Inside The Downward Spiral Of Brynn Hartman And The Murder-Suicide That Left Her And Phil Hartman Dead

Published March 4, 2024

In May 1998, aspiring actress Brynn Hartman shot and killed her husband — then turned the gun on herself.

Brynn Hartman

FacebookBrynn Hartman killed her husband, television actor and comedian Phil Hartman, and then herself in a shocking murder-suicide.

On the surface, Phil and Brynn Hartman seemed to live a charmed Hollywood life. The couple owned a $1.4 million home in Encino, California, where they lived with their two young children. Phil was one of the most beloved comedians of the day, known for his work in SNL and the Simpsons. And to those who knew them, the couple seemed very much in love.

But behind the scenes, things weren’t so perfect. Brynn had struggled with drug addiction for years. Her substance abuse had long been a point of tension for the couple, sometimes leading to explosive fights — and in 1998, that tension reached a boiling point.

In the early morning hours of May 28, 1998, Brynn Hartman shot and killed Phil Hartman while the comedian was sleeping. Then, she crawled into bed next to him — and shot herself, too.

As police would soon discover, Brynn, 40, who was on the anti-depressant Zoloft, had been drinking and using cocaine that night. And many believe it was her drug use that ultimately triggered the tragic murder-suicide that made national headlines.

Brynn Hartman’s Journey To Hollywood

Brynn Hartman was born Vicki Jo Omdahl on April 11, 1958 to Donald Gene Omdahl and Constance Faye Omdahl of Thief River Falls, Minnesota. She had a brother and two sisters. Growing up in an average family in a small Minnesota town, she grappled with finding her purpose in life. After dropping out of high school, she married Douglas Torfin, a local telephone operator, in 1977.

Seeking more from life, she later divorced Torfin and turned to modeling in nearby Minneapolis. She ventured into acting and soon relocated to Hollywood, California, where she changed her name to Brindon, and later to Brynn.

In 1986, while working as a Catalina swimsuit model, she met Phil Hartman on a blind date, and the two fell madly in love.

Phil, a charismatic comedian and actor, was steadily climbing the Hollywood ranks. That year, he was offered the chance to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live, and the couple moved to New York together. In 1987, one year after he joined SNL, the couple were married, marking Phil’s third marriage and Brynn’s second.

Brynn soon became pregnant with the couple’s first child, a boy whom they named Sean, born in 1988. They had a baby girl, Birgen, in 1992.

Brynn And Sean Hartman

Greg Omdahl Friends and family say Brynn Hartman was a great mother, but she was always jealous of her husband’s success as an actor.

Brynn’s brother, Greg Omdahl, spoke to ABC News about his sister’s great love for her children.

“When I watched the old home videos of Brynn and Phil and their kids, it really brought home what loving parents they were,” Omdahl said, “and what a great mother she was.”

A close friend of the Hartmans, Joel Diamond, observed the same, saying, “Brynn was the greatest mom; she was wonderful.”

While Phil was working, Brynn stayed home to care for the children. But she hadn’t let go of her dreams of becoming an actress. She attended acting lessons and had multiple cosmetic surgeries, trying to enhance her appearance.

Still, she struggled to secure any significant acting roles, landing only a couple of small parts in the show Third Rock from the Sun and the movie North. Over time, Brynn became more and more dissatisfied with the lack of recognition she was getting.

Meanwhile, Phil’s career was taking off. The talented Canadian-born actor was celebrated for his impressions of figures like Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra on Saturday Night Live, his voice acting work on The Simpsons, and his role as anchor Bill McNeal on the NBC series NewsRadio. He was also landed roles in films like Greedy and Sgt. Bilko.

Brynn And Phil Hartman’s Relationship Takes A Dark Turn

In 1994, the couple moved into a $1.4 million home in Encino, California. The next year, Phil began work on NewsRadio.

As Phil became a successful Hollywood star, Brynn felt increasingly jealous. She often took her frustrations out on her husband, starting bitter arguments that would sometimes go late into the night. The fights occasionally escalated into physical violence, with Brynn reportedly kicking, hitting, and throwing things at Phil.

The Family

Greg OmdahlPhil and Brynn Hartman with their son, Sean, during happier times.

“He wasn’t home nearly as much as she wanted him to be to take care of the kids — to be with her,” biographer Mike Thomas told ABC News. “Brynn was resenting him more and more because of that.”

A recovering cocaine addict and alcoholic, Brynn began using alcohol and drugs again to cope with her struggles after nearly a decade of sobriety. During this time, she underwent multiple stints in rehabilitation centers to overcome her drug dependence. She also reportedly bought several handguns and placed them throughout the home, worried about the possibility of crazed fans and celebrity stalkers.

Despite the growing tension in the Hartmans’ relationship, the couple was good at hiding their troubles from the outside world.

“They always seemed happy,” bartender Todd Red told People. The Hartmans had celebrated Brynn’s 40th birthday at the restaurant where he worked. “They always held hands and laughed and seemed like they were having a good time.”

But Omdahl could see the animosity that was growing in their relationship. “Phil was getting a lot of attention and [Brynn] wasn’t getting any attention,” he said. “She just wanted to be more part of the spotlight than she was.”

Brynn and Phil tried to work through their marital problems by going to couples therapy. For a while, it really did seem like things were getting better.

“They had seen a counselor and both of them said that really helped and [that] they’re trying to improve for their spouse,” Omdahl said. “I mean, they cared that much about each other.”

Hartman Family

ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock PhotoBrynn Hartman struggled for years with drug addiction and underwent multiple stays in rehabilitation centers.

The Tragic Final Moments Of Phil And Brynn Hartman’s Troubled Relationship

By May 1998, Brynn Hartman had started using cocaine again, despite the fact that she was already taking Zoloft, which, when mixed with drugs and alcohol, can reportedly lead to violent outbursts. Her behavior became increasingly erratic — so much so that the Hartmans’ housekeeper quit in mid-May.

On May 27, 1998, Brynn met her friend Christine Zander at a local restaurant, where she had a couple of drinks.

Around 10:15 p.m., Brynn went to see her friend and former lover, Ron Douglas. They drank beer while Brynn complained about Phil. She returned home at approximately 12:45 a.m.

When she arrived, it was to find a frustrated Phil Hartman. The couple reportedly got into an explosive argument over Brynn’s drug use, with Phil threatening to leave her if she continued to use.

At some point during the heated encounter, Phil went to bed, something he often did to deescalate their fights and give Brynn a chance to calm down.

This time, however, things would play out differently.

The Death Of Phil Hartman And Brynn Hartman

Just before 3 a.m., Brynn Hartman crept into the bedroom where Phil was sleeping, carrying a .38-caliber handgun. Then, she shot her husband three times: between the eyes, in the throat, and in the chest.

Murder Scene

John Chapple/OnlineUSA/Getty ImagesA coroner’s van transports the bodies of Brynn and Phil Hartman from their home. Encino, California. May 28, 1998.

In a state of shock, Brynn quickly left the house and went back to Douglas’ house, where she confessed to the killing. Initially, Douglas doubted she was telling the truth. But when he saw the gun, Douglas took it from her and accompanied the hysterical Brynn back to the Hartman house.

When he opened the door to the master bedroom, he saw Phil Hartman’s bloodied and lifeless body. At approximately 6:20 a.m., Douglas stepped into the hallway and called 911 to report the shooting.

But when officers arrived at the scene, Brynn Hartman locked herself in the master bedroom with her husband’s body, refusing to come out.

Police first made sure that Douglas and the Hartmans’ two children were safe. Then, they attempted to convince Brynn to surrender and come out peacefully. Sadly, their efforts were in vain: Another gunshot soon rang out from inside the house.

Officers forced their way into the bedroom and found both husband and wife lying on the bed, dead. Brynn had crawled into bed next to her husband and shot herself.

Autopsy reports later showed that Brynn had a blood alcohol level of about .12%. She also had traces of cocaine and anti-depressants in her system.

Questions Remain After Brynn Hartman’s Devastating Final Act

Phil Hartman Death

BEI/Shutterstock The world was heartbroken by the death of Phil Hartman and his wife, Brynn.

In the days following the Hartmans’ tragic deaths, friends and fans were left puzzled by the unraveling of the 10-year marriage of one of Hollywood’s most beloved celebrities. What could have caused such a violent end to what had once been a loving marriage?

Brynn Hartman’s motive for the murder-suicide is still unclear. As Brynn herself had told Douglas that night, “I killed Phil. I don’t know why.”

Phil Hartman’s attorney, Steven Small, suggested in a CNN article that Brynn’s issues with anger management might have played a role in the tragic event.

“She got attention by losing her temper,” Small said. “Phil said he had to… restrain her at times.”

It’s also possible that the combination of Zoloft, cocaine, and alcohol had caused Brynn to suffer behavioral changes and triggered the violent outburst. Indeed, after her death, Brynn’s brother Gregory Omdahl filed a wrongful death suit against Pfizer and Brynn’s psychiatrist, alleging that they didn’t adequately warn her of Zoloft’s potential side effects. The makers of the drug eventually settled the case out of court.

The couple’s two children, nine-year-old Sean and six-year-old Birgen, were removed from the home and placed in the care of Brynn’s sister and her husband in Wisconsin, as requested in the Hartmans’ wills.

Brynn and Phil Hartman were both cremated. Their ashes were scattered off Santa Catalina Island’s Emerald Bay.

After reading the tragic story of Brynn Hartman, read about the death of Phil Hartman’s friend and fellow SNL cast member Chris Farley. Then, read about the tragic suicide of Robin Williams.

Rivy Lyon
True crime expert Rivy Lyon holds a Bachelor's degree in criminology, psychology, and sociology. A former private investigator, she has also worked with CrimeStoppers, the Innocence Project, and disaster response agencies across the U.S. She transitioned into investigative journalism in 2020, focusing primarily on unsolved homicides and missing persons.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.