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'Mad Men': Jon Hamm on life before and after Don Draper

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Frank Ockenfels/AMC

For seven indelible television seasons, Don Draper has been the personification of confidence and cool—a man who turns heads the moment he enters a room, the handsome face of a glamorous American age. Jon Hamm has done more than just wear Draper’s suits, deliver his winning arguments, and kiss Mad Men’s most beautiful women: He’s become an icon.

Yet Hamm’s pre-Mad Men career was more Dick Whitman than Don Draper. He was a frustrated Los Angeles actor, with a decade of solid but mostly unnoticed work under his belt, wondering whether success was ever really going to happen for him. 

After arriving from St. Louis and crashing on the sofas of friends like Paul Rudd, one of Hamm’s first Hollywood acting jobs was on Ally McBeal, where he made an appearance as Gorgeous Guy in Bar in a 1997 episode. Winning that particular cameo relied mostly on his skin-deep resemblance to the character. “I was literally pulled out with four other guys in a line on the lot,” says Hamm. “The director walked down and was like, ‘Iiiiiii don’t know… You.’ And I went, ‘Me?’ He says, ‘You stand over there, and they’re going to look at you and they’re going to giggle, and you just smile and look back.’ I was like, ‘Okay, great.’ And I got paid like double the day-rate because the camera landed on me for longer than a second. So that’s nice. I’m on a show—literally something that people can see.”

But even his friends from home probably missed his scene in Larger Than Life, the elephant movie with Bill Murray and Matthew McConaughey. “I was an extra, running down the hallway at LAX,” says Hamm. “And I was kind of outside myself going, ‘This is very weird.’ Then I was an extra on the pilot of The Practice, watching Dylan McDermott deliver the closing speech. I was like, ‘That guy’s good.’ I want to do that. I wish I wasn’t just sitting here in the spectator box, falling asleep.”

His roles gradually grew, but only slightly: Five lines on an episode of The Hughleys, a recurring part as the fireman/bartender on Providence, and a small role in the Mel Gibson war movie We Were Soldiers. More substantial roles on Lifetime’s The Division and CBS’s The Unit followed, which helped pay the bills, but few people in the business recognized the name of Jon Hamm.

“I knew that I had some sort of baseline of talent, ability, and chutzpah and confidence,” says Hamm. “But then knowing how to get anyone to pay attention is the big mystery. So I just kept auditioning. I kept showing up and I kept trying. And I kept trying to push down the voice that was saying, ‘You’re terrible. Someone’s better than you. They’re going to give the part to the other guy.’ And elevate the part of me that said, like, ‘You’re worth it. You should be here.’”

It’s difficult to hear Hamm say those words in 2015 and not draw a parallel to the dual identities he channels on Mad Men—Don and Dick. In a way, by 2006 and at the age of 35, he was perfect (and finally ready) for the leading-man role Matthew Weiner had designed for his series about 1960s Madison Avenue advertising execs. But before he got the call, Hamm endured one of the hardest years of his career. He auditioned, tested, and was rejected for seven TV pilots. (One was 30 Rock, where he auditioned for Jack Donaughy.)

As luck would have it, all his rejections finally proved to be a blessing. Weiner wanted a fresh face, and AMC wanted people who were cheap. “I wanted to do what I thought was Sopranos type casting, and that was to hire people who do not have baggage from other roles,” says Weiner. “So Jon’s unknownness right away was a huge plus for me. And we were limited financially, really, from hiring anybody who was well known.”

Weiner says he was convinced he’d found his Draper after Hamm’s first audition. “I had seen a lot of people read the part, and Jon was the most interesting, intuitively profound take on it,” he says. “It wasn’t glib. It wasn’t period. And he had a conscience, you could tell. He had intelligence. And in the end, I had a litmus test, which was at the end of the pilot, you find out that this character [who’s been romancing other women] is married. The person that I cast has to be someone that I won’t hate when I find that out. And Jon was the one. And that is not something you can write.”

But not everyone was so sure. Hence the six subsequent auditions that Hamm had to endure. “There was a strike against him, believe it or not, because they felt he was too much of a leading man,” says Weiner. “The style of casting at that time—James Gandolphini as Tony Soprano being the main example—was towards non-classically leading man. So they were like, ‘He’s really handsome. Is he soapy?’ A man who looked and acted like Jon Hamm was really being cast as villains at that time—like Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers. I was like, ‘No, he’s a great actor.'”

After a final face-to-face with skeptical executives, Hamm won the role, and the rest is television history. Can you imagine anyone else as Don Draper? After seven seasons and 92 episodes, he owns the character—so much so that he now faces the ironic challenge of proving to some that he can play different things. During his tenure as Draper, he’s certainly demonstrated a willingness to tackle other characters and genres, winning positive notice as the FBI agent in Ben Affleck’s The Town and becoming a comedy secret weapon in Bridesmaids, 30 Rock, and Saturday Night Live.

But there are still many who can’t separate Jon from Don. “People ask, ‘How are you like Don Draper?'” says Hamm. “I’m like, ‘We wear the same suit size. We go to the same hair cutter.’ That’s pretty much it. It’s a character. I can’t really say that I’m unhappy with the way that the character has been accepted and brought into the pop-cultural landscape, but at the same time, it’s also tricky, you know. ‘Hey, you want a drink?’ It’s like, ‘It’s 8 in the morning, no!’ [Laughs] If I drank as much as people were giving me, I’d be dead.”

That drinking remark was made before Hamm acknowledged that he had recently spent time at a treatment center for alcohol abuse—but it illustrates his current career challenge, a burden of his show’s success. “The idea of having pre-determined assumptions made about you, before anybody meets you, because of something that you really have no control over—it’s tough,” he says.

Hamm might go on to be a giant movie star, like James Garner or George Clooney. Or he might never entirely escape the long shadow of his popular televison alter ago, like Tom Selleck or Ted Danson. But either way, he’ll never be Gorgeous Guy in Bar again. 

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