Jan Hooks: A Guest Perspective

Believe it or not, the vast majority of people who stumble across this blog from outside the WordPress site and my own circle of friends and followers are people looking for information on Jan Hooks, the SNL alum who died last October. I’m guessing that readers who came to the site were searching for more details about Hooks’s cause of death and the changes in her appearance that first showed up in photos from around 2004. As far as I can tell, there is still no official word from family members on Hooks’s cause of death. On October 10, 2014, the Daily Mail reported that Hooks died of cancer, but sources for the article seem shaky: the only person named as a source is “the head of her building’s co-op board”; the rest are unspecified “friends” or “neighbors.” The next day, the New York Daily News posted a story in which two family members (Hooks’s brother, Tom, and Susan Morgan Brown, a cousin) declined to comment on Hooks’s illness. Later, there was an announcement that Hooks would be buried in a private service in Cedartown, Georgia. No more reliable news beyond this has surfaced–believe me, I’ve checked.

Since I’m still getting hits from readers who want to hear more or possibly discuss more about Hooks and her life, I’ve decided to re-post some excellent commentary on one of my former posts. Here, Brady presents some little-known details from Hooks’s life, explores some possibilities about what these details might mean but draws no firm conclusions. What I really love about Brady’s discussion comes at the very end: his thoughts on Hooks’s appearance express my own feelings far more succinctly and effectively than my own ramblings ever could. Thanks for the contribution, Brady! A virtual shot of tequila for you!

Jan Hooks has been laid to rest in Cedartown, Georgia. She lies in a plot between both her mother and aunt (who was also a kind of mother figure for Jan after the death of Jan’s mother.) In a span of 20 years, Jan lost four of the closest people in her life far too soon: her mother, her father, Phil Hartman, and her aunt.

Jan is survived by two brothers. One of them bought and set her up with her first laptop computer and cell phone around 2000 or so. She lived in New York City until the events of September 11, 2001 impelled her to seek a second home in Woodstock, NY.

Thanks to their work together on Saturday Night Live, she is often associated with Phil Hartman. Both were great friends and shared an incredible work ethic.

According to Mike Thomas’ autobiography of Phil Hartman, Phil lived and worked around southern California until his gig with SNL called him to NYC. From what I’ve been able to gather from internet searches, Jan traveled much further in pursuit of her career: Florida, Texas, Georgia, and California, before finally being noticed by SNL.

Phil bloomed late: most of his professional work as an actor and writer was doing radio voice-overs and assisting Paul Rubens while with the Groundlings. He was 38 when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. By comparison, in her twenties, Jan enjoyed a fair amount of television exposure through the Bill Tush Show, Not Necessarily the News, and bit roles in the comedies Wildcats and Pee-Wee’s Big adventure. Her memorable catchphrase, “There’s no basement in the Alamo!” is still used on occasion to express bemused patience with the clueless. She was 29 when she caught the big break with Saturday Night.

Being an actress and comedian was Jan’s first, best occupation. I don’t know if she ever did anything else from the time she left college. Phil was doing many things before stardom hit. Jan pursued acting foremost to the exclusion of all else. While he lived, Phil lost two wives through divorce and a father who lived a long life. He still had six other siblings to commiserate with. Jan lost more (close and direct relatives—and Phil), though she still had two older brothers she remained close to.

After five years with Saturday Night, Jan enjoyed two seasons on Designing Women,. But it was over too soon—much like her lament about the cancellation of the Bill Tush show after one season. 3rd Rock from the Sun seemed to be the sort of show she was made for, but Phil’s death, ironically, came at the very end of a story arc in the show and seemed to herald a steady decline in her career. I have no idea if she turned down work, or folks stopped calling her, or a combination of both. All I know is that Jan’s career after 1998 (the year Phil was killed) ground to nearly a halt. Her time with Martin Short (on his show Jiminy Glick, in the role of his wife, Dixie) was her last effort as a recurring character in a sitcom.

In the few interviews I’ve been able to find on the internet, Jan seemed fairly content with life after SNL. She was able to live independently, though perhaps modestly in comparison to other SNL stars. I believe she could have found more acting work if she wanted to. She was still able to support herself without it. She did have small roles on several shows in her final years. I’m guessing, but I’d say Jan didn’t find professional work as rewarding after the death of her mother, her father, and Phil. Every big project she was involved with either ended too soon or, worse, was accompanied by tragedy. With no close family or close friends to share her successes (that I’m aware of, other than perhaps Nora Dunn), acting lost its appeal and she could take it or leave it.

And if she pursued something else, again, whom to share the successes and the joys with? Other than Kevin Nealon in the mid-eighties, I have no real knowledge of any other relationships she was in. I’ve read rumors that she and Phil were somehow together (I’d almost bet Phil’s wife, Brynn, thought as much) but have seen no definitive proof. But if Mike Thomas’ biogrpahy of Phil is any guide, an affair between them wouldn’t surprise me.

As to her illness, I’ve already mentioned that she smoked. At least, I think she did. She might have quit. One internet website has recorded 14 on-camera instances of Jan with cigarettes and cigars. Another website reported that she smoked to get the right tone for the voice of Angelyne for an episode of Futurama. At the very least, smoking cigarettes was not something she would shy from if the role called for it. She was familiar with the habit for that alone.

Some people have remarked on her weight gain and looks in her final years. Knowing nothing about her health during that time, I would say that it is at least common for people to gain weight as they age. People will often gain weight when they quit smoking, too, if they do not replace the habit with healthy ones. By comparison, we accept skinny-Elvis and fat-Elvis. Even skinny-Shatner and fat-Shatner! I’m willing to accept both skinny-Jan and “fat”-Jan and stand in star-struck admiration of her talent until the end—as Tina Fey did.

I have no idea what “happened” to Jan Hooks. I just hope that she knew how much a world of her fans admired and loved her—unconditionally.

Austin, TX