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Wash Post: Losing the part. How Darrell Hammond, SNL’s Best Impressionist Ever, Found Life After Trump

Posted 09/29/2017

Washington Post

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, 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.

Darrell Hammond at his New York apartment on Sept. 13. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

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.”

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