[25 July 2007]
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)
It was not exactly propitious when actor Jon Hamm left his native St. Louis and steered his trusty Corolla into L.A. with $150 in his pocket. He planned to squat at his aunt’s house for a few months until he got established.
But he quickly accrued $1,600 in parking tickets and watched his beloved Corolla towed to the city yards, never to be seen again.
Still, he stubbornly insists that Lady Luck was on his side, though it was three years before he landed an acting job. Today he’s sitting pretty in the leading role on AMC’s scintillating new “Mad Men,” a spot-on series about the ad men of the sexy `60s and the permissive times they reveled in.
It was a long time coming, admits the athletic Hamm in a deserted dining room of a hotel here.
“When I first came out here I worked at 72 Market Street owned by Dudley Moore and Tony Bill. I stupidly chose that place because they were nice and they were friendly and easy to get into. I thought this is the place for me. But I lived in Silverlake (about 30 miles away) and it couldn’t have been a worse commute,” says Hamm, who’s dressed in a black suit and blue dress shirt open at the neck.
He waited tables, bartended and catered—and was good at all of them. But finally he snagged a tiny part on “Providence.” “It was a one-episode guest star but it turned into 18 episodes,” he grins. “It was right when Melina Kanakarades got pregnant, and then she got REALLY pregnant. When that happens they tend not to shoot you as much. They kept bringing me back.
“Nothing out here happens without incredible luck,” says Hamm, 36, “being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of what you have.”
From “Providence” he trekked to “The Division” and a film with Dylan Walsh called “We Were Soldiers.”
If times were hard for Hamm, he was used to it. His mother died when he was 10. His father followed 10 years later. “What my mother had left me was a trust that was used to pay for my high school and a little bit for college,” he says.
“And my father had nothing when he passed away.
“My mother—it sounds very Dickensian and romantic—but my mother’s dying wish was that I go to this particular private school, John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Mo., because friends had gone there. I have to say it was the single most profound, resonating decision ever made in my life. It wasn’t made by me, but it’s what every mother should want for her child.”
Hamm did finish college with a major in English. “By the time I graduated college I managed to talk them into giving me a theater scholarship and then into hiring me to do plays ... I went back to my old high school and said, `You’re the reason I am the person I am today and I would like to inspire other people in the way this place has inspired me.’ They thought it was a good idea, and I went back and taught school there for a year under the person who had taught me acting.”
It was after he’d resolved that debt that he decided to take the tumble into show biz. “I thought, `If I don’t do it now I’m never going to do it ...’ For me, I think, the idea of not doing this was way more terrifying than doing it. I couldn’t imagine the soul-rushing regret of not giving it a shot. And even had I never gotten a job and never gotten a career or any of it, I would’ve said, `You know what? At least I was the man in the arena, at least I threw it out there and gave it a shot. And I had my opportunities and I tried.’”
After the three-year lull Hamm was able to pick up a couple of pilots, three seasons on “The Division” and a small part on the promising WB sitcom, “Related.” But it didn’t last. Finally, providence pushed him into “Providence.” “The first domino fell over; it took a tremendous amount of luck and patience to get that first domino to fall.”
And it wasn’t over. Hamm had to audition six times for “Mad Men.” The show was created by Matthew Weiner, one of the major writers on “The Sopranos.” “Matt was my champion from the beginning. And all the thanks in the world I can muster I give to him for that. Because it’s terrifying for a network to say, `OK, you’re the guy.’ Nobody knows you. That’s why it never happens,” he says.
“I can think of two times in my apocryphal experiences in L.A.: Bruce Willis in `Moonlighting’—no one wanted to hire him. And Jimmy Smits for `L.A. Law.’ A good friend of mine is a casting director on `L.A. Law’ and she tells the story they didn’t want Jimmy Smits. Who doesn’t want him (now)? He’s amazing ... So whenever you have a decision-making process that has 15 people making the decision, you have this weird groupthink. It never works. And Matthew, God bless him, has been the sole creative force.”
Hamm lives with his sweetheart of nine years, actress Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”). He says he’s in no hurry to marry and start a family. “I have a lady, she’s a great lady. I love her a lot, she loves me. We’re on the same page. Whenever that day happens when we’re not on the same page we’ll move forward with it. We’re interested in having our lives be our lives right now and not a third person’s vis-a-vis marriage and whatever that means.”
Jimmy Smits will be back in a leading role on television this fall when he stars as the major-domo of a powerful Cuban family on CBS’ “Cane.” Still, Smits says he’s more comfortable in a group than he is as a solo player. “I think I function best when we have that ensemble element going on,” he says. “It has to do with my background in the theater. We have this beautiful wheel here with a lot of possibilities, and we’re all very important spokes.” Smits is not kidding. Some of the other “spokes” on the show include Hector Elizondo, Rita Moreno and Nestor Carbonell (who really is Cuban).
Actor Mandy Patinkin has left two successful TV shows mid-run. It happened some years ago when he ankled “Chicago Hope,” and now he’s left “Criminal Minds.” Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, explains, “Mandy came to us and came to me and asked to be released from the show and we were able to accommodate that request on his part. Right now, it’s a personal issue ... We know about the audience on `Criminal Minds,’ people come to that show for the E-ticket, that white-knuckle ride that they’re going to get every week. And in the legacy of `ER’ and `Law & Order’ the show will go on.”
A new “Bionic Woman” will be leaping tall buildings this fall when NBC revives the franchise with British actress Michelle Ryan in the role made famous by Lindsay Wagner. “I’m a real tomboy,” says Ryan. “So I love the fact that I get to jump off things and throw myself around and be one of the guys. In England everyone is so excited about it and excited that I’ve got the role. And I think it was just as big over there as it is here.” Ryan is working out with a personal trainer, trekking up mountains and studying with a dialogue coach to prepare herself for the decidedly American role.