Jon Hamm’s overdue Emmy win is a case study on how to overcome career failure

Eighth time’s a charm.
Eighth time’s a charm.
Image: Phil McCarten/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
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The former set designer for a number of soft-core pornographic films has won the world’s highest honor for television acting. The road that led him there was long and strange, and, quite likely, has a lot to do with his current success.

Finally, on his eighth try, American actor Jon Hamm took home the Emmy award last night (Sept. 20) for best actor in a drama, recognizing his work as brooding advertising executive Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men, which ended in May.

Hamm had been nominated every year for the last seven years, but had never won. In the midst of stiff competition (Bryan Cranston won four times in six years for his brilliant turn as Walter White on another AMC show, Breaking Bad), Hamm became known as the guy who had no trouble getting nominated, but would probably never win. Until he did.

“There has been a terrible mistake, clearly,” Hamm joked in his acceptance speech. “This is impossible.”

Some are wondering if his win is a concession—or perhaps, an apology—from the Emmy voters, for overlooking him for the better part of a decade. That may be the case—but it doesn’t make him any less deserving of the award.

From teacher, to porn set designer, to failed actor

Hamm was already pretty familiar with “last chances.” Before moving to Los Angeles, he briefly taught acting at his former high school in St. Louis, Missouri. Among his students were actress Ellie Kemper, with whom he starred in Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Beau Willimon, creator of House of Cards—also on Netflix. A few years later, as a young actor in Hollywood, Hamm couldn’t land a gig if his life depended on it (which it essentially did), and his talent agency dropped him.

He then began working on the aforementioned porn sets, continued his more stable employment as a waiter, and considered giving up on acting altogether.

“It was soul-crushing,” Hamm told Vanity Fair, in describing the experience. He told W Magazine that he had given himself an ultimatum: Find stability as an actor by age 30, or go do something else. He turned 30 while on set of Mel Gibson’s Vietnam War movie We Were Soldiers, and decided he would stick with acting.

“The benefits of my trajectory were learning humility, learning to be patient and learning how the system works in some way,” Hamm told W. From there, the roles kept coming, but he was still a virtual unknown when Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner took a chance on him and cast him as Don Draper. “I was on the bottom of everyone’s list,” Hamm told Hollywood Reporter. “The one person who was an early champion of mine was Matthew.”

Art imitates life

As fate would have it, Don Draper’s fictional life and career trajectory was something of an intensified version of Hamm’s own life. Don Draper was born Dick Whitman, to a prostitute mother who died in labor and an abusive father who died when Dick was 10. Whitman eventually joins the US Army, fights in the Korean War, and assumes the identity of his fallen commanding officer—the real Don Draper. From there, he moves to New York and works a dead-end job as a fur salesman before he’s “discovered” by Roger Sterling (played by John Slattery) and becomes a successful ad man.

By all accounts, Hamm has not stolen anyone’s identity, nor was his life quite as tumultuous as Whitman’s, except for one key part: Hamm, too, lost his mother at a young age. Hamm was 10 when she died of cancer, and his father died 10 years later. In his Emmy speech, Hamm thanked several families in the St. Louis area who took him in after his mother died.

“I want to thank the people to whom I owe an incredible debt,” Hamm said. “[The] people who, in my life, have gotten me here. Families who have chosen, for some reason, to take me in, and be nice to me along this strange, strange road.”

Never too late for a turnaround

Hamm has implied that his portrayal of Draper is informed by his own life—in fact, he’s said Draper is in part based on his father. But Hamm’s career turnaround was all his own, the result of commitment and perseverance. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Hamm’s career, it’s that knowing when to shift careers can be a valuable tool, sure, but so can knowing when not to.

The ending of Mad Men shows us that Don Draper was always, at his core, an ad man. It’s fitting, then, to think that perhaps Hamm was always meant to be an actor.

He didn’t need an Emmy to verify that, but it was sure nice that he finally got one, for a role he played so well.