Phil Hartman biographer Mike Thomas

In this episode, we explore the life of comedian Phil Hartman (“Saturday Night Live,” “NewsRadio,” “The Simpsons”) with biographer Mike Thomas of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, recorded live at the Book Stall in Winnetka, but to hear the full interview, listen to “The Big Questions” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or YouTube.

With this book, Thomas faced the biographer’s quandary of, “How close can you get to the truth of someone’s life?”

A biographer is never sure how close he gets to the truth, Thomas said.

“You can put all the facts together and express them as eloquently as you can, but you can never truly know,” Thomas said. “I didn’t really know how close I got until I started getting feedback from his brothers and his ex-wives and his friends, people who really knew him … who told me, ‘You brought him back on the page.’ ”

But Hartman’s legacy was the fearlessness he brought to roles, often the pompous blowhards he became known for.

“Phil was utterly committed to whatever he did. Jan Hooks told me, even the smallest parts, he played them for blood,” Thomas said.

But the way Hartman died overshadows his career.

Unlike fellow SNL alums John Belushi or Chris Farley, Hartman was not an icon of excess. His lifestyle was not a beacon of caution, which made his death even more shocking. In 1998, Hartman’s third wife Brynn shot him while he slept, then killed herself hours later, leaving two small children.

“Nobody truly had a grasp on his third marriage and how much discord there actually ways,” Thomas said. “So when he was killed, they were stunned. And they are stunned to this day.”

The Big Questions is part of the Sun-Times Media Podcast Network.

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