Philip Edward Hartmann was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada to Rupert and Doris Hartmann; the family was of German Catholic descent.
Hartman's family migrated to the United States in the 1950s, and Hartman attended Westchester High School and Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles, California, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in the early-1990s.
The exact timing of his switch from "Hartmann" to "Hartman" is unknown, but all of his acting credits after 1986 were billed under the surname "Hartman".
Hartman and his wife Brynn had two children, Sean Edward Hartman (born 1989) and Birgen Hartman (born 1992).
Looking for what he described as "a psychological release valve", he joined the California-based comedy group The Groundlings in 1975. Hartman met comedian Paul Reubens while working with the group and the two became friends, often writing and working on material together.
One such collaboration was the character of Pee-wee Herman and the script of the feature film Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Hartman also met Jon Lovitz while with The Groundlings.
Hartman worked part time as a graphic artist, including designing album covers for popular rock bands. Hartman's covers include:
Poco's 1978 album Legend (photo)
Firesign Theatre's 1980 album Fighting Clowns (photo)
Three album covers for the band America
History: Greatest Hits in 1975 (photo)
Harbor in 1977 (photo)
Silent Letter in 1979 (photo).
He was also the designer for the logo of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
In 1986, Hartman joined the cast of NBC's popular variety show Saturday Night Live and stayed for eight seasons, which was a record at the time. Hartman was known for his impressions, which included Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, Telly Savalas, Ed McMahon, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Barbara Bush, Burt Reynolds, Phil Donahue, and former president Bill Clinton, which was perhaps his best-known impression. His other Saturday Night Live characters included Frankenstein and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. He returned twice to host the show following his 1994 departure and was honored at the show's 25th anniversary special in 1999 by the members of the cast who had started their careers on the show the same year: Jan Hooks, Mike Myers, Nora Dunn, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz, and Victoria Jackson.
Also in 1986, Hartman was chosen to play the role of Captain Carl, one of Pee-Wee Herman's close friends and famed sea captain in the first season of Pee-Wee's Playhouse.
From 1991 to 1998, Hartman also provided the voices for a number of characters on the popular animated series, The Simpsons, including dubious attorney Lionel Hutz, B-movie actor Troy McClure, and slippery monorail shyster Lyle Lanley; Hartman expressed interest in making a live action version of this character, but the film was never made. In the episode "Selma's Choice", he lent his voice to three different characters, one of which being the aforementioned Hutz.
In 1994, Hartman left SNL. His last scene on Saturday Night Live consisted of him consoling Chris Farley.
In 1995, he became one of the stars of the NBC sitcom NewsRadio, where he portrayed fatuous radio news anchor Bill McNeal. Many have credited the cancellation of the show with Hartman's passing, citing that the humor was thrown off balance despite the casting of Lovitz (who replaced Hartman).
Hartman's filmography includes often secondary or supporting roles in such feature films as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Greed, Houseguest, Coneheads, Stuart Saves His Family (voice only), Sgt. Bilko, So I Married an Axe Murderer, CB4, Jingle All the Way and Small Soldiers, the last of which would become his final silver screen appearance and was thus dedicated to him.
His last role was in the English version of Hayao Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service, where he provided the voice of Jiji the cat. The movie was dedicated to his memory.
Hartman provided the voice of Captain Blasto in the PlayStation video game Blasto. Although there were plans for a sequel to the game, the sequel was immediately cancelled when Hartman died.
Hartman was murdered on May 28, 1998, in his Encino, California home, at the age of 49. As he slept, Hartman was shot twice in the head by his wife, Brynn, who, hours later, turned the gun on herself with a shot to the head. The reasons for the murder-suicide are unknown, although friends of the Hartmans speculated in the press that the combination of their marriage problems and Brynn's drug addictions probably contributed.
Hartman's murder caused considerable mourning in Hollywood. NewsRadio produced a special episode where the cast sincerely and tearfully mourned the death of Hartman's on-screen counterpart. Jon Lovitz joined the show in his place and stayed with it until its ultimate cancellation. Lovitz had been a Saturday Night Live cast member alongside Hartman for four seasons, and had also worked with Hartman when the both had cameos in the 1986 comedy Three Amigos.
Out of respect, The Simpsons retired Hartman's characters, rather than finding another voice actor. The episode "Bart the Mother" marked his final appearance on the show, and was dedicated to him.
At the time of his death, Hartman was preparing to voice several characters on Simpsons creator Matt Groening's other animated series Futurama, among them Zapp Brannigan. Groening wrote the character specifically for him, but Hartman had nonetheless insisted on auditioning. After he died, the lead character, Philip J. Fry, was named in his honor. Billy West (the voice of Fry, among many other Futurama characters) took his place. West's original audition formed the basis of Brannigan's final voice. By coincidence, however, his portrayal bears many similarities to Hartman's own vocal stylings.
Hartman was posthumously nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Bill McNeal in NewsRadio, but lost out to actor David Hyde Pierce. Upon learning Hartman did not win the award, NewsRadio co-star Dave Foley joked: "What's this guy gotta do to win an Emmy?"