Great Impressions: Darrell Hammond
Former “Saturday Night Live” star Darrell Hammond spent 14 years making people laugh on late-night TV. But his life journey has been anything but a laughing matter.
By Kristin Harmel (BSJ ’01)
For 14 years, comedian Darrell Hammond (BSADV ’78) skewered politicians, delivered perfectly-timed one-liners and made millions across America laugh as the longest-running cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” From 1995 to 2009, he took on Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Donald Trump, Chris Matthews and even an Alex Trebek-mocking Sean Connery in countless memorable sketches. He has appeared on Broadway, acted on the small and big screens alike and starred in his own Comedy Central special.
In fact, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Tom Shales, who has co-written a book about SNL, called Hammond in 2006 “the greatest impressionist the show has produced.”
But 35 years ago, while a student at UF, Hammond was nearly ready to give up on his stage dreams — until UF theater professor David Shelton took a chance on him.
It was the mid-1970s, and Shelton was staging an award-winning Mark Medoff play, “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” at the Constans Theatre. Hammond, a student in the College of Journalism and Communications, auditioned for one of the leads, the ne’er-do-well Stephen, but his hopes weren’t high; he had been turned down by other professors and directors, who’d told him that with his fumbling speech, he wouldn’t make it as an actor.
“The professors were into sounding pretty and using pretty words, and I wasn’t able to make the sounds they wanted,” says Hammond, 55. “But this incredible teacher took a chance on casting me. That was the play I did that spawned everything.”
Hammond, who grew up in Melbourne, had good reason for struggling with his speech. As he details in his autobiography, due out this October, he’d been abused repeatedly as a child and spent years battling the effects of that, he says. It eventually got in the way of pursuing his stage dreams.
“I was in trauma at that time,” Hammond says. “It was so bad that sometimes, I couldn’t talk. I think back sometimes about some of those acting teachers who would make fun of me because of that. David Shelton, though, was into what the words mean, not how they sound. That lesson stayed with me.”
Hammond had a few more plays under his belt by the time he graduated, including a role in “Henry VIII” and the lead in George Bernard Shaw’s one-act comedy “How He Lied To Her Husband.”
But it was that first experience with Shelton that changed everything.
“He convinced me that I should try to make a go of it,” Hammond says. “It felt like he had faith in me.”
That faith helped Hammond get to the finish line – at UF, at least. He graduated in 1978 with a degree in advertising, barely scraping by with a 2.1 GPA.
“There was a lot of pressure on me because no one in my family had ever gotten a college degree, and I was capable of getting one,” he says.
Degree in hand, he moved to New York, hoping for a career in theater. But the scars of his past wouldn’t go away.
Dark Times Up North
By the time he made it to New York, Hammond had begun seeking help for the emotional and mental fallout from what he describes as “exponential abuse” by a close family member.
“When you experience abuse in the home at such a young age,” says Hammond, “it affects everything.”
But doctors couldn’t figure out how to help him, and the result was devastating.
“They had put me on some drugs that basically shut me down; I couldn’t function on them,” he says. “And they really didn’t do anything for me. They didn’t remove any of what was going on inside me.
“That was followed by the golden era of alcohol, when it actually worked for me,” he says. “It did work for a few years.”
Hammond spent his first three years in New York waiting tables and drinking, so immersed in fighting his demons he was barely able to go on auditions.
He finally pulled himself together, scaled back the drinking and began studying at HB Studio in New York’s West Village, whose alumni include Robert DeNiro, Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Barbra Streisand and Gator Faye Dunaway (’59-’60). That led to roles in off-Broadway and regional theater productions.
He took a shot at stand-up comedy, performing one set at a local club in New York when he was 26. By the next year, he’d decided that “Saturday Night Live” was his ultimate career goal.
But in the meantime, he moved back to Florida, where he spent the next few years doing voice-over work in the Orlando area. However, his eye was still on the prize, and he developed a philosophy of self-improvement that got him through those lean years.
“I came up with a concept when I was 27,” he says. “The concept was that if I could make one small improvement in myself — in my abilities — once a week, that would be 52 improvements by the end of the year.”
He focused on that, and when he was 32, he moved back to New York, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian and to attract the attention of “Saturday Night Live” producers.
“I started way late,” he says. “By the time I was 32, I figured I was too old to make it anyway. But I had that terrible moment of truth where I realized I had to try even though I thought I wouldn’t make it, because that was my dream.”
Through it all, he was still struggling to make peace with his past.
“It was really just trauma, and that needed to be dealt with. But when you’re walking around, and no doctor can help you or figure out what’s wrong with you, it really shakes you,” he says.
And so, Hammond continued to drink, the only way he knew to ease the pain. His dream was the only thing that kept him going.
Hammond papered his walls with pictures of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi for inspiration.
“They were people who probably didn’t have a shred of evidence that they could accomplish what they wanted to accomplish,” Hammond explains. “But they kept going anyway.”
It took another seven years and two failed auditions for Hammond to make it to “Saturday Night Live,” the show for which he’d ultimately become known. But the road there was winding.
It would eventually be his incredible, dead-on impressions that would make him one of SNL’s most memorable actors, but he was forced to leave that side of his talents behind in order to make it on New York’s competitive comedy club circuit.
“I got rejected by all the clubs because there was really a prejudice against doing impressions,” he says. “They thought of you as a novelty act, and they were into serious standup. So I had to learn to write straight monologues.”
It was during one such monologue at Carolines on Broadway in 1995 that Hammond threw in a one-line Bill Clinton impression. There happened to be an SNL producer in the audience who took note since Phil Hartman’s recent departure left a void for a spot-on Clinton impersonator.
This time, things clicked for Hammond, and he was invited to audition extensively for SNL creator Lorne Michaels.
“The first time I walked in front of him at SNL, I’d literally been preparing for 12 years,” he says. “That’s a long time to prepare.”
He landed the part at age 39, which, says Hammond, “is way, way, way too old to be on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
Not that it mattered. At an age when other struggling actors had long given up on their dreams, Hammond finally stepped into his.
“After that, my life becomes surreal,” he says. “Suddenly, you’re in SNL land with the most famous people in history. Presidents know your name. I’ve performed at three White House Correspondents’ Dinners, which have been the pinnacle of my career. I’ve been to parties at Dick Cheney’s house.”
One memorable experience was his first meeting with Bill Clinton, whom he’d been impersonating to rave reviews.
“When I met him, I was in complete Clinton makeup,” he says. “I had the hair, the Clinton nose and exactly what he was wearing that day because we had coordinated with the White House. I was standing in the Oval Office, he walked in and within minutes he made me feel like I was one of the most important things that had ever happened to him. That I was one of the most important things that had ever happened, period. He has a way of making you feel really, really special.”
At that moment with Clinton, Hammond’s mind drifted back to one particularly troubling experience at UF, when a teacher humiliated him in front of the class by announcing that Hammond’s performance voice was so bad, it sounded like he was underwater wearing a mask and flippers.
“Everyone howled with laughter,” Hammond recalled. “And years later, here I am, standing in the Oval Office with Bill Clinton.”
Hammond appeared in well over 200 episodes as a regular “Saturday Night Live” cast member. And he’s made a handful of guest appearances since leaving the show.
Despite the fact that he was so popular and well-regarded that SNL ran a “Best of Darrell Hammond” episode while he was still a cast member (a first for the show), Hammond still doubted himself.
“Every single Saturday night, I came back to my apartment doing the lines better than I’d done them on air,” Hammond says. “Really, I only disgraced myself two or three times, but I always came home thinking, ‘I really disgraced myself tonight.’”
Hammond continued to wrestle with addiction. He drank heavily during his early time at SNL and eventually turned to cocaine to try to balance himself out. It didn’t work, and he knew it. Ultimately, he quit using and drinking. He credits Michaels with supporting him.
After a decade on SNL, Hammond had found his footing in his personal life and was ready to leave the show.
“But I had a lot of pressure from my father, who was dying from cancer and had all these deathbed wishes that I keep doing the show,” Hammond explains. “And then I’d talk to Lorne and he’d say, ‘No, don’t leave yet.’”
It took him another four years to make his exit in 2009.
“It became too much for me,” he says. “I didn’t like playing politicians anyway. I didn’t like realizing I was affecting people’s lives on a political level.”
It hit home for Hammond several years earlier when newspapers reported that Al Gore had studied Hammond’s portrayal of him.
“I like [Gore], and I liked all of [the politicians] once I met them,” Hammond says. “I always felt a little uncomfortable. Once you spend a little time with them and see them as [people], around their families, you start thinking you want to be as moderate as you can be so that you can put out something fair. But in comedy, when you’re on and the cameras are on and there are millions of people looking at you, you have to do your best rather than half-a** it.”
No one could accuse Hammond of doing anything halfway. But after 14 years in one of the most demanding jobs in show business, it was time to take a step back.
Return to the Stage
Hammond had begun his career long ago as a stage actor, and in 2007, while still working with SNL, he returned to those roots, making his Broadway debut that summer in the acclaimed Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He’s done some acting work on television, including roles on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Las Vegas,” as well as a seven-episode stint in 2009 on “Damages.”
He’s also done some standup and some serious soul searching since leaving SNL.
“I spent a lot of time looking at the world and looking back at the past 14 years of my life and wondering what … that was all about,” he says. “It takes time. I have a house in Florida, and I just went to that house and laid out under the palm trees and took naps in a hammock and thought about [it ]… It was surreal to be on that show to begin with. When you look at where I came from and what happened to me, it’s hard to imagine how those things occurred in the same life.”
These days, Hammond’s plate is full again. He starred this summer in the award-winning play “TRU” at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., which is regarded as one of the country’s preeminent regional theaters. He played writer Truman Capote, in what is essentially a 90-minute monologue. He worked with a trainer everyday to handle Capote’s trademark voice.
Hammond is also waiting to see how a pilot he did for TBS pans out. The show, called “Hound Dogs,” is set in the world of minor league baseball. Hammond plays an independently wealthy screwball who keeps his wealth a secret and works as a mascot for a team. The show would be another dream-come-true for Hammond, who played baseball in high school and at Brevard Community College before coming to UF.
“Baseball is more important to me than anything else I’ve ever done,” says Hammond, a diehard Yankees fan. “Baseball is kind of my life. I hope this show works out, because I want to cloak myself in all things baseball for the rest of my life.”
Hammond is booked for another Broadway show that’s due to open next spring, and this fall, he’ll be making waves with his book, which details the physical and psychological abuse he suffered in his childhood, as well as his years in the public eye, he says.
In the meantime, he’s enjoying some time away from the grueling schedule of SNL. He’s a father to daughter Mia, who is 13. And he loves catching as many Yankees games as he can and hanging out in New York diners.
“I just love diners,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know why.”
He still roots for the Gators and catches games on TV, although he hasn’t been back to Gainesville in a while. Still, he says his UF memories are fond ones.
His advice to Gators: “Remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s it. Just because you don’t make it by the time you’re 25 doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it when you’re 29 or 39,” he says.
“I never really thought I was going to make it, but I’d become this crazy, coiled up human who was determined to try to make it. You have to just keep plugging away.”
That’s what Hammond’s still doing, in his personal and professional lives alike. On both fronts, things are finally coming together. And most importantly, says Hammond, after years of struggling with alcohol abuse, addiction and a past that haunted him, he’s finally putting those demons to rest for good.
“I feel like I’m on the other side of it now as long as I live the right lifestyle,” he says. “There were a lot of breakthroughs in the last two years for me. Now I’m set to finish out my run on the planet comfortably, unless I f*** up again. But I’m planning not to.”