Fame can arrive in unexpected ways.
Actor Jon Hamm had played roles in “The Unit,” “Charmed,” What About Brian,” “Gilmore Girls” and “CSI: Miami,” but it wasn’t until he was cast as an ad exec on AMC's "Mad Men" that he transitioned from supporting player to major star.
“Mad Men,” the suave drama that captures the sexism of the 1960s through the lens of a New York advertising agency, has catapulted Hamm from a guy you’d pass on the street to someone who's recognized wherever he goes.
There are plenty of reasons why “Mad Men,” which begins its second season on July 27 on AMC, has become the most-buzzed-about show on all of TV right now, but place Hamm’s charm and charisma at the top of the list.
So how does one adjust to being a face in the crowd to being the face on nearly every TV and entertainment magazine?
“There are a lot more people who want my time, and time becomes difficult to manage,” said Hamm, who has parlayed his TV success into a couple of big-screen projects, including the upcoming holiday release “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” with Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly. “We’ve recently started production and I’m already exhausted. That is what it is. You rally and you make it work. You just suck it up. Today’s my day off and I have two interviews and a photo shoot. It’s never-ending to a good purpose. Good problems to have.”
Certainly, Hamm isn’t the only actor or actress to become a global celebrity following their first lead role.
Did anybody know who James Gandolfini was before “The Sopranos”? Or Calista Flockhart prior to “Ally McBeal”? And while she might’ve been known on the indie film circuit, America Ferrera drew a big “who’s that?” before anyone heard of “Ugly Betty.”
It doesn’t take a part in an hour-long show for an actor to see how he’s perceived on the entertainment landscape. Half-hour sitcoms do the trick as well.
Sudden fame's ‘Big Bang’
Jim Parsons, a relatively unknown Texas native, caught the eye of the casting folks on CBS’ sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” and is now a comedy sensation. His take as geeky astrophysicist Leonard has been praised by critics as one of the top performances — comedy or otherwise — of the past TV season.
Yet, the TV gods saw fit to give him a show with great material, a terrific timeslot and that extra intangible that makes for a hit. Grateful for everything, he’s most appreciative of having a steady job with colleagues he enjoys working with. In TV, especially on hit shows where actors can often get big heads, that’s not always the case.
And he’s still getting used to being famous.
“Yesterday, I walked into the supermarket and some man pointed to me, waved and said ‘hi,’ ” Parsons recalled. “My impulse was that we knew each other. He said ‘I just saw you last night.’ It threw me.”
It can be a difficult balance for actors thrust into the spotlight, trying to figure out their next career move. Parsons recently hired a manager to help him navigate Hollywood’s treacherous but inviting waters. In trying to figure projects that best suit them, actors want to capitalize on what made them standouts, while, at the same time, making sure not to risk being typecast.
There’s also the learning curve of dealing with the press. Starring on your first show often means having to attend the Television Critics Association's summer press tour in Los Angeles, undergoing a barrage of questions from reporters who are just waiting for an actor to say something witty, or, even more frightening, something controversial.
“It’s trial by fire going to do that,” says Parsons. “It’s a little harrowing. Luckily, the press had a relationship with Chuck (Lorre, the show’s co-creator) and ‘Two and a Half Men’ (which he also co-created). I’m really grateful to be through that first season and not have every conversation being about explaining the show.”
Of course, talking to a curmudgeonly reporter is offset by a healthy paycheck. Financial rewards can be great, especially if the show continues for several seasons.
“It’s been phenomenal, a wonderful experience,” said Hamm about the success of “Mad Men.” “It remains fun to go to work. This is a process that has encompassed two and a half years of our lives. To have it validated by the greater TV world is amazing.”
Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at email@example.com.