In retrospect, Phil Hartman's final sketch on 'Saturday Night Live' might be the least funny moment in that show's thirty-five year history, and that's saying quite a bit given that Robert De Niro has hosted the show three times. Hartman -- who had been a consistently brilliant presence on Lorne Michael's comedic institution since he joined the cast in 1986 -- bade farewell to the program that launched his career by leading the whole troupe in a parody rendition of "So Long, Farewell," which ended with Hartman and Chris Farley cuddling alone on the front of the stage, waving goodbye to the audience. Within four years both would be dead, and that shared moment on Stage 8H would become an elegiac image of two hilariously gifted comedians: Chris Farley a movie star who briefly was, and Phil Hartman a movie star who should have been (Alison Nastasi wrote a great Actors We Miss post devoted to Farley).

It's not a shame that Phil Hartman will always be best remembered for his television work rather than his film parts, it's a shame that he still had so much offer to both. That being said, the banner at the top of this page suggests that this is a site about movies, so this article is going to be less of a celebration of the indelible things he did on the small screen, and more of a lament as to what he was never given the chance to on the silver one. This is not to say that one medium is inherently better than the other (or that television actors are implicitly less successful than their big-screen peers), but even a quick glance at Hartman's IMDB page suggests that at the time of his death he was still trying to make that leap. His last two films were 'Small Soldiers' and 'Jingle all the Way,' which would be a tragic swan song for Channing Tatum, let alone an unspeakably talented actor who left more dimensions unexplored than the Starship Enterprise.

You might remember Hartman from such films as 'Sgt. Bilko' and, um, 'Stunt Rock,' but he was just never afforded the opportunity to deepen the darkly sardonic genius of TV characters like Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz in a long-form setting ("Judge Snyder's had it in for me ever since I kinda ran over his dog... Well, replace the word 'kinda' with 'repeatedly,' and the word 'dog' with 'son'"). For all we know Hartman might have been content to do the sitcom thing for another thirty years (at the time of his death he was starring in the hugely successful 'NewsRadio'), but there just seemed to be so much more there, the kind of buried pathos from which Alexander Payne could have spun Oscar gold. Of course time would prove that he had a turbulent home life (he was murdered in his sleep by his wife), and so he may have enjoyed keeping his work light, but as it stands Hartman has to be the least cinematically accomplished guy to have ever earned himself an "Actors We Miss" piece.

But then again, there was always that voice. The silver-smooth baritone of Phil Hartman's voice is what lingers, and it was a droll weapon that he knew how to use. With it at his disposal, Hartman needed only a rolling syllable or two to process the most pathetic human foibles into the stuff of profound hilarity. And -- 'Jingle all the Way obviously notwithstanding -- it was with his voice that Hartman made what was sadly to be his greatest cinematic contribution.

Fortunately we're not talking about 'The Pagemaster,' in which Hartman voiced Tom Morgan, a peg-legged pirate book with approximately three lines who is constantly being overshadowed by an animated Macaulay Culkin. We're talking about a job that ought to have been a footnote in a long and illustrious cinematic career, but will have to serve as Phil Hartman's finest film work. We're talking about Hayao Miyazaki's lovely animated fable 'Kiki's Delivery Service,' a charming film about a young witch that pre-existed Hartman's involvement by almost ten years.

The year was 1997, and Disney was prepping 'Kiki's Delivery Service' for its domestic video debut. Of course, American audiences can't be expected to grapple with subtitles, subtleties, or silences, so the anime was retrofitted with a new dub, featuring Kirsten Dunst as the eponymous delivery witch, and Hartman as her adorable black cat, Jiji. Whereas the cat is often silent in the original Japanese version, Hartman's Jiji is constantly cracking one-liners, which is presumably the reason the comedian got the gig in the first place. The lines are almost uniformly unfunny and patronizing, rampantly interfering with the careful tone Miyazaki labored to create and sustain. Just as distracting is the fact that all but the youngest kids subjected to the dub will only be able to hear the voice of Phil Hartman when Jiji speaks (which is half-excused by the fact that the dub theoretically exists only so that little ones won't have to wait to be introduced to Miyazaki).

But then something curious happens: Jiji loses his voice. There comes a point in the film when Kiki's witchy powers begin to wane, and she's no longer able to speak with her cat companion. Whereas in earlier editions this change was mentioned but not necessarily felt, you know when Hartman stops talking. At first the silence is a nice reprieve, but then you begin to miss his voice and the comforting effect of his commentary, poorly written though it was. You feel the weight of a companion gone, and you wonder how he would have filled all the empty moments that riddle the rest of the film. Phil Hartman's movie career was never given the time to flourish, but watching that dubbed version of 'Kiki's Delivery Service' is all it takes to remember how sometimes the things missed most aren't those that were, but those that you know could have been.

(Editor's note: for some scene-stealing moments from the late, great Phil Hartman, also check out 'Blind Date' (1987), 'Quick Change' (1990), 'Coneheads' (1993), 'So I Married an Axe Murderer' (1993), and especially 'Greedy' (1994). -- sw)
categories Cinematical