“Who is Jon Hamm?”
I was sitting in a St. Louis Bread Company in Florissant over ten years ago when I picked up a New York Times paper with an article about Mad Men in it.
Mad Men on AMC? They have television shows now? Matthew Weiner had a cure for the Sopranos crowd who got homesick on Sunday nights. Weiner wrote for David Chase’s smash hit HBO show, and when the premium cable series passed on it, AMC jumped in quick. A series about imperfect advertising creatives in the 1960’s hustling their professional life while harboring secrets was intoxicating and brilliant. It was also the debut of a guy named Jon Hamm.
He was the Sterling K. Brown of the 2000’s, a hometown kid making a splash in Hollywood. The juice in his story was the fact he had a uncharacteristic childhood that included family tragedy, John Burroughs attendance, and briefly crashing with Paul Rudd. After his audition to play Don Draper on Weiner’s show, the creator and writer turned to the person next to him and said, “that guy wasn’t raised by his parents.”
Weiner was right. Hamm didn’t have the rosy childhood that most Midwest souls did, losing both his parents before the age of 20. After a slow uprising in the acting world that included some teaching at Webster University, he was leading up a strong ensemble cast of a breakout show that still gets talked about and dissected years after its denouncement.
I remember putting down my Tuscan chicken sandwich (this was back when Bread Co. was actually great), and looking at this picture of Hamm in full black tie ad sales drag, and thinking to myself, “where have you been all of my make-believe obsessed life?”
As I stated earlier, he was hustling. Small jobs here and there, including acting gigs. While Draper is the first time you recognized his name, it wasn’t the first time it was mentioned. Hamm’s first gig in Hollywood was playing the “gorgeous guy at a bar” in Ally McBeal back in 1997. He was Burt Ridley on Providence for 18 episodes, and Inspector Basso on The Division for a couple years. He was Ronnie in the 2006 film, Ira and Abby. He was in What About Brian and The Unit, a pair of television shows that you don’t know.
Mad Men came in 2007, and the rest is history. For 92 episodes, and a slew of Emmy nominations, Hamm embodied the heartache of the 60’s, a superb salesman who couldn’t sell the lie printed all over his soul to the cheapest customer who saw through his facade. He was so good, his role in some movies weren’t easy to digest.
Ask the late James Gandolfini and Bryan Cranston how hard it is to slip into a different skin after being known internationally as an anti-hero. He made Draper easy to root for, no matter how depraved and mischievous he could be on screen. There was a vulnerability that connected so easily on the small screen. Like Soprano, he was a guy who seemingly had it all together, but was put together like a LEGO set on the inside. Again, intoxicating to watch.
The first great role Hamm had in cinemas was stealing scenes from Ben Affleck in the brilliant cop and robber film, The Town. Playing a no-sleep-til-Brooklyn FBI agent going after Affleck’s bank-robbing crew in Boston, Hamm soaked up every minute on screen, owning an interrogation sequence with Affleck’s thief. You wanted more of him, and got it, but not in large doses like Draper.
Hamm has been pretty open about loving ensemble work, and his filmography reflects that. He was great in Bridesmaids, Friends with Kids, and mixing comedy up with Tina Fey on 30 Rock. His first leading role on film was a solid performance as J.B. Bernstein, the Jerry Maguire type super agent who brought two cricket players over from India and turned them into baseball players, in Million Dollar Arm.
After years of television roles and cameos, Hamm had a killer role in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, flipping the coin on his role in The Town by playing a bank robber. He took a supporting role and added some flair. The humble outer layer, haircut, and clothing shadowed certain things about his Buddy. He was part of the group again, stealing scenes not meant for him on paper.
In last year’s Beirut, Hamm took center stage as the tortured Mason Skiles, a diplomat who saw his life and career blow up overseas. Brought back for a mission to save his friend, Skiles had to rip off old bandages and expose wounds. The role allowed Hamm to dig completely into a character for the first time since Draper. Film audiences got to see a George Clooney for the new era, with real grit and background pushing the dialogue and character. It was a breakout performance in a movie that nobody saw because there weren’t any superheroes or characters for Melissa McCarthy to play.
You’d have to live under a rock to not know about Hamm’s devotion to his hometown sports teams. Few can forget the picture of Hamm at a playoff game between the Cardinals and Cubs at Wrigley Field, or the image of him last season mocking Jason Bateman in Los Angeles as the Cardinals handed the Dodgers a loss.
On Thursday night, Hamm was in the booth with John Kelly when Ivan Barbashev scored to give the Blues a 4-0 lead over the Kings. Hamm was talking about something else and didn’t miss a beat saying, “And I love that goal,” as Barbashev buried the pass from Sammy Blais. It was seamless and terrific; the hometown kid calling a Blues game in Los Angeles.
It’s easy to love Hamm. The humble beginnings, true love for the Cardinals and Blues, and the understated brand of his acting. On screen, Hamm doesn’t need a show-stopping monologue or a big dramatic moment. He doesn’t need a mound of latex or a disfiguring look. He just steps on screen, owning a five o’clock shadow, and you believe every word he says. It’s real, and Hamm pulls from an inventory of pain and remorse at a young age to fuel the jet on a set when he needs to.
Should he have played Batman? Yes and no. I don’t think he really wanted to. He’d be a much better Harvey Dent if they ever wanted to give Two Face his own movie. I mean, if the Joker can get five different films and Batman gets 20, why not explore the lawyer that switched teams?
There are some Blues fans who will continually torture him for a commercial where he said a Blues hat was his own since the Mike Liut era of St. Louis hockey because they love to be mad about something. Does it really matter? I have a Cardinal hat from my grandfather’s time, or so he told me. Come look it up if you’d like. I don’t care.
With Hamm, it’s always minimalist yet intriguing in a film or television show. Look at last year’s hilarious film, Tag. Playing one of the friends who participated in a lifelong game of tag, Hamm doesn’t steal the film, but does a fine job nevertheless. Once again, it’s an ensemble. Just the way he likes it.
What is he doing next? More ensemble work. If you can’t find him on Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you will see him in a few movies over the next year. Hamm has a part in the upcoming Top Gun sequel with Tom Cruise and Miles Teller. He will also play Denis McDonaugh in Scott Z. Burns’ The Report, which follows a group of CIA agents going after the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attack in the immediate wake of the tragedy. Burns wrote The Bourne Ultimatum and is currently rewriting the new James Bond film, and this film represents his directorial debut.
I’ll never forget finding Hamm in a newspaper on a rather uneventful evening in Florissant. He was around 36 years old at the time, just starting to catch some wind behind his back as an actor. A modest man catching a break. It makes for a great story, but please Hollywood, don’t make it into a movie.
Whether it’s calling Blues’ goals or stealing scenes from movie stars, Hamm has cut out a fine slice of fame for himself. The work never feels forced or coerced on or off screen, which makes him easy to admire.
If you ever need any inspiration about picking up a dream later in life, take a look at the Jon Hamm story. It never gets old. He’s the gift that keeps on giving, especially in St. Louis.