With “Mad Men” now in its seventh and final season, the existential journey of ’60s ad exec Don Draper will conclude next spring. And star Jon Hamm will be freed of the business suit-and-tie confines of his character’s enigmatic ladykiller image. Or will he?
Before signing on with the AMC series that proved non-premium cable channels could pull off adult-oriented material despite restrictions on language and nudity, Hamm was just another struggling TV actor who lucked into a role of a lifetime. But as James Gandolfini of “The Sopranos” and Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex and the City” learned, it isn’t so easy to peel off the persistent persona of a central character in a long-running show — especially when that image is established through the intimacy of TV. Hamm’s ability to fully cross into a big-screen leading man territory will be tested soon enough when his true-life baseball movie “Million Dollar Arm” opens May 16.
Signature line: “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be” — Don Draper in “Mad Men.”
Career peaks. Until “Mad Men” premiered on July 19, 2007, Jon Hamm, 43, was just one of those handsome guys who popped up in guest spots and supporting roles on TV series. Though he made his acting debut onstage in the first grade as Winnie the Pooh (the bear’s honey addiction might have been a gateway to Don Draper’s riskier cravings), the St. Louis native and high-school jock did not seriously consider pursuing performing as a career until college. Inspired by pal Paul Rudd, he moved to Los Angeles in 1995 but had trouble finding jobs — in part, because he looked mature for his age. As he has said, “If you didn’t look 18, you weren’t working. And I didn’t look 18 years old when I was 18.”
Hamm gave himself until age 30 to make it in the business, and in 2000 — just in the nick of time — he snagged a recurring part on NBC’s “Providence,” which finally allowed him to quit waiting tables. He soon earned bit roles in such films as “Space Cowboys” and “We Were Soldiers.” Once he was hired for “Mad Men,” auditioning at least six times and beating out 80 other candidates, Hamm’s stock rose considerably. He appeared as a NASA official in the poorly reviewed 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” starring Keanu Reeves and played an FBI agent opposite Ben Affleck in 2010’s crime drama “The Town.” But, somewhat surprisingly, Hamm has proven most at-home doing comedy, including three hosting stints on “Saturday Night Live,” three episodes of “30 Rock” as Tina Fey’s doctor love interest, a role in Larry David’s cable comedy “Clear History,” and playing Kristin Wiig’s cruel casual-sex partner in 2011’s “Bridesmaids.”
Biggest assets: Hamm is the go-to sex symbol for those who yearn for that stoically rugged type of masculinity from the JFK era. But on talk shows and during interviews, the actor also demonstrates an easygoing and self-deprecating nature (just watch Hamm with Craig Ferguson last week as he mocks his own Shemp Howard floppy hairdo while competing on a 1995 TV dating show) that puts some welcome space between him and the psychologically tortured Mr. Draper.
Awards attention: Hamm is tied with Martin Sheen, Hugh Laurie and Michael C. Hall for having the most Emmy nominations as a lead actor in a drama series without a win — six. He did collect a Golden Globe for his work on “Mad Men”‘s first season and a Screen Actors Guild Award for the second season.
Biggest misfire. Well, there was that TV dating show (which was called “The Big Date”). But if being known mainly for “Mad Men” has typecast Hamm, it also has prevented him from being associated too closely to many flops. If anyone besides a handful of critics had seen the 2009 mystery thriller “Stolen,” which earned a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed a smidge over $7,000, that would be it. “Generally ham-fisted” is how the New York Post described the outcome.
Biggest problem. He is so good at being Don Draper, it is hard to see Hamm as anything else. The character is so trapped in his specific era and mindset, it might be difficult for audiences and casting directors to see the actor in a contemporary setting. So far, Hamm has done little to show off what else he can do dramatically — and his comedy efforts often play off his “Mad Men” character but offer few fresh layers.
Gossip fodder. Sometimes getting a late start as a star allows maturity to set in. Having waited so long for success, Hamm isn’t about to mess it up with bad-boy misbehavior. He gets enough of that on “Mad Men,” anyway. Instead, he has been in a relationship since 1997 with actress/writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt. They appeared together in 2001’s “Kissing Jessica Stein” and 2011’s “Friends With Kids.” Having lost both his parents by the age of 20 also spurs the onset of maturity, too.
Career advice. Cary Grant was debonair personified, but that didn’t stop him from making a charming fool of himself now and then on the big screen. Hamm has shown he can ham it up successfully on SNL — even doing a sales pitch for Jon Hamm’s John Ham, aka the ham you can eat in the bathroom. As uptight as Don Draper can be out of the sack, the actor who brings him to life needs to relax and be his true self in an adult-style romantic comedy. If Katherine Heigl can do “Knocked Up” without her character of Izzie from “Grey’s Anatomy” standing in her way, certainly an actor with Hamm’s talent could work around Don Draper. Perhaps he and Bradley Cooper could be suave playboy brothers together and put all those Judd Apatow man-child schlubs to shame.
Next step. OK, “Million Dollar Arm”‘s trailer feels like “Moneyball” and “Jerry Maguire” meet “Slumdog Millionaire” as Hamm’s sports agent thinks outside-the-box and recruits two East Indian cricket players as baseball pitchers after staging a reality-show contest. But a pair of credits suggests the movie has potential. Craig Gillespie has directed two swell offbeat titles, “Lars and the Real Girl” and “Fright Night.” He knows what to do with pretty boys like Ryan Gosling and Colin Farrell. And Tom McCarthy of “Win Win,” “The Visitor” and “Up” fame wrote the script. With Kevin Costner’s similar football movie, “Draft Day,” out of the way, maybe this will be just the movie breakout Hamm needs.
Also, in summer 2015, Hamm — who previously did a voice for 2010’s animated hit “Shrek Forever After” — will speak for a character in “Minions,” a “Despicable Me” spinoff. He also is part of the ensemble cast of the upcoming adaptation of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” directed by and starring James Franco.