IT’S MIND BOGGLING THAT 17 YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE HAMM FIRST APPEARED AS DON DRAPER, THE HANDSOME BUT HAUNTED ANTI HERO OF AMC’S MEGA HIT MAD MEN. SINCE THEN, THE ONCE STRUGGLING ACTOR HAS PROVEN HIS WORTH AS ONE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST VERSATILE PLAYERS. CASE IN POINT? KICKING OFF THIS WINTER WITH ROLES AS THE VILLAINOUS SHERIFF IN FX’S FARGO AND CLUELESS COACH CARR IN THE LATEST MEAN GIRLS INSTALLMENT
BY AMANDA McCOY
Jon Hamm possesses the type of jackpot alchemy that seems predestined for cinematic success. The 6’1 St. Louis native is both unequivocally good looking (a handicap at times, he’ll later confess) and a damn good actor, sliding between slapstick and subtlety with surgical finesse. But when he first landed on the dream soaked streets of Hollywood in 1995, the city did not immediately open up to him. Though his prospects appeared promising when he signed with the prestigious William Morris Agency early on, he was dropped three years later after failing to land a booking. In fact, five full years would crawl by before Hamm would nab his first IMDb credit as Buzz on the ABC sitcom The Hughleys his first TV role, “Gorgeous Guy at the Bar” on a 1997 episode of Ally McBeal, went uncredited and in the interim he afforded rent the way most jobbing actors do: waiting tables (he also briefly worked as a set designer in soft core porn). He made a pact with himself: if his acting fortune didn’t improve by his 30th birthday, he would throw in the towel and move back to Missouri, perhaps to resume his previous profession as a college prep school drama teacher.
“You either suck that up and find another agent, or you go home and say you gave it a shot, but that’s the end of that,” said Hamm. “The last thing I wanted to be out here was one of those actors who’s 45 years old, with a tenuous grasp of their own reality, and not really working much. So I gave myself five years. I said, if I can’t get it going by the time I’m 30, I’m in the wrong place. And as soon as I said that, it’s like I started working right away.”
In 2000, with his make it or quit deadline looming, the 29 year old Hamm secured a recurring role as Burt Ridley in the TV drama Providence, still picking up restaurant shifts in between filming dates. Bookings technically began to roll in, but Hamm wouldn’t be tapped for anything beyond small supporting roles for years (the Mel Gibson led war epic We Were Soldiers, Lifetime series The Division, and CBS’ The Unit, for example).
“I knew that I had some sort of baseline of talent, ability, chutzpah, and confidence,” Hamm said in an interview with EW. “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, ‘You’re worth it. You should be here.’”
Then, in the summer of 2007, the world was introduced to Don Draper, the dashing, Ralph Lauren donning, enigmatic 1960s ad executive in AMC’s period drama Mad Men. Suddenly, Hamm was a household name, racking up a total of 16 Emmy nominations (and one win) over the show’s seven seasons. Here’s a fun fact: Hamm had to overcome several obstacles to secure the booking. Show runner Matthew Weiner was initially hesitant about letting Hamm read for the role, worried his all American good looks might detract from the show’s authenticity. While his tune changed after Hamm’s first audition, AMC also needed a bit of convincing as Hamm was a virtual unknown.
“We were like, ‘Really? This is the guy you want?’ Matt was telling us he just knew it in his gut and he could see it,” Christina Wayne, the former SVP of scripted programming at AMC, said to TV Guide. “So I made the decision to fly Jon Hamm from L.A. to New York to meet with me in person. [AMC executives] Alan Taylor, Vlad, and I took him for a drink, and it was immediately apparent in person that he would embody Don Draper.”
“I auditioned about seven or eight times and I was just thinking, God, at this point, I’ve pretty much read every single scene in the pilot to somebody. What do I have to do?” recalled Hamm of the process.
Hamm bore several striking similarities to his on screen alter ego. Like Draper or Dick Whitman, as viewers later learned Hamm had a childhood shrouded in tragedy, losing his mom to colon cancer when he was ten years old, then his dad ten years later. Mad Men’s creators believed Hamm’s experiences gave him a unique vulnerability that would prove pivotal for stepping into Draper’s freshly shined Oxford shoes.
“Hamm had “this wonderful sadness and lost quality in his eyes…a rare quality for someone who’s a strapping leading man,” said Sopranos’ director Alan Taylor, who was heavily involved in casting the show.
Mad Men proved to be a massive hit, racking up 16 Emmys and five Golden Globes, and paving the way for subsequent AMC super titles like Breaking Bad and Walking Dead. It also flung open doors for its once fledging star and gave Hamm the opportunity to flex his talents for both comedy and drama. He picked up prominent roles in several silver screen thrillers, including 2008’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, Ben Affleck’s crime thriller The Town (2010), and the 2011 fantasy thriller Sucker Punch. He also guest starred in a slew of comedic TV series, including The Simpsons (2010), 30 Rock (2009 2012), Archer (2013), and Parks and Recreation (2014 2015).
More recent projects include the 2022 crime comedy Confess, Fletch, where Hamm plays Irvin “Fletch” Fletcher, a charming but caper prone journalist turned PI who becomes the lead suspect in a murder while investigating the theft of valuable paintings. He also landed the role of Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson in the box office dominating legacy sequel Top Gun: Maverick, where he developed a close rapport with the franchise’s mega star.
“At one point, [Tom Cruise] said, ‘Jon, what do you do for fun? What are your hobbies? Do you sky dive? Do you ride motorcycles? Do you fly helicopters?’” Hamm joked to the Hollywood Reporter. “And I was like, ‘No. I play tennis. I hike. I walk up the hill with my dog. Those are my hobbies.’ They’re radically less dangerous and adrenaline filled, but I find them just as entertaining.”
Hamm rounded out 2023 with a pair of prominent parts: a billionaire tech titan in Apple TV+’s hit drama The Morning Show, and the fifth installment of FX’s anthology series Fargo, taking on the self-righteous Sheri Roy Tillman. is year, he’s back in comedy, portraying Coach Carr in the latest chapter of the wildly successful Mean Girls franchise.
“I’m thrilled to be able to act in all aspects of what we get to do: comedy and drama, dark and light, and play all the 64 colors in the Crayola box,” Hamm told Variety.