“And if I died tomorrow, I’d be up in heaven, still doing this show.” – Krusty the Klown
Fictional characters can last forever; real people can’t. In show business this often means that someone vitally important to a production doesn’t live through it. Sometimes a death can shutdown an entire show; other times a replacement can be brought in to try to keep things going. The particulars vary depending on the person and the situation, but the production in question is never quite the same.
The Simpsons suffered two high profile deaths during its run. The first and less well known was Doris Grau. The second, which made national news, was Phil Hartman. Both of them had a profound impact on the show, and both died as the quality of the program was already declining.
Grau died on 30 December 1995, in the middle of Season 7. She was 71 years old and had started with The Simpsons during the Tracey Ullman days. She’d been the show’s script supervisor since the first episode and began doing voice work in Season 2. Her first part was as Lionel Hutz’s casually duplicitous secretary in “Bart Gets Hit by a Car”. (Coincidentally, that was also Hartman’s first time on The Simpsons.) She would do voices for the show for the rest of her life.
While she had several memorable bit parts, the role that permanently endeared her to Simpsons fans was Lunchlady Doris. Part apathetic, part irritated, Lunchlady Doris was one of the many quietly unhappy denizens of Springfield. She didn’t like the food she made or the kids she fed, but she had a job to do and, like so many other great Simpsons characters, she was willing to half ass it for a paycheck.
Grau’s smoker’s voice and tone of total resignation lent a hilarious hopelessness to Lunchlady Doris and her many other roles. In “Marge vs. the Monorail” Grau had a single line as Lurleen Lumpkin, the radiant and beautiful country singer Homer had accidentally discovered a season earlier in “Colonel Homer”. In that episode, Lumpkin’s voice had been a dulcet and sweet thing provided by Beverly D’Angelo. Just a year later, Lumpkin shows up at the maiden voyage of the monorail looking much worse for wear. Kent Brockman informs us that she’s just back from her latest stay at the Betty Ford Clinic before asking her how she’s been. Her reply, in Grau’s gravel driveway best: “I spent last night in a ditch”.
The show could’ve gotten one of their other go-to women to perform the line, but no one else had the same ability to put defeat into every syllable. Grau’s voice and delivery perfectly matched the cynical outlook of the show. She played numerous bit parts over the years: a surly coffee shop waitress, a cynical clerk at a casino wedding chapel, a rude worker at the complaint window of an amusement park. Like Lunchlady Doris, they were older women who were trapped in dead end jobs and knew it, exactly the kind of bleak characters The Simpsons reveled in portraying. Grau was a perfect fit, and while she may not have been in every episode, she nailed each biting comeback and breathed life into characters and dialogue that would’ve been left on the cutting room floor of lesser comedies.
Grau died of respiratory failure in her seventies during Season 7, but two and a half years later, at the end of Season 9, Phil Hartman met a much more shocking and grisly end. In May of 1998, Hartman was killed in a murder-suicide when his wife shot him and then killed herself. He was four months shy of his fiftieth birthday. It was a stunning bolt from the blue, a tragedy for everyone who knew them, and a front page story across the country. Hartman has always been described as one of the true good guys of the entertainment industry, and the outpouring of grief was enormous.
Beyond the real life, human sadness of the deaths, The Simpsons lost a man who was the closest thing the show had to a seventh regular cast member. Though always credited as a guest star, Hartman had been far more than that. He was famous for being the voice of two of the show’s most iconic characters, shyster lawyer Lionel Hutz and perennially washed up actor Troy McClure, but he had long served as a go to utility voice for other characters.
The first time Hartman’s voice was heard on The Simpsons, he wasn’t playing Hutz or McClure, but the bilingual public address announcer of Heaven’s escalator. That was in Season 2’s “Bart Gets Hit by a Car”, the episode that later introduced Lionel Hutz (and Doris Grau). Troy McClure debuted three episodes later in “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment”, in which Hartman did triple duty, voicing McClure, a Charlton Heston infused Moses, and the crooked cable repair man who hooks the Simpsons up to more channels than Homer ever dared hope. As the years went on, he played every role imaginable.
Nothing was too big or too small for Hartman. He stepped up as the main, one-off guest voice in episodes like “Brother From the Same Planet”19 and “Marge vs. the Monorail”.20 And he was equally game to slip into bit parts, including his turn as the weaselly State Department official Evan Conover in “Bart vs. Australia”21 and sleazy football expert Smooth Jimmy Apollo in “Lisa the Greek”.22 In “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk”, Hartman showed up as Homer’s lowlife stock broker23 and as German plant manager Horst.24 Many of his performances could have merited a big name guest voice, but Hartman nailed them so completely and consistently that you almost didn’t notice it was him.
He was as integral a part of The Simpsons as it was possible to be. Literally irreplaceable, the show suffered deeply without him. No more Troy McClure film strips. No more impossibly poor law talkin’ every time the Simpsons had to go to court. No more turning tiny roles into little pieces of genius.
For a show that took a lot of glee in the tawdrier and seamier aspects of American life, losing the likes of Grau and Hartman were significant blows. They both excelled at making often unlikable characters believable and funny, and neither of them had a voice that could be replaced.
When Grau died during Season 7, the show was just beginning to show its age. When Hartman died during Season 9, it was openly crumbling. In Grau’s case, the show lost a minor but important character and a script supervisor who was one of the last links to its original staff. In Hartman, they lost the most prominent voice actor who wasn’t part of the main staff. Both losses immediately limited the show’s scope and humor.
Zombie Simpsons would eventually bring back Lunchlady Doris for a few pathetic bit pieces with a new and wholly inferior voice. So far they haven’t done the same to Hartman’s characters. But whether or not they see fit to animate that familiar cafeteria apron, Hutz’s pale blue suit, or McClure’s too casual sweater ever again, what made those characters so funny, so perfectly them, died with the people who voiced them. When it happened, part of what made The Simpsons what it was died too.
Continue to Chapter 7: A Very Special Episode.
Notes and Sources