The classically trained actor discusses his addition to the cast of the provocative AMC hit series, Mad Men.
Actor Harry Hamlin
Tavis: Harry Hamlin has the distinction of being in two groundbreaking, Emmy-winning TV series – “L.A. Law” from creator Steven Bochco that ran for eight seasons starting back in 1986, and now of course “Mad Men,” from writer-producer Matthew Weiner. Not a bad track record, Mr. Hamlin.
“Mad Men” is now in its final season, broken into two parts, seven episodes this year and seven in 2015. Let’s take a look at a clip from Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men.”
Tavis: So tell me more about Jim Cutler.
Harry Hamlin: (Laughs) I don’t know that much about Jim Cutler. I wish I knew more. (Laughter) I find out more about him every time I get another script. When I was hired to do the job, I was hired for one day only and they wouldn’t give me a copy of the script and they wouldn’t give me any pages and they didn’t tell me the guy’s name and they didn’t tell me what he did. (Laughter)
Which is very unusual for me. I don’t usually work that way. But I think the day that they asked me to come in was a Thursday, and at first I said to my wife, my agent, I said, “I’m not accustomed for going in for a day and not knowing anything about the character. I think I’m going to skip this one,” even though it was “Mad Men.”
But my wife said, “No, no, no, Harry, you’ve got to go in.” She said, “What are you doing next Thursday?” I said, “Well I don’t really have any plans.” She said, “Well then go in and get Jon Hamm’s autograph and (laughter) see what he’s like on the set.” She’s a big fan of Jon Hamm’s.
So I went in, and the night before they did give me some pages, and I found out that the guy’s name was Jim, but I didn’t know his last name. And now he’s kind of grown like a fungus into a main character on the show.
Tavis: When you walked in, I said, “Harry, I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time how much I love your glasses,” and you made a comment to me about those glasses relative to the show.
Hamlin: Well I think they might have gotten me the job, actually.
Hamlin: Because I was, it’s just one of those things that happens with age, you need to wear glasses and put contacts in as you get older. The day I went in to read with Matt Weiner I couldn’t see anything, so I put my glasses on.
I think that’s the moment when he went, “Hm, I see something in this guy for the Jim Cutler character.” I did not get the role that I went in to originally read for, so.
Tavis: How weird is that? I’ve heard actors tell that story before – they went in for one thing and ended up getting something – it’s like Lupita Nyong’o, who just won the Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave,” did not go in initially to read for the Patsy character.
But she ends up getting it and winning an Academy Award for it. So sometimes you go in for one thing, you end up getting cast as something else. What do you make of that?
Hamlin: It’s a crazy business, it really is. You never know from one minute to the next what you’re going to be doing. That’s what I love about it. There’s no predicting what could happen in this business.
In this case I went in to read for a swinger boss, which was another smaller character, and they said it was one or two days’ work. I thought I did a good job, and then I got the call that I didn’t get the part.
I went, “Aw, shucks. Well, there goes ‘Mad Men.'” Then three months later I get the call to come in and play this guy. I don’t know, I think it’s – however Matt Weiner works, there’s a particular kind of genius going on there.
When he sees something, he knows what he wants and he gets it. He knows instantly whether something is right or wrong. There’s no equivocating with him.
Tavis: Yet you broke through something with Matt that others have not broken through, and that is, and I’ve interviewed him a few times over the years for this show, and kind of hung out with him h here and there.
My read of him is, and I think the data bear, the track record kind of bears this out, he doesn’t necessarily, especially for this show, like to hire actors who have well-known faces. You’re the sexiest man alive. (Laughter)
Hamlin: Ancient history there. (Laughter)
Tavis: Everybody knows this face, and I take – he’s a creative genius, but I take his edict that he wants to work in this series with people that we don’t necessarily recognize so readily. Yet here comes Harry Hamlin getting the part.
Hamlin: Well I was really shocked by that, in fact, because I knew that. I knew that he didn’t usually use people with a profile, and so I was surprised that I was called in the first time.
Then months later the casting directors told me the story around that, and they told me that they had actually snuck me in. That somehow, my name wasn’t on the list when I was originally called up, and they kind of got me in under false pretenses and I walked through the door.
Once I was in the room, there was nothing Matt could do about it. But they did say that they had to, they kind of went around, went through the back door with me.
Tavis: I kind of say it as a joke, but there’s something serious, I think, there, to this notion of you at one point having been listed as the sexiest man alive. Was that an advantage, was that something you had to overcome years later? How do you, in retrospect, how do you process having gotten that label?
Hamlin: I think anybody would be crazy to say they didn’t want to be – in the long run, it is what it is. I always say that the people at “People” magazine were on drugs when they came up to that, (laughter) made that decision.
It happened, it was, it’s a curious thing when that happens. There’s a bunch of us that that has happened to. We don’t get together and celebrate on an annual basis. (Laughter)
Tavis: There’s no annual dinner to celebrate the sexiest men alive?
Hamlin: Not yet. Well there ought to be. I think it would be a lot of fun.
Tavis: You and Denzel and Brad Pitt, yeah.
Hamlin: I think it would be kind of a fun night, actually.
Tavis: Can you imagine the paparazzi outside of that restaurant (laughter) if all the sexiest men alive were meeting at Madeo or somewhere?
Hamlin: Yeah, that would be a good spot, actually. That’s not bad. But no, I don’t know that – we all get typecast as one thing or another. That’s just it comes along with the territory as an actor.
If you do a great job in one thing, people look at you that way and it’s hard to break out of that. We go into this business with our eyes wide open. Certain things come along with success, like paparazzi, for example.
How can we complain, because we did a job well and now people want to take our picture? So I try to be as nice as I can whenever I’m approached on the street or whatever with people, because when I see that happening, I go okay, that’s kind of a badge of honor. I’ve succeeded in something.
Tavis: But they can be a bit intrusive sometimes, though.
Hamlin: Well certainly they can, and particularly with kids. Now there are some laws emerging that are protecting kids in that respect. But I don’t understand people who go leave me alone or whatever. We did this, so.
Tavis: Speaking of kids, you took some time off in your career, like six or seven years, you took some time off and devoted it to raising your kids, which is not – I’m not going to say it’s unheard of, but for a guy to do that.
I know a lot of sisters, a lot of women who do that, but for a guy to do that is pretty –
Hamlin: What I said was I’m not leaving town. It wasn’t like I’m leaving the business. I said my kids were born and I said if there’s a job here in L.A. and I can get home at night and I can put my kids to bed, I’ll do it.
It just so happened that at that moment the business left L.A. It went to, what –
Tavis: Toronto (unintelligible) yeah.
Hamlin: – Toronto, Vancouver, Sydney, Australia. It went all over the world, Louisiana, wherever. I had a lot of opportunities to go away and do jobs during that period, but I said no, I’m going to stay at home.
That limited the field tremendously, but I have to say I’ve probably put my kids to bed every night, 99 percent of the time.
Tavis: I know there’s a huge joy in doing that. Was there ever a fear, though, that the opportunity to be seen by us might not come around again because you had been in hiding for so long?
Hamlin: That’s a fear that we live with daily, are you kidding me? As an actor, that’s one of those things. We went into this with our eyes wide open, and we call it being between jobs, but really it’s being unemployed. (Laughter) We spend most of our lives unemployed.
Tavis: “In between jobs” sounds so much nicer though, doesn’t it? “I’m in between gigs. I’m in development on something.”
Tavis: “I’m unemployed,” yeah. (Laughter) Sounds a lot better, though.
Hamlin: That’s true. But I knew that that was a possibility, and when I called my agent up a couple of years ago, my kids were older now and they actually preferred to go to bed alone and not to have Dad come in and put them to bed at night, then I called my agent and I said, “Okay, so let’s see what’s out there.”
I said, “I want to put myself back in the ring,” and I thought I would be perfectly happy to be a dad on ABC Family or Nickelodeon or something like that, just to go back into it.
I just, it was like I won the lottery. I did “Curb your Enthusiasm” and then –
Hamlin: And “Shameless.”
Tavis: You’re still on that, yeah.
Hamlin: My son is back on “Shameless” now. He reemerged in the very last moment of the very last – actually after the last moment of the last episode. We all thought he was dead. For the “Shameless” fans out there –
Tavis: He’s alive.
Hamlin: – Jimmy Steve is alive, and that means I can come back on the show. I have a raison d’être to go on the show now.
Tavis: “Shameless,” “Mad Men,” you’re staying busy.
Hamlin: I am, yeah.
Tavis: So you have been good to us, we’ve enjoyed watching you years, but it occurs to me that this TV medium has been really good to you too, though. You’ve had so much success on this screen.
Hamlin: Well I have, and there was – careers have their ups and downs, all careers do, and we know that going in. I started out doing feature films, and for one reason or another I did the “L.A. Law” series.
Tavis: I’m glad you did it, yeah.
Hamlin: To this day it remains the best script I’ve ever read.
Tavis: It’s great stuff.
Hamlin: The pilot script for “L.A. Law,” hands down, still the best thing I’ve ever read. The reason for that is because the writer, Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, were able to create a show that had a series side and a comedic side that blended perfectly together.
The tones blended together, so you spent your 42 minutes of television laughing half of the time, and being emotionally involved half of the time in the drama of it. I don’t know anyone who’s been able to accomplish that since with such precision as they were able to do.
Tavis: Bochco’s one of the greats, though. He’s a good one.
Tavis: So is Matt Weiner, and we’re glad you’re on “Mad Men.” In its last season, seven episodes this year, holding seven episodes for 2015, but we will see one Harry Hamlin do his thing in this final season of “Mad Men,” as Jim Cutler.
Harry, good to have you on the program. Your first time, hopefully not your last.
Hamlin: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.