When Jon Hamm became Matthew Weiner’s ‘Mad Men’ pitchman
Shortly after “Mad Men” ended its inaugural season with the celebrated episode “The Wheel” and its defining Don Draper Kodak Carousel pitch, Matthew Weiner showed up on Jon Hamm’s doorstep, ostensibly to deliver a present, its precise nature now long forgotten. But Weiner had an ulterior motive for dropping by. Having burned through just about every plot point from his initial pitch to AMC, the “Mad Men” creator had a dire need for new material. So he asked his leading man where he thought Don might go next.
“I think he’s going to be good, but I think he’s going to be bored,” Hamm told his boss.
That observation laid the groundwork for “Mad Men’s” second season and also started something of a partnership between Hamm and Weiner that continued through the series’ conclusion this spring. Weiner and Hamm would meet between seasons, usually over a long lunch. No agenda, just a general state-of-the-union conversation that evolved into a deep bond of trust.
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Eventually, Weiner began confiding to Hamm story lines that went beyond Don Draper’s doings. Long before anyone else in the cast, Hamm heard the show’s Coca-Cola “om” ending and knew Betty would succumb to lung cancer and that Peggy would finally enjoy a successful office romance.
After 92 episodes and seven seasons, their professional partnership has ended. But over the course of a recent long conversation at The Times, Hamm and Weiner picked up where they left off. The dynamic between the men is respectfully casual, with Weiner the self-aware speed-talker pinballing between subjects, while Hamm habitually cracks his knuckles, chugs water (four 16-ounce bottles in 90 minutes) and listens intently before offering his own sharp observations, which are often marked by oddball jokes. (Hamm can’t, for instance let the name Leonard — the man Don hugs in the series finale — go by without adding the words “Part 6,” a reference to the awful 1987 Bill Cosby sci-fi/comedy, “Leonard Part 6.”)
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation. (Which means: No “Part 6.”)
Don came to a place where he seemed to finally learn something and maybe change, if only a little. But he had to go through a lot to get there. Did it ever feel like it was too much?
Weiner: Midway through Season 4, Jon came to me right before “The Suitcase” episode, after Don had stolen the guy’s idea, slept with two women in one night, hired Danny Siegel by accident. Things were really dark. And Jon asked, “How much worse is this going to get? Is this bottom?” And I said, “There’s one more,” which was “The Suitcase.”
Hamm: I do remember Matt saying to me early that year, “We’re going to kick your ass this season.” And I was, like, “OK. Well, I’m here.” To me, it goes back to the very beginning. Matt was literally the only person who was fighting for me for this part. No one at the network wanted me. I had one fan: Matt. So I was always very cognizant of trusting this guy’s opinion because he picked me. When he’d tell me parts of the story, I never wanted it to be like, “But what if ... ?” I’ve seen that happen where it just hiccups the process.
Weiner: With Jon, the trust part was always about transparency. I didn’t want to be the oracle that hands stuff down. [Pause.] Well, I didn’t mind being that way with some of the cast. [Laughs.] I didn’t want to risk the actors playing it or the story getting out.
But Jon’s obviously good at keeping a secret.
Hamm: We live in a time where information and secrets are bandied about in a way where they just lose their interest and value. People freak out over the idea of withholding anything. Everyone wants to share. “Oh, I just had half a bottle of water,” and it’s on Instagram and Twitter. Like, why would anyone care? That particular level of minutiae is so meaningless to me. So I actually enjoy knowing something with one person because it’s only meaningful, really meaningful, to the two people who are working on it.
Yet, there’s a segment of entertainment reporting devoted to learning and sharing these secrets ahead of time.
Hamm: Right. I could have told you five months ago how “Mad Men” ends. But why would I do that? And why would you even want to know?
Much of the discussion about the finale focused on the Coke ad and whether Don created it and was he sincere if so. For his personal journey, though, the scene before, when he hugs Leonard, the man in the group-therapy session, offers a rare moment of empathy from him.
Hamm: I don’t think it’s the first moment Don has felt empathy for someone. That guy is talking about people not caring if he’s there or not, and it resonates. Don has had conversations. His dying wife tells him to stay away. His daughter is dismissive of him. Peggy, his protégée, the only other woman in his life who he’s remotely close with, is, “Well, you can come home, I guess. You’ll be fine.” It’s another kind of relatively dismissive disconnect.
Weiner: It’s not what he wants to hear, for sure.
Hamm: There’s no “there” there. And there’s no “there” there for anyone. So when he’s looking at this person who is describing the thing that he’s just gone through, it hits him like a ton of bricks and he just goes, “Holy ... I care about you. You are OK. You will be OK.” Don is not a monster. Even though he’s been called that by everyone on the show, he actually isn’t. So he sees this guy needing connection and he realizes he needs connection.
And that leads up to him sitting on that beautiful landscape where he sees the sun coming up and he has this peaceful moment and he realizes, “I’m an ad guy.” It was his journey about becoming OK with himself. Don Draper? Dick Whitman? Who cares? The foundation is based on a lie, but the other stuff is real.
Which is very much in keeping with the man who stated in the pilot: “You’re born alone and you die alone.”
Weiner: He says that to Rachel Menken, and she calls him on it. I don’t think he’s convincing when he says it, either. Existentialism is a young man’s game. Don got to a place where he was open enough to take the next step into knowing himself.
Hamm: That line is like Steve McQueen: “I’m cool and I’m ready to go and I’ve got a motorcycle.” But then you hit 40 and it’s a little less sexy on you. It’s time to try something else. Forward motion doesn’t necessarily mean progress.
Weiner: You know, we did everything we could to make people believe that some time had passed between when Don hugged Leonard and when Don was out on the bluff. That note of “om” is very closely related to the beginning of the Coke commercial, signaling the harmonic reality of that ad and that Don went back and was part of the team that did it.
The ad with the song that has the lyrics “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.” Don hated using the word “love.” He would always strike it from ad copy.
Weiner: We did that on purpose. Because as the ‘60s comes along, it just gets worse and worse. “Love” is in everything. I think that he believes in love so much that he doesn’t want to cheapen it. But then there was that hug of Leonard. That, to me, is love for yourself.
Hamm: Time moves forward, and you either calcify or you evolve.
Weiner: People have a lot of excuses about why they didn’t get to do what they wanted with their lives. You see Don realizing that “Rachel Menken was the one. OK. Can I redo that?” Ken’s going to be able to tell his kids, “I wanted to be a writer, but I had to put food on the table.” We know it’s not true. Peggy is going to say, “I never met the right guy.” We saw her meet the right guy.
[Editor’s note: Wait ... what? Does this mean Weiner doesn’t believe Peggy and Stan are going to make it after all? Somehow we didn’t question it at the time. So we called Weiner later to clarify.
“When Stan professed his love to Peggy, we were going to have Peggy say, “I don’t date people at work.” And Stan would tell her, “You only date people at work!” You know: Ted. Duck. Pete. Anyway, all I meant was that Peggy had been complaining about finding the right guy and Stan was right in front of her the whole time. She was lucky he called her attention to it. As for their future, I think their relationship is as secure as anyone’s.]
If Rachel Menken was “the one” for Don, did you ever think about bringing her back sooner ... and alive?
Weiner: When Don got divorced [from Betty], there was the thought that he’d go and look for Rachel. And we started talking about it in the writers’ room. And I even wrote a scene of him calling her. And all I thought was: This woman has no self-respect if she goes back to him now that he’s free.
Rachel’s name was on a “wish list” of things you wanted to deal with before the series ended. So was one of Don’s exes: Dr. Faye. Were you ever close to bringing her back?
Weiner: Don burned that bridge so bad, the way he ended their relationship on the phone. Maybe if they ran into each other at a retirement home ...
Hamm: I think both women got to see what they would have really been signing on for with Don. With Rachel, he wants to run away and she says, “What are we? Sixteen?” And Dr. Faye thinks he’s nuts. “You’re not an adult. You’re a child.”
Weiner: One of the most exciting things about the show for me was to let out some of the darkest thoughts, the most truthful thoughts, politically correct or otherwise, that I and the writers had and then hear people say, “Thank you for saying that.”
I remember a quote, Matt, where you said it was a “gift” for Jon to be able to exorcise his demons in this fictitious environment and, hearing it later, Jon replied, “I don’t write it.”
Weiner: Did I really say that?
Hamm: My response is pretty good. [Laughs.]
Weiner: Well, there’s a physical component to feeling those feelings when the camera’s rolling. So if I put you in a situation where you have to do the Hershey story or feel the shame of your daughter seeing you, that’s a physical experience and you have to commit to that feeling ...
Hamm: ... or you’re not very good. There’s an example of this in Season 7 where Don’s been on leave and he comes back to the office and everybody’s looking at him weird, and Peggy says, “Can’t say we’ve missed you.” I remember shooting those scenes and I was, like, “Man, I’m in a bad mood. This feels awful.” As Matt says, it’s visceral. You just think, “This feels terrible.” And it should.
Not surprisingly, we didn’t see any of those scenes on those beautiful final season promos set to the Paul Anka song “Times of Your Life.” I have to admit: Those ads got to me.
Weiner: They made me cry! [Laughs.]
Hamm: You watch them and you think, “Whoa. We’ve been doing this a long time!” And you forget about that until it’s right there in your face.
Did that sort of feeling hit you when you shot the show’s last scene?
Weiner: I wanted to use the emotion of the ending of the show for a scene so it would be accessible. Jon’s half of the phone call with Betty was the last thing we shot on “Mad Men,” and I’d like to think that the experience informed the performance.
Hamm: Well, it was interesting. I remember that scene plays very much of me kind of looking down. And I remember looking up after Matt said, “Cut. We got it,” and seeing literally the whole cast and crew. There must have been 300 people, and I was, like, “Right. Of course. It’s everybody’s last day.” And I just had this moment of, like, a slow pan across all of these faces who had been so important to my life for the last nine years. We were so sad and yet so happy. “Oh, my God, I want to give you a hug.” And “Oh. I want to cry.” It’s over. We made it.
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