Jon Hamm’s Journey From Blue Note Bottle Boy To Hollywood’s Heights
It’s Jon Hamm season on the newsstand this spring.
Entertainment Weekly … Esquire … USAWeekend … Inside Columbia. It seems no one can get enough of the handsome star of “Mad Men” as his fans readied themselves for last month’s series premiere on AMC. Esquire readers discovered that Hamm owns four eagles, sleeps in a king-size bed and wears a frayed Cardinals hat, but Columbians know him as a Mizzou graduate — or, perhaps more accurately, as a Blue Note groupie who rocked MU’s theatre department.
“I loved my time spent in Columbia,” says Hamm, who now splits his time between a New York apartment and a home in Southern California. “I loved music and seeing all of the great bands that came through The Blue Note — it was a great place to hang out and a lot of fun. I’m still close with many of the people I met there.”
Hamm’s circle of Columbia friends includes Richard King, who still owns and operates the hip concert venue, and Maureen O’Hare, who works for Veterans United Home Loans.
“I think it was at Mizzou with my best friend Brianna,” O’Hare says of the first time she met Hamm. “He was extremely good-looking and charming, and the three of us were good friends rather quickly — like the three musketeers.” The girls, who both worked as Blue Note bartenders at the time, called Hamm their “Bottle Boy” because he would box up the venue’s empty beer bottles. “Back then The Blue Note kept the glass beer bottles for the deposit money,” O’Hare explains.
Hamm was never employed by The Blue Note; he simply enjoyed spending time there. “He often hung with us after hours and helped us clean up after the big shows — he was the hardest working nonemployee we had,” says Tracy Lane, who managed The Blue Note in the early 1990s. “Jon was a very sweet, decent guy — the kind you’d want to marry, but at that time I was into the rock ’n’ roll type,” she says with a laugh.
When Hamm wasn’t at The Blue Note, he was working as a day care teacher at Kids Depot. And, he was attending classes at the University of Missouri as a theater-loving English major.
“I remember him being part of an impressive group that came together around 1991 — maybe it was in my Acting I class,” says MU theatre professor Jim Miller. “He must have made an impression on me because I knew I wanted to work with him.” Hamm portrayed major roles in two of Miller’s musicals: the romantic lead in “Cabaret” in the 1992 Summer Repertory Theatre and “Assassins” during the 1992 academic season.
“I was head of the scholarship committee at the time and put him on a scholarship even though he wasn’t a [theatre] major,” Miller recalls.
It was golf — not music or theater — that drew Hamm back to Columbia last year. In July, Hamm joined ESPN anchor and fellow MU alum John Anderson for a celebrity golf tournament at the Country Club of Missouri — although the “Mad Men” star’s thick beard made him unrecognizable to many Columbians that day. “It was so hot, and I had on a black shirt and the beard — probably a terrible decision — but when I’m on hiatus, I am on hiatus,” he says, referring to the show’s off-season. The tournament raised $40,000 for Columbia Public Schools and The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.
Hamm used the weekend as a chance to reconnect with old friends. He recruited O’Hare, a former Mizzou golfer, to be part of his tournament team.
“I hadn’t played golf in a long time, and never with Jon, but I made a birdie putt in front of the television camera, and I was so happy for the rest of the day,” O’Hare says. “Jon played really well, and he was so funny. We had this adorable 18-year-old caddy, and Jon kept him laughing; he also gave him a nice tip.”
O’Hare admits to being a bit nervous to see Hamm, at first. “It’s strange having a friend who’s so famous,” she says. “I have snuck photos of him for my mom and other friends.” Even her boss asked for Hamm’s autograph in return for giving O’Hare the day off to play in the tournament. And Hamm was reportedly gracious about signing autographs for the people he didn’t know that day.
Hamm also caught up with King that weekend. The two met at Booches after the tournament. “We ended up closing the place down,” King remembers. “Then I went home, but he hung out with friends who work there well into the night.”
Hamm also dined at the Wine Cellar & Bistro and Broadway Brewery while in town. “I was really excited to come back,” he says. “I’d been trying to come back for a long time; I do like spending time in Columbia. It’s a manageable city, the people are nice and there’s lots of fun stuff to do.”
Hamm’s first return to Columbia after his 1993 college graduation was in 2009. “It’s very different,” he notes. “I didn’t recognize half the buildings anymore. The university has definitely had a facelift, and Columbia has changed. All the parts that were once farmland are now huge developments. But that’s what cities go through as they grow up and change.”
During that inaugural visit, Hamm met with his old cohorts at Shakespeare’s Pizza. “He was still so adorable and seemed so grateful to see us,” says O’Hare, who remembers that Hamm brought her a blueberry pie. Together with King and his wife, Lane, and her daughter, O’Hare and her son showed Hamm MU’s Student Recreation Center and the Rhynsburger Theatre.
Hamm also played in a celebrity softball game in his native St. Louis during that trip to Missouri last summer. He spent his childhood in the Gateway City; his mother, Deborah, was a secretary, and his father, Daniel, ran a family trucking business. The couple divorced when Hamm was only 2 years old, and his mother died from cancer eight years later.
After graduating from the John Burroughs School, Hamm attended the University of Texas on an academic scholarship, but when his father died in 1991, he returned to Missouri and enrolled at MU. His first job after college graduation was waiting tables at Cardwell’s in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton before he returned to John Burroughs to teach eighth-grade acting and public speaking. One of his students, Ellie Kemper, now plays the receptionist on “The Office.”
But after a year of teaching, Hamm knew it was time to move on. “I continued to be drawn to acting, and I thought I’d see where it led,” he says. He drove his Toyota Corolla to Los Angeles, waited tables and struggled to make ends meet.
“A big part of acting is being rejected, but that’s the world we’ve chosen to be a part of,” he says. “I understood that it would be tough, but took the risk anyway. It’s not like I had a business degree to fall back on.”
Hamm’s first big break came in 2000 when he landed a role as a firefighter on “Providence,” an NBC family drama. Lane, who is now executive director of Ragtag Cinema, remembers the first time she saw her old friend on screen. “I rarely watch television, but my daughter had just been born, so I was home with a sleeping baby. I was completely caught by surprise.”
From there, Hamm’s acting career started — slowly but surely — to take off. King received a phone call from Hamm in 2001, after “Kissing Jessica Stein” came out. The budding actor had a cameo in the independent film, which was written by and starred his longtime girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt.
“They showed the film at Ragtag, and we all went to see it,” King says.
In April 2004, King traveled to Los Angeles to visit Blue Note co-founder Phil Costello. Costello had moved to Chicago in 1987 and then to Los Angeles, where he built a successful career in music promotion. After celebrating Costello’s 50th birthday, King and his wife attended the Coachella Music Festival, held in the California desert town of Indio. It turned out that Hamm was at Coachella as well. “We met up at this swank hotel in Palm Springs — an old ’60s-type hotel with big hedges and a swimming pool,” King says. “We arrived at the festival just as The Pixies took the stage, and all of us sang their songs word for word — it was an amazing time.”
During that 2004 visit, Hamm mentioned to his friend that Matt Weiner, a writer on “The Sopranos,” had written an amazing television pilot. “He was very excited; I could tell he thought this might be ‘it’,” King says of the show that would become the hit “Mad Men.” “A few years later, everything took off for him, and things have kept building for Jon.”
As Don Draper, the dashing advertising creative director with a past, Hamm has earned a Golden Globe and four lead-actor Emmy nominations.
After “Mad Men” premiered in 2007, Hamm went from obscurity to celebrity seemingly overnight. His chiseled good looks graced the pages — and even the covers — of Vanity Fair, Vogue, Rolling Stone, GQ and Elle. He made People magazine’s list of sexiest men. “It’s a far better thing to have people say I’m handsome than not, but that’s a two-way street and very subjective,” he says. “While it’s nice, I do take it all with a grain of salt.”
Today Hamm lives in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, a hilly enclave overlooking Hollywood. He prefers to keep his personal life private, which is probably why celebrity magazines resort to featuring photos of him doing ordinary activities.
“I’m still amazed that my life makes news,” he says. He’s even commented that he’s just not that interesting, and perhaps even a little boring. “Fame can be a tricky thing to manage day in and day out,” he says. “People do want a piece of you, so you do become more guarded about who you open up to.
“I’m still very humbled by my success and I’ve worked hard for it but there have been so many people that have helped me along the way — my teachers and friends. I never had the sense of being owed anything.”
Hamm says the best parts about celebrity are the opportunities that come his way. He’s hosted “Saturday Night Live” three times, introducing musical acts Coldplay, Michael Bublé and Rihanna.
“Not bad, right?” he says. “I loved doing it, and it’s such a cool opportunity to work with that small, talented group of people.” He also worked with Ben Affleck in “The Town,” played Tina Fey’s clumsy suitor on “30 Rock” (for which he was nominated for a Guest Actor Emmy), and he recently played opposite Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids.”
“I think his work on “Mad Men,” “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” has shown his versatility as an actor — from serious drama to sketch comedy to sitcom romantic interest,” Miller says. “He is at home in any media.”
Hamm and Westfeldt own a production company, Points West Pictures, and recently co-produced their first film, “Friends with Kids.” Both Westfeldt and Hamm star in the movie, which also features Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Megan Fox, Adam Scott and Edward Burns. “Friends with Kids” was screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September and came out in limited release in early March.
“We’re really proud of the film, and we’ve tried to go a little deeper than the classic romantic comedy and tackle this universal topic,” Hamm says.
Hamm also signed on for two more seasons of “Mad Men,” with a contract that reportedly makes him one of the top earners in cable television. He recently directed an episode of the show, which began its fifth season on March 25. “Directing is a lot of work in a short amount of time and definitely uses another kind of skill set,” he says. “It’s also a great way to have a good, all-around sense of the moving parts of the production that actors don’t usually see.”
O’Hare remembers Hamm telling her about the process of producing the show. “It sounded very stressful to me, but Jon is grace under pressure,” she says. “In college he’d talk about this humongous test he had the next morning and then he’d ace it. He’s just one of those people who can do things, who has the confidence to make things happen.”
Hamm gives MU credit for his success. “I was introduced to directing at the University of Missouri during a scene study class, and that was such a learning experience,” he says. “I had great teachers, and I got the opportunity to work on some great shows and explore different opportunities — it was such a great training ground.”
As a proud alum, Hamm is happy to serve as an unofficial ambassador for the university and Columbia. Sports fans have probably spotted him in the “M-I-Z Z-O-U” commercials during game casts. “Mizzou is forever,” he tells his audience.
“When he comes into town, Jon likes to talk about the old days more than his life in Hollywood,” says O’Hare. “We have great memories, and he definitely hasn’t forgotten his friends here or where he comes from.”
King agrees: “His schedule is insane and his whole life has changed, but Jon is still the same. He’s a genuinely good guy. He’s intelligent, laid-back and funny, and all the women love him. Oh, and he can still drink beer, too.”.