singer and songwriter Leon Redbone with his trombone-like voice and nostalgic music became well-known in the entertainment industry. Leon decided to retire in 2015 and passed away in May 2019 at the age of 69.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.
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