There is just a time when things end, Lorne will say. Even for the greatest impressionist in “Saturday Night Live” history.
For Darrell Hammond, that moment came last September. The man famous for his lip-chewing Bill Clinton, his dirty-dawg Sean Connery and, for more than a decade, his Donald Trump, was sitting on a bench near his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, smoking an American Spirit, when he got the call.
The country had changed. The candidate had changed. And Lorne Michaels decided “SNL’s” Trump needed to change.
Now Alec Baldwin would don the yellow wig.
With Season 42 approaching in a wild election year, Hammond was told the Trump gig was no longer his. But it wasn’t Michaels who would deliver the news to Hammond. The “SNL” boss outsourced that detail to longtime producer Steve Higgins. Higgins and Hammond were old friends, both arriving at Studio 8H in 1995. They worked closely on some of Hammond’s best material during his then-record 14 years in the cast. The pair had also managed what couldn’t be seen on TV, behavior that would have shocked viewers, including Hammond’s backstage self-harming incidents that left cut marks on his arms and the 2009 drug binge that landed him in a crack house during his final season as a cast member.
All that seemed behind him. A sober Hammond had returned to “SNL” in late 2015 to reclaim Trump after an unmemorable three-appearance run by Taran Killam. “The comeback kid,” the Wall Street Journal declared, and Hammond, anticipating a greater role in the fall of 2016, moved back to New York after five years away and spent the summer taking notes on the candidate. Then, Higgins called.
It wasn’t Hammond’s fault. Just as Michaels had found magic in Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, he wanted to capture the new Trump — the nasty-tweeting, “Access Hollywood” bully. Former “SNL” head writer Tina Fey suggested Baldwin, her old “30 Rock” co-star.
“I needed another force, on an acting level, to have the power that Trump was embodying then,” Michaels says. “The Darrell Trump … it wasn’t the Trump that had gotten darker. It was the Trump from ‘The Apprentice.’ ”
Hammond did not take the news well. It was all his girlfriend could do to get him back to his apartment.
“I just started crying,” he says. “In front of everyone. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock, and I stayed in shock for a long time. Everything wiped out. The brand, me, what I do. Corporate appearances canceled. It was a hell of a shock, and all of it was apparent to me in one breath. That ends me.”
On a clear morning in July, Hammond, 61, is a long way from 30 Rock. About 2,155 miles to be exact. He sits on Amy and Barry Baker’s patio in Park City, Utah, sipping coffee. The couple, who have held fundraisers for both Bill and Hillary Clinton in the past, are throwing a combination baby shower, birthday and graduation party for various family members. Hammond will get $50,000 for a 45-minute set.
He wears black as always, a plain uniform meant to honor a friend who killed himself in 1992. He takes two or three puffs, then stamps his cigarette out. Then Hammond talks, for the first time publicly, about how difficult he’s found the past 12 months.
He and Paulina Combow, his girlfriend, tried to stay in New York. But the embarrassment of losing Trump felt overwhelming. They watched “Game of Thrones” on election night. His doctors prescribed him a beta blocker to calm his nerves and a second drug, Antabuse, to keep him from drinking. He stopped doing Trump in his stand-up sets. But the president-elect was impossible to avoid.
“I couldn’t get on an elevator, couldn’t walk through a lobby, couldn’t turn on a television, couldn’t walk down Broadway, couldn’t go to my favorite diner, couldn’t go anywhere,” Hammond says. “People would literally pull up in their cars on the way to Lincoln Tunnel to say: ‘What the hell happened? What in the world? Are you OK?’ Like, ‘Why would you give that job up?’ ”
Higgins had delivered the news, but Hammond says he felt hurt that Michaels, such a central and caring figure in his life, hadn’t sat down to explain the decision directly with him. Then, a few minutes later, he wonders whether he is being too sensitive. “I don’t want to sound like a large, squawking bird,” he says.
Dana Carvey, a cast member from 1986 to 1993 famous for his Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush, feels for Hammond. It is strange to see characters you worked so hard on done by other people. But he’s not surprised by how the switch was handled. At “SNL,” there’s no time for a sheet cake or a conciliatory lunch to soften the blow of a lost part.
“It’s a little bit like Tom Hanks in ‘A League of Their Own,’ ” Carvey says. “There is no crying in baseball. There is no getting your feelings hurt in show business, because the entire system is based on hurting your feelings.”
• • •
Hammond moved to Los Angeles after New Year’s, which helped. There was yoga twice a week, a guest-starring role on “Criminal Minds” and a “Friday Night Lights” spoof for a sports website, the Kicker. He had taken over as “SNL’s” announcer in 2014, after Don Pardo’s death. During Season 42, he recorded his openings remotely. In L.A., Hammond began to find peace. Nobody out there seemed to ask about POTUS 45.
The Utah party gig would be another step away from Trump.
Documentary producer Geralyn Dreyfous, a friend of the Bakers, had put it together. Dreyfous has been working with director Michelle Esrick on a documentary about Hammond’s life. Esrick, who met Hammond two decades ago in recovery, flies in from New York for the party to try to raise some of the film’s remaining $1 million budget.
Esrick has filmed interviews with Michaels and Higgins, but she’s not particularly interested in the Trump transition. Her film, likely to premiere next year, is the real-life drama at the heart of Hammond’s 2011 memoir. In 2015, the book became a one-man play, starring Hammond and directed by Tony Award-winner Christopher Ashley (“Come From Away”) at the La Jolla Playhouse. Ashley is working to bring the production to Broadway.
Esrick says she has been inspired by Hammond’s volunteer work, mainly for victims of childhood trauma, through performances at fundraisers. Hammond’s best weapon is his story, of the emotional and physical scars he carried.
“The fact that he’s performed for four presidents,” Esrick says. “That he’s cutting in his dressing room in ‘SNL.’ The parallel. The suffering that was going on behind closed doors that nobody knew, when they were watching him be brilliant on ‘SNL.’ ”
Hammond was 7, growing up in Florida, when he began doing impressions. He noticed that doing British actor Paul Scofield off an old “Christmas Carol” record or even Porky Pig was about the only thing that pleased his mother.
Margaret Hammond wasn’t just cold. She would stick her son’s fingers in electrical sockets, slam his hand in car doors, he says. One day, when he was 4 or 5, she took a steak knife to his tongue.
There was nobody to save the boy. Hammond’s father, Max, a World War II veteran suffering from the bloody scenes he had witnessed, drank Beefeater and kicked holes in the doors.
Hammond was 19 and heading to college when he cut himself for the first time, a small slice on the wrist. By the end of his “SNL” run, his arms were covered in scars.
“Mainly, for me, it was about creating a crisis that was more manageable than the one that was going on in my head that had me clutching the carpet,” Hammond says. “By simply cleaning a wound and bandaging it you have broken the spell. It stops the flashback.”
He had stretches when he was clean, other periods when he dipped into the bottle of Remy Martin in his desk. Hammond was hospitalized frequently, diagnosed alternately as schizophrenic, manic depressive and bipolar. It wasn’t until after he had left the show that Hammond finally found the answer. A drunken cut that went too deep landed him in a psychiatric hospital in Westchester County. That’s where he met “Dr. K,” who helped him piece together what really ailed him — complex post-traumatic stress disorder caused by childhood abuse.
In his book, the doctor is praised. In the play, he is brought to life, central to a stunning section in which Hammond acts out the exchanges between his initially cranky self and the Moroccan doctor with a penetrating, sarcastic wit.
The play earned Hammond a rave review in the Los Angeles Times. It also landed him in the hospital twice, for exhaustion and bronchitis. Hammond has been pushing to have Jim Carrey and Kevin Spacey play him in future stagings. Ashley would prefer Hammond remain.
“The fact that Darrell is telling his own story is part of what is all-the-way powerful about that show,” he says.
After working with Hammond, Ashley says, he came to appreciate what he calls a combination of “incredible vulnerability and incredible strength. You sort of never knew which one you were going to get.”
In Utah, he performs for a crowd that includes Michael Jordan, a friend of the Bakers. People cheer as Hammond slips into George W. and Clinton. The loudest applause may be for the amazing, true tale of his bizarre experience in a crack house, a story that started with him sitting in a park one night in 2009 after “SNL” when a man approached him with a pipe.
“He said he would buy the crack if I would pay for it,” Hammond says, pausing as the laughs wash over. “And something in me had been waiting for a deal like that my whole life.”
The only thing missing from his set? Trump. He tries to launch into him a little, excited to see Jordan in the crowd. Then a couple start to raise their voices — are they arguing? — and he loses his focus. There will be no Trump tonight.
• • •
Few at “SNL” knew about the cutting. That includes Jim Downey, the “SNL” writer who worked closely with Hammond on Al Gore. He was stunned, in a recent interview, to learn what went down the night of Oct. 7, 2000.
In Hammond’s retelling, he’s backstage in his dressing room before his debate with Will Ferrell’s bumbling George W. Bush. Just before airtime, Hammond has a panic attack and can’t remember his lines. He lays out a gauze pad, slices his arm, patches the wound and puts on his finely tailored suit.
Knowing this makes watching the performance even more stunning. Hammond delivers an expertly controlled riff that finds its way back to the one infamous word — “lockbox” — seven times. The real Gore had introduced the term in wonky position papers, promising to create a Medicare “lockbox” to keep politicians from using surplus funds for their own pet projects. Hammond turned the phrase into hypnotic symbol of Gore’s stiffness. Listen to the pause on the “b” in “benefits” or the condescending lilt every time he begins a sentence with, “In my plan …” It’s no wonder that after the show Gore’s campaign forced him to watch it as an example of how not to act.
Hammond did his first Trump in 1999, a role done in the “Art of the Deal” era by Phil Hartman with less precision and panache.
By then, he’d already stolen countless scenes playing politicians (Clinton, Gore, Dick Cheney), newscasters (Chris Matthews, Ted Koppel, Dan Rather) and a motley assortment of other characters, everyone from Don Knotts to Geraldo Rivera. His Phil Donahue is particularly delicious.
“Maybe there was a better one in Babylonian times,” Higgins says, “but Darrell is one of the most accurate impressionists I have ever seen in the history of show business.”
And his Trump was no exception.
Downey calls it “the gold standard.” Later, as he watched Baldwin’s Trump explode, turning the impression into a crowd-pleasing cartoon, Downey could understand why Michaels made the change. But he also got why it would baffle a perfectionist like Hammond.
“It is as if, like, he has worked his lifetime on a device that repairs leaks in his hot-air balloon and then, oh my God, we have a leak in our hot-air balloon, and Darrell is standing there like, ‘Guys?’ ” Downey says. “ ‘Oh, no, let’s bring in Alec Baldwin.’ ”
It’s no surprise that few in the “SNL” family understood how much losing Trump hurt. Even when Hammond was at 30 Rock, he kept to himself, rarely remaining for the closing-credits hug or heading to after-parties. He was more likely to mingle with a security guard than David Spade. Former cast member Molly Shannon remembers how warmly Hammond treated her father, Jim, when he visited the set.
“He’s one of the kindest people I know,” she says. “He’s very different than a lot of performers who need attention. He’s quiet and thoughtful and kind and really cares about people.”
As for Michaels, he remains more than a boss to Hammond. He protected him, saved him, kept him in the family. Hammond likens him to the late Yankees manager Casey Stengel, the empathetic sage who knew how to urge the best out of his players. Michaels, for his part, describes Hammond, simply, as “a brilliant comedian.”
He had planned to talk with Hammond after the Trump decision, but by then he had left town. Even then, Michaels isn’t sure an explanation would have helped.
“The original, the normal interpretation when someone doesn’t get the part they wanted is obviously disappointment, and then a feeling that I no longer believe in them,” Michaels says. “And that is not the case with Darrell. I both love and respect Darrell and have supported him for, you know, we are going on into our third decade. But my point with it is I had to make a tough choice.”
• • •
Earlier this month, Hammond returns to New York for the first time in nine months.
He has agreed to appear in the nightly guest spot on Michael Moore’s Broadway show, “The Terms of My Surrender.” He’s kept his apartment, and the morning of the show he points to an image of Trump, mouth agape in a kind of rage, frozen on his computer screen. Last summer, he and Higgins had noticed it during a TV appearance. He described it like a molecular biologist who has discovered a new gene.
“What is that?” Hammond exclaimed.
They were seeing the new, “Lock her up” Trump, the character he planned to study and introduce in the fall, before Baldwin. Hammond harbors no resentment toward the actor. In fact, he admires him. And Baldwin, in an e-mail, says that he doesn’t want to spend any more time talking about his “SNL” Trump.
“I love and admire Darrell and I’m sorry that he is unhappy about how it all transpired,” he writes. “PS … He can have the thing back whenever he likes, as far as I’m concerned.”
One big difference between the two is how they feel about Trump. Baldwin, a noted Democrat, has called the president “a senile idiot” and mocked him after winning an Emmy this month. Hammond, whose last presidential vote was cast for Bill Clinton in 1992, believes Trump is highly intelligent and a kind of “genius empath.” He has studied him in person, has texted with Ivanka, and was impressed by his work ethic when he hosted “SNL” for the first time in 2004.
“Read Sun Tzu, y’all,” Hammond says, referencing the famed “Art of War” general. “I knew that guy could see things. How else do you go through 17 seasoned political opponents? How do you find that one phrase, say it, and they are off their game.”
That’s the perspective he brings to lefty documentarian Moore’s show. As Hammond waits in the green room, the “Fahrenheit 9/11” director slams Trump as stupid and the people who voted for him as worse. He performs skits and tells stories about his past. About 80 minutes in, he calls out Hammond. Right away, Hammond offers a surprise. He asks Moore to consider the idea that Trump is actually intelligent and often underestimated.
“When he was running and people were laughing at him, I was like the old paleontologist in ‘Jurassic Park’ warning, ‘Don’t laugh at those velociraptors,’ ” Hammond says. “This cat is serious, and he knows what to say.”
There’s scattered applause, though nothing close to what greeted Moore’s blistering attacks. So Hammond changes course. He does W., a killer Reagan and a syrupy-smooth Clinton. He’s been on for almost 20 minutes when he finally dips into Trump. He tries to re-create a fight between Rosie O’Donnell and Trump, but for the first time that night, Hammond seems off and unsure. After no more than 40 seconds, Moore calls out Hammond’s name, the crowd cheers and he walks off.
The next morning, taking a walk outside his apartment, something has shifted. Maybe they were right. In a country more polarized than ever, maybe his Trump was too middle-of-the-road.
“You’re not running the March of Dimes,” Hammond says. “You’re kind of running a business empire. When things happen it’s hard for it not be personal, but sometimes it isn’t.”
He has spent months trying to process what went down. He felt humiliated, angry and confused. He even deleted Ivanka’s number from his contacts. Now? He feels only relief. Darrell Hammond, the man who can turn himself into almost anyone, realizes that he doesn’t have to be Trump ever again.
“I got to play him,” he says softly. “It went really well when I did. Times change, right?”