An Unexpected Gift: The 1993 Answering Machine Recordings of Phil Hartman for a Fan
Phil Hartman was "The Glue" that held together the all-time greatest cast among several generations of famous funny comedians on Saturday Night Live over the past 41 years.
So Hartman's death at 49, murdered by his third wife in his sleep on May 28, 1998, brought a brilliant career so suddenly to an end, so shockingly that many fans may still remember where they were when they heard the news.
I still do.
In 1998, he was wowing us onscreen while holding down the center in two critically-acclaimed sitcoms, starring on NBC's NewsRadio and performing multiple voices on FOX's The Simpsons. Hartman's death not only unglued those comedic institutions. It also unglued us.
But his sincerity, charm and talent for warming both colleagues and fans continues to inspire us in recent years. There was that handwritten letter he sent off in 1997 to a teen-aged would-be comedian, which that fan, Mike Scott, revealed to us all back in 2011. Now there's another revelation of Hartman's hauntingly sincere way of approaching most everyone from long ago.
Back in the fall of 1993, during what would be Hartman's final season on SNL, Dave Nelson was a fan in his 30s back in California. Nelson had secured autographs from Bill Murray, Mickey Rooney and Linda Blair when he was younger.
A little bit older and wiser by '93, Nelson may have been a fan like many who sent fan mail to the SNL star, but unlike everyone else, his letter all the way from Sacramento to 30 Rock stuck with The Glue. "Dave Nelson, my good friend. How are you? I'm going to honor your request. Why? Because you wrote such a funny letter," Hartman told Nelson via recording on a blank cassette tape mailed back to Sacramento. "So let's see what we can come up with here? First, we'll do the one you wrote."
Hartman not only responded to Nelson's specific request, but provided several different versions of an outgoing answering machine message, seemingly doing all of this off-the-cuff and in one take. He even offered self-critiques of his takes, which included impersonations of then-President Bill Clinton ("that one was pretty good," Hartman thought), Ed McMahon ("that one was useable"), and Frank Sinatra ("hey, that one was pretty good," he chuckled). "Anyway, Dave, I hope these are of some use to you, and thank you very much for your kind letter. I just hope you know it really feels good to know that people out there think I'm funny. And it's always special to have a fan like you. Thanks."
How did Nelson react? What did he do with the tape?
As Nelson retold the story to me last night via online chat:
"In my letter I told Phil that I was tired of trying to come up with something funny for my answering machine greetings and that I could use his help. I said if he were to record something for me that I'm not sure how I'd react but that I'm sure it would involve a change of underwear. I sent off my letter with a blank cassette tape and 5 bucks for postage. I forget how long it was before an envelope from NBC arrived in my mailbox, maybe 2 or 3 weeks. I couldn't believe it. I ended up using all the greetings on my answering machine, rotating them every week or two.
A morning drive DJ at a Washington, D.C. radio station found out about the tape and wanted to interview me on their show. I called Saturday Night Live and left a message for Phil to call me because I thought I should get his permission first. The next day, the phone rang. One of Phil's greetings was on my machine. I screened the call and heard Phil reacting to hearing his own voice on my machine. We had a nice chat and he was all in favor of me doing the radio interview because that was his last season with SNL and he was trying to make himself more of a household name.
I never found out what he did with the 5 bucks."
In addition to starring on TV with NewsRadio, Hartman's post-SNL career included film roles in Houseguest, Coneheads, Sgt. Bilko, So I Married an Axe Murderer, CB4, Jingle All the Way and Small Soldiers.
So how long did Nelson keep his voice on the line, so to speak?
"I kept using the greetings until my girlfriend moved in with me. She wanted to be mentioned in the greeting, so Phil's greetings went on hiatus at that point."
Only lasted a month, Nelson recalled to me now.
Ever think about bringing him back from hiatus, either before or after he died? Not until now, as it turns out. Nelson said his ex-girlfriend, who's now his wife, is OK with letting him use Hartman's greetings on their outgoing voice mail once more in their home, not far from where he was when friends and strangers once called on him in 1993 only to hear Hartman's voices instead.
We're all glad to hear from him again, too.
It feels like something's been glued back together. At least for a minute or three.