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Jon Hamm: A League of His Own

As he steps up to the plate for Million Dollar Arm, Jon Hamm—late bloomer, sports fan, classic Hollywood leading man—ponders life after Don Draper.
Richard Phibbs

Don't miss May cover man, Jon Hamm in a new episode of AMC's Mad Men. Tonight at 10|9c.

This is a preview of our May 2014 cover story, "A League of His Own". For the full version, download the Men's Fitness app for iPhone and iPad or pick up the issue on newsstands.

Jon Hamm recognizes me before I recognize him. I don’t know how that’s even possible, considering he’s an internationally famous actor and I’m a guy he’s never seen or spoken with, but when I look up from the newspaper I’ve been reading while waiting for him, there he is, waving across the room from the door of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel as if we’re old college roommates. He’s carrying his own coffee and sets it down, along with a plaid newsboy cap, and then plops down into the banquette.

He’s up early for a rare off day from shooting Mad Men and apologizes for being late, which makes sense when he removes his sunglasses to reveal a set of bloodshot eyes that would probably much prefer to have remained closed for a few more hours. In person, Hamm bears none of the arrogance and boorishness of Don Draper, the silver-tongued, womanizing advertising executive he’s portrayed on AMC’s Mad Men since 2007, and he quit smoking years ago, but he occasionally enjoys an evening out like the character who made him famous. And like Don Draper, he shakes it off and wakes up for work. It’s nothing a little coffee can’t remedy, after all, so when the waiter comes by to ask if he’d like anything, he orders a cup to go along with the one he brought himself.

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At age 43, Hamm is at the tail end of a crazy seven-year streak, during which he went from handsome-but-unknown actor to dashing Hollywood superstar over the course of a single TV series. In the process, Hamm did something very special, by forging a stardom that’s actually enviable and not at all annoying, joining the likes of George Clooney and Harrison Ford in the tiny club of A-list actors who achieved their recognition not as teen heartthrobs or promising youngsters, but as early-middle-aged men. With classic leading-man looks and an easy, approachable charm, they’re as admired by men as they are desired by women. It’s a good place to be.

It’s early February, and Hamm is in the middle of shooting the last episode of the first half of Mad Men’s final “season.” As is the case with every other valuable but expiring product in Hollywood these days, those episodes will be parceled out over two years (instead of one) to maximize fan interest and, especially, profits. Though Hamm would prefer that AMC air all the remaining episodes in succession—that’s what, “as a fan,” he’d want—he admits that his opinion on the matter is meaningless. “It’s not up to me,” he says, polishing off a glass of water. “I don’t care. But it’s funny that that’s become the de rigueur way to do a last anything, whether it’s Twilight or Hunger Games or Breaking Bad or whatever. You realize it has nothing to do with artistic merit. It’s because of money.” He shrugs.

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Hamm thinks that the strategy of capitalizing on pent-up anticipation was an asset for Breaking Bad—while it frustrated him to have to wait, the extended pause built tension—but that Mad Men is a very different animal. “Breaking Bad was on such a breakneck hurtling train ride to the end,” he says. “You’re like, ‘What is this guy going to do?’ That’s never been our show. No one could describe it as breakneck or hurtling. Which is great, because that’s another way to tell a story. We don’t have to be like, ‘Who shot J.R.?!’”

As a dark, edgy drama, Breaking Bad originally followed a path blazed by Mad Men, premiering on the same network a year later. And the two shows—both featuring loathsome but somehow still likable protagonists—will always be associated with this golden era of dramatic television. I suggest to Hamm that without the success of Don Draper, we wouldn’t have had Walter White.

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“Did you know that Breaking Bad was originally supposed to be on FX?” Hamm replies. “It was too edgy. Fucking FX—which now has Sons of Anarchy and trannies and cutting off dicks! And Louie! But, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t do it. And AMC was like, ‘Thank you. We’ll take this.’ ”

Hamm sinks back into his seat. He’s a personable guy who’s immediately easy to talk to, and he seems relaxed, comfortable with his place in the weird world he inhabits. For the first time in his recent professional life, he’s in the position of having time to consider his uncertain future, and I’m wondering the same thing everyone else is: Once Don Draper crushes out his last Lucky Strike, what’s Jon Hamm going to do?

To read the rest of "A League of His Own," download the Men's Fitness app for iPhone and iPad. 

Don't miss May cover man, Jon Hamm in a new episode of AMC's Mad Men. Tonight at 10|9c.

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