Vincent Kartheiser on Mad Men's Pete Campbell

Homegrown star of AMC hit reflects on his character

Vincent Kartheiser on <i>Mad Men</i>'s Pete Campbell
Tony Nelson

Vincent Kartheiser is on a diet. It's been three months since AMC wrapped the fifth season of Mad Men, and he's since been occupied by press appearances and parties, the kind that take a martini or two to get through. He also had to put on 20 pounds during the last season of the show, so now he's back home in Minneapolis, trying to dry out and get back in shape.

Standing in the lanes of Bryant-Lake Bowl, he pulls his jeans a few inches away from his waist to prove how much weight he's already lost, exposing a pair of black briefs.

Eight pounds, he says, the product of strict discipline: exercising every morning, fasting during the day, "and then I fuck at night — for a few hours, if I can."

A different kind of retro, at Bryant-Lake Bowl
Tony Nelson; AMC
A different kind of retro, at Bryant-Lake Bowl
The Kartheiser family visiting Mount Rushmore; Vincent playing pirates in Treasure Island
courtesy Jim Kartheiser
The Kartheiser family visiting Mount Rushmore; Vincent playing pirates in Treasure Island

A devious grin stretches across his unshaven face, and he suddenly looks a lot like Pete Campbell, his character on the show.

"Don't print that," he says.

Six years ago, Kartheiser landed the role of a lifetime. Since its 2007 premiere, Mad Men has won a Peabody award, four Golden Globes, and 15 Emmys, including four for Best Outstanding Drama. The show's witty writing has earned widespread acclaim from critics; Rolling Stone recently called it the "most astonishing, revelatory drama of our time, in any medium or format." This past March, when the fifth season premiered, more than 3.5 million viewers tuned in.

When Mad Men opens, Pete Campbell is a young junior executive at a Madison Avenue advertising firm in 1960. We quickly learn he will say and do just about anything to climb the ladder, including blackmailing his boss.

As the storyline progresses, we find that the slippery frat boy is afflicted with self-loathing, and in the world of high-stakes advertising, utter moral vacancy can at times be useful. But no amount of nuance can make the character redeemable. In an early episode, he drunkenly sleeps with the new secretary on the night of his bachelor party. In a more recent plot line, he pimps out his longtime co-worker to a Jaguar executive. One of the show's most gratifying moments is when his colleague Lane Pryce socks him in the face during a staff meeting, leaving Pete with a bloody nose.

Put simply, Pete Campbell is pretty much the biggest douche bag on television.

"There's something about the character of Pete that makes you uncomfortable because the character is uncomfortable," says Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan Holloway on the show, in an email to City Pages. "He's always trying so hard to get approval, and that makes you want to not approve of him. Vincent does such a wonderful job of making you squirm and making you feel sorry for him and also making you realize how valuable he is."

Kartheiser plays the role so convincingly it's hard to picture his real personality any other way. But Kartheiser is not Pete Campbell. Though he lives in Los Angeles, he still considers himself a local boy. He regularly listens to 89.3 the Current, and is a fan of local bands like Poliça and Atmosphere. He travels to the Twin Cities every month or two, and is in the market to buy a house here.

"When he's around, we're just laughing," says his father, Jim Kartheiser. "You know, he's funny, he's a free spirit, and certainly Pete is not any of those things."

Kartheiser also swears that unlike Campbell, he's not a social climber.

"I'm not really ambitious at all, I would say," Kartheiser claims. "I want to do the roles I want to do, but I kind of believe that there's a path for me, and everyone in life. I don't try to fuck with God's plan as much as Pete Campbell does."

But Pete Campbell and Vincent Kartheiser are not completely distinct. And by the actor's own admission, it can at times be hard to discern where one ends and the other begins.

"I'm a beta male," he says. "I'm a slight dude. I don't love myself. I'm probably not as terrible as Pete Campbell is in some ways, but Pete Campbell's not as terrible as people think he is either."

Though today he stars on one of the most critically acclaimed shows on cable, Kartheiser had little exposure to television as a young boy growing up in the Twin Cities. His parents didn't even own a TV until he was 10 years old.

"We just made a very conscious decision that, if we had to compete with the television, it would be very difficult to get all the quality time in with each of the kids that we wanted," recalls Janet Kartheiser, Vince's mother. "It was a conscious decision to do more creative things."

If there's one facet that differentiates Kartheiser from Pete Campbell, it's his childhood. On the show, Pete is the product of a country-club couple who blow their kids' inheritance on caviar and lavish vacations. His father is particularly cold toward his son, unable to understand why anyone would choose a career in advertising.

When his dad dies in an American Airlines plane crash in the show's second season, Pete finds himself unable to cry, instead clutching the memory of the last time they were together: arguing about the differences between a French bulldog and Boston terrier. Ultimately, in his deviant Pete Campbell way, he tries to spin his father's death into an edge in the bidding war for American Airlines' advertising account.

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