05/01/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
PHIL HARTMAN IS A FORMER SURFER, an expert sailor and a scuba diver, but the closest he has ever come to swimming with sharks was during his eight seasons on Saturday Night Live. "I was emotionally stressed the whole time," he says. "The rejection and backstabbing could be painful, but the hardest thing was competing against your friends for airtime. People would say things like, 'You're not going to put that on the air, are you?' "
These days, Hartman, 46, is in friendlier waters, playing radio newsman Bill McNeal on the new NBC sitcom NewsRadio. This cast, he says, is "on the same team. You'll get exhausted, but not humiliated." Better yet, NewsRadio isn't live or from New York City. He lives full-time in his three-bedroom home in Encino, Calif., and gets to have dinner with wife Brynn, a former model, son Sean, 6, and daughter Birgen, 3. "We have more of a normal, human lifestyle now," says Brynn.
It's not just the hours that have improved. NewsRadio is drawing encouraging ratings, and Hartman is being singled out for praise. "Bringing his delicious sultan-of-smarm manner to the character of Bill," wrote John O'Connor of The New York Times, "Mr. Hartman...steals the show."
That kind of attention is manna to Hartman. Until he left the show last season, he was SNL's self-described "utility player." Though he created strong impersonations of Bill Clinton, Barbara Bush and Frank Sinatra, "I was never the guy everybody fell in love with," he says. "I never had my face on a coffee cup or T-shirt in the NBC store." Even the fan mail he did receive was "humbling," he says. People would write, " 'You're my favorite,' but they'd always add, 'no matter what other people say.' " Last year, says Hartman, the show "had already started in the direction critics are railing against now. It was becoming sophomoric and silly." Once he decided to leave, he felt like a lame duck. "During my first years on the show, I averaged six skits a night," he says. "In my last year, it was half that. The job served me well. It just left me with a bad taste in my mouth." Though he has no plans to make a guest appearance on the show ("I'd hate to spend a week working on something my heart wasn't into"), Hartman does see hope for SNL. "The part of me that took pride in being part of it would love to see them make a comeback."
But the show did have an impact on his waistline; Hartman gained 30 pounds on SNL. "They really put out the feed bag there—pizza, fried chicken and all," he says. "I'm from a family of eight kids, where you had to fight for every morsel of food, so free food is my downfall." Determined to get back to his surfer weight so he can hit the waves with pals Tom Hanks and Woody Harrelson, he's on a diet that has him downing a Slim-Fast shake for dinner.
Professionally he has been working steadily. He is the voice of lawyer Lionel Hutz on The Simpsons and played opposite Sinbad in last winter's Houseguest. Now that NewsRadio has finished taping for the season, he has started working on Sgt. Bilko, a film based on the '50s Phil Silvers sitcom. Costarring with Steve Martin, as Bilko, and Dan Aykroyd, he plays bad-guy Major Thorn. The newest additions to Hartman's comic repertory are cartoon characters Ren and Stimpy; his comic foil is his son Sean. "I'll look in on the two of them," says Brynn, "and they're talking in those Ren and Stimpy voices to each other. It's a cute bond they have." Hartman also has a close bond with Dana Carvey, his former SNL castmate, who lives nearby. The Carveys and the Hartmans get together most weekends, with the dads often breaking into informal jam sessions. Carvey plays guitar and drums; Hartman, who hung out with fledging rock bands in his 20s, plays guitar; and former SNL-er Jon Lovitz sometimes joins in on keyboard. "Most guys that have his talent are obsessed with the business," says Carvey, "but Phil could spend five lifetimes just with his hobbies." The golfer-sailor-surfer's latest avocation is flying: He just bought a single-engine four-seater and hopes to have his pilot's license by the end of the month.
In the meantime, Hartman is crowing about a more modest accomplishment, the product of determination, less stress and no pizza. "Last weekend," he says, "I fit into jeans I hadn't worn in years."
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles