Matt Groening was already a household name by the time Futurama made its way to screens in 1999, celebrated by audiences everywhere for The Simpsons and his monumental contribution to animated sitcoms. However, not every story surrounding the early days of the sci-fi series will fill you with wonder.
Looking back over the show’s history, the central characters like Bender and Leela are often cited as favorites but one of the very best elements of Futurama has always been the versatile array of supporting players.
Season 1 established plenty of them straight out of the gate, but is there any funnier than the womanizing ship captain and military general Zapp Brannigan, rarely seen without his right-hand man Kif.
Early episodes establish his recurring fascination with wooing Leela, and his subversion of what we’d expect from a captain from TV shows like Star Trek makes him a comedy highlight whenever he’s in an episode. However, it turns out that Zapp wasn’t originally voiced by Futurama mainstay Billy West (Fry, Zoiderg, etc.)
The series creators originally pinned Phil Hartman to voice the Zapper, and the Canadian-American actor was a cherished figure in entertainment for his work on Saturday Night Live and beyond.
He was certainly an inspired choice and would have no doubt smashed the role. On the other hand, he was never able to because he was tragically murdered on May 28th 1998, which was 11 months ahead of the premiere of the Futurama pilot. Phil and his wife Brynn Omdahl—they married in 1987—got into an argument and he later went up to bed as he usually did. However, his wife fatally shot him while he was sleeping at 3 am, with the bullets piercing his chest, throat, and between the eyes.
Although she told a friend what she had done, the friend didn’t believe her until she’d seen Phil’s body with her own eyes. The authorities were contacted, but before they could arrive on the scene, Brynn committed suicide.
While it’s intriguing to imagine how the SNL legend would have played Zapp, it’s not as far off as you may think because Billy was largely inspired to voice Zapp as he thought Phil may have approached it.
Even watching episodes now with this knowledge in tow, you’ll be able to see so much of Phil’s DNA infused into Billy’s performance. And speaking of Billy, his central Futurama character, Phillip J. Fry, was actually renamed to honor Phil; his full name was Philip Edward Hartman.
Early storyboards of season 1 episodes still exist and show that Fry’s first name wasn’t originally Phillip, so Phil’s impact on the show is more considerable than one might think.
With season 8 scheduled to hit both Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK on Monday, July 24th 2023, an appearance from Zapp may hit differently knowing what could’ve been.