Jon Hamm

'''Mad Men' was sort of handed to me,'' laughed Jon Hamm, the tall, dark and handsome lead as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, skirt-chasing 1960s advertising guru Don Draper in a cast of equals for the summer debut television series.

"I read the pilot script, loved it, and asked my agent to set up an audition."

"I tossed my hat in the ring, figuring the part would go to a movie star or some famous person, but seven or eight auditions (on both coasts) later, I ended up getting the part," he continued, a tinge of amazement creeping into his voice. "It wasn't complicated or stressful at all - just the usual Sundance; one of those things."

A huge extra bonus, according to Hamm, 36, is that "Mad Men" - set in Manhattan 45 years ago - allows him to work close to home. The Los Feliz home he shares with actress-writer girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt ("Notes from the Underbelly") is located only about 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles' Center Studios (substituting for the heart of New York City).

"It's incredibly exciting to wake up every day and can't wait to go to work," Hamm said, dead serious.

The great cast - including Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, John Slattery, and Christina Hendricks - expose the hot ad men and women of seminal Madison Avenue, all willing to sell their souls if it moves more cigarettes with effective asbestos filters over the counter.

Playing the ruthless account executives and the ambitious women enduring sexual harassment in order to stay in the game at the Stirling Cooper Advertising Agency requires many skills, including smoking tobacco-less cigarettes, according to Hamm.

"In real life, I quit in 1994 to set a good example for the high school kids I was teaching drama," he recalled. "These cigarettes are made from herbs and other organic material - naturally, none of us inhale."

Hamm patterned his smooth, yet steely, character on his own father, Daniel, a man who ran an interstate trucking business in his native St. Louis with an iron fist.

"My mother, Deborah, was his second wife and they were divorced by the time she died when I was 10," he explained. "I learned to smoke from him.

"I lived with him for then on and he never remarried, but we had several issues and problems to the point where I spent most of my time sponging food from my friends' families and sleeping in their basements. I moved out after high school and he passed away when I was 20. That's when I started learning things about him. Maybe he wasn't on top of everything, he smoked until the day he died."

Meanwhile, Hamm had found the attention he craved at the age of 5, after he was cast in the title role of a kindergarten "Winnie the Pooh" play. The four-sport athlete stayed with it at St. Louis' top-notch private John Burroughs School, where an "amazing" drama teacher named Dwayne Salmon changed his life by casting him in a successful campus production of "Godspell."

Obviously talented, Hamm was subsequently offered a theater scholarship to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where after countless plays, he earned a bachelor degree in English in 1993. He made his professional debut though a visiting Chicago troupe in a campus production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

With an Actor's Equity card in hand, Hamm hit Hollywood in a flash, crawling out of dank basements to friends' couches in sunny living rooms. When nothing happened within a reasonable period of time, he headed back to St. Louis for a year teaching drama at his old high school - while living in a friend's basement.

He thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but felt he owed it to himself to give Lotusland one more serious shot. At the end of the school year, he packed his meager belongings into a beat-up 1986 Toyota Corolla, a bit apprehensive because he only had $150 in his pocket. There were more couches in his future as he did not get a single acting gig for the next three years. In possession of excellent survival skills, he soon made ends meet with four roommates and a number of odd jobs, including waiting tables and bartending.

Hamm's first real break was a single guest shot on "Providence" as happy and sexy firefighter Burt Ridley. It immediately stretched into 19 episodes.

On a roll, he soon padded his nearly bare resume with parts great and small in dozens of episodic guest appearances and increasingly larger roles in feature films, starting with "Space Cowboys," "Kissing Jessica Stein," "We Were Soldiers" and "Ira and Abby." He was also a regular as Inspector Nate Basso on "The Division," surrounded by five female detectives.

Only the domestic scene can match his professional life, living with his "goofy looking" dog, Flora, and his girlfriend of nine years on the edge of L.A.'s huge Griffith Park.

"I met Jennifer when she was writing the stage version of 'Kissing Jessica Stein,'" he said. "She is the greatest and most talented person I know. Oddly enough, she is going back to work on 'Notes from the Underbelly' two weeks after I wrap 'Mad Men.' It's perfectly timed to never see each other."
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