St. Louis Hometown Stories: Jon Hamm, Actor
Phtograph courtesy of John Burroughs School
Acting was the last thing that Jon Hamm did at John Burroughs School—not the first—according to his former drama teacher and Burroughs’ current theater director, Wayne Salomon.
In 1988, his first year at John Burroughs, Salomon directed Godspell. Looking through the student body, he lit upon Hamm as the best person to play Judas—but Hamm, then a senior, declined to audition. “He just wanted me to give him the part,” Salomon recalls. “I knew him as a football player and baseball player. It’s funny, but I think of him so much more when I see the football and baseball fields than when I go into the auditorium.”
The only other acting Hamm had done at Burroughs was in the dancing chorus of Carousel. “But I think the Carousel thing was more about being with girls than being in the play,” Salomon says.
Salomon did make him Judas, after all, and Hamm attacked the role with gusto. “He had a kind of self-confidence that you don’t see in anyone,” Salomon recalls. “He was always the most prepared actor at rehearsal.” In Godspell, his costume also helped. “I think I asked the costume designer to give him the coat that Paul McCartney wore on the Sgt. Pepper cover,” says Salomon. “Jon wore a hat backwards all the time. So in Godspell, we let him wear his hat backwards. He looked like a Sgt. Pepper-y Judas.”
Then Hamm put another modern spin on the role: “He tried to rap Judas’ opening bit—he couldn’t, but he gave it the best try you can imagine. And when he failed at it, it was no big thing; he understood
After graduating from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Hamm returned to Burroughs for a year, interning in the drama department, working at night as a waiter at Cardwell’s, and doing theater outside of school. “I remember asking that he be made an Equity actor, ’cause I wanted to see him get out of town,” Salomon recalls. “We were talking about where he was going to go, and he said he was going to go to New York. I turned him from east to west and said, ‘Go west, young man—you will get to New York a lot faster.” With only $150 to his name, Hamm moved to L.A. in 1995.
In 2002, Salomon visited Hamm in Los Angeles. After a morning at the driving range, Hamm told Salomon he was considering waiting tables again. “As we left the car and walked to the mailbox, I was just trying to think of what I could possibly say to keep encouraging him,” Salomon recalls. “He opened the mailbox, and there was a check in it for $5,000, for the Australian playing rights for his Providence episodes. From that day forward, Jon Hamm never thought about being a waiter again.”
Hamm was cast as dashing ad exec Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men in 2007, and he’s gone on to star in films including The Town and Bridesmaids. “It’s a great story, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Salomon says. “I’ve been in the theater forever, and he is one of the five nicest guys I have ever worked with. Although he can’t tap dance.”