A lot can happen in five years.
FIVE YEARS AGO, NO ONE WOULD HAVE paid Jon Hamm any mind when he walked into this cozy Los Angeles–area breakfast joint. Sure, women may have looked twice; face it, the guy is stop-the-spoon-on-the-way-to-your-mouth handsome — six feet tall, trim, sporting a five-o'clock shadow at 9 a.m. and a mop of black hair that grazes his forehead just so. Men may have sat up straighter in their seats so as not to be (too) outdone by the charismatic stranger. But their attention would just as quickly have been diverted when the next good-looking Hollywood wannabe came through the door.
Today, though, it’s a different story. When Hamm, dressed in dark jeans and a blue T-shirt layered under a gray hoodie and navy jacket, slips quietly into this Los Feliz eatery — just minutes from the home he shares with his longtime girlfriend, actress Jennifer Westfeldt, in the LA neighborhood — conversations stop short and are replaced with hushed murmuring. Eyes dart in his direction, and knowing smirks spread across faces. The veteran waitstaff isn’t fazed, as Hamm is a regular here, but the waitress in training can’t help but stare.
Because today, Jon Hamm isn’t just anybody. Today, he’s Jon Hamm: star of Mad Men and this month’s new film The Town; Golden Globe winner; two-time host of Saturday Night Live; voice of Mercedes-Benz; one of People magazine’s sexiest men alive and a GQ Man of the Year; face of a network; unwitting fashion icon; and all-around Most Wanted Man in Hollywood.
But just five short years ago, he was filling his résumé with one-off TV guest spots as a doctor on Point Pleasant, a cable guy on The Sarah Silverman Program and a doctor on CSI: Miami. Five years before that, he’d landed his first-ever professional acting gig: a one-episode appearance on Providence that turned — thanks in part to series lead Melina Kanakaredes’ pregnancy and in part to Hamm’s on-screen spark — into a 19- episode arc that led Hamm to finally quit his day job waiting tables at LA’s Ciudad restaurant.
But now, even with all his recent success, Hamm knows he isn’t far from those days when he was taking orders for tips. Geographically, at least.
“The parking lot of the studio where we shoot Mad Men is where I parked my car for the last restaurant I worked in. Same place; different circumstances,” he says, grinning. “I have a better parking place now.”
HAMM WAS BORN 39 YEARS AGO IN St. Louis to Dan, a businessman, and Deborah, a secretary, who divorced when he was 2. A “precocious” child, he was raised primarily by his mother, who stressed the importance of education to her only son from an early age. But when he was 10, Deborah died of cancer and he was sent to live with his father; up until then, Hamm had seen him only every other weekend. His father also had two daughters from a previous marriage, and Hamm was suddenly forced to share a roof with one of them, who still lived at home. “It was,” he says understatedly, “a very strange thing to have happen at that age.”
As a teenager, Hamm attended John Burroughs School, a prestigious liberal-arts prep school that laid the cobblestones for the path he would eventually take. “You had to take drawing, you had to take sculpture, you had to take industrial design — you had to take all this stuff. You didn’t have to take it for the rest of your life. You just had to try it once,” he says.
Hamm tried, and excelled in, a lot of things — baseball among them — but one of the things he found he enjoyed most was acting. When he enrolled at the University of Texas in 1989, he abandoned both, choosing instead to focus on more, well, leisurely pursuits. (“That was when Roger Clemens was playing at UT,” he says of his decision not to play college-level ball. “I was, like, I don’t think I’m at that level.”)
The fun came to an end his sophomore year when his father passed away. An orphan at the age of 20, Hamm went back to his home state to finish out the remainder of his college career at the University of Missouri. There, he returned to the stage — performing in some 12 plays — and then to the schoolyard, teaching drama for a year at John Burroughs as a way to say thank you to the professors and to the place that had given him so much.
Still “wickedly depressed” over the death of his father and with little family left in St. Louis, Hamm decided to head for Hollywood, where there was a free place to stay (his aunt’s couch) and, he hoped, work. “Eventually I was, like, ‘Enough people have told me I could do this, maybe I should try,’ ” he remembers. “I was 23, 24 years old, and I was, like, ‘I’m not getting any younger.’ ”
Unfortunately for him, younger was in. Hamm’s banged-up 1986 Toyota Corolla rolled into town just as the late-’90s teen craze was about to take off — when Freddie Prinze Jr. was prince of the box office and high school dramas such as Dawson’s Creek were hogging memory on early editions of TiVo. Hamm never had a face for the frat pack. “I looked like this when I was 18,” he says, motioning toward his unmistakably adult visage. “I never looked like a teenager, really. I don’t know what the heck happened. So I was not getting those parts, to say the least.”