Vincent Kartheiser on Mad Men's Pete Campbell

Homegrown star of AMC hit reflects on his character

Kartheiser's real parents couldn't be further from that. Janet was born and raised in south Minneapolis, in a neighborhood off Lake Nokomis. After high school, she attended college at St. Teresa in Winona, where she met Jim, a Chicago transplant who went to the nearby St. Mary's University.

The two married at 18 and after three years living in Chicago moved to Minneapolis. Jim worked as a salesman for a company that sold construction equipment, while Janet stayed home with the kids and eventually opened a nursery. In a span of nine years, the couple had six children. At 33, Vincent is the youngest.

"We always said that he had to learn how to act and be dramatic to get attention at the end of that train," says Janet. "If you're the youngest, and your head's the lowest at the table, you've got to stand on that chair and get some attention."

The role of Connor on  Angel, which he landed in his early 20s
The role of Connor on Angel, which he landed in his early 20s
Kartheiser introduced Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks to her husband at a magic show
AMC Networks
Kartheiser introduced Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks to her husband at a magic show

Kartheiser's introduction to acting was at the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company, watching his older sister audition for roles. When he was seven, Kartheiser tired of sitting in the audience with his dad, and tried out for a part of his own. But the director wanted a nine-year-old, and despite his dad's advice, young Kartheiser found himself unable to lie about his age. He didn't get the part, but nonetheless made an impression: The theater referred Kartheiser to the Guthrie a few weeks later, where he picked up the role of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.

From that point on, Kartheiser was hooked on the trade. "I always was an actor," he says. "I never really knew if I'd make money in it, but I was always very active in it."

He continued to get parts at the Guthrie and CTC, starring in productions of Pippi Longstocking and The Velveteen Rabbit. By age nine, when his parents moved to Apple Valley, he began picking up regular work recording radio spots for Minnesota-based companies like Dayton's, Target, and Best Buy. That eventually led to weekly appearances on Radio AAHS, a kids' station broadcasting from Minneapolis.

"Vinnie had a very unique voice when he was young," says Carol McCormick, Kartheiser's childhood agent at Moore Creative Talent, Inc. "We all noticed it right away. He was kind of an average Midwestern kid. You know, cute, but it was his voice."

His success as a child actor didn't exactly endear Kartheiser to his classmates. Kartheiser's description of his time at school in Apple Valley sounds like the formula for a '90s teen movie: a social hierarchy dominated by jocks, cheerleaders, and the cool teachers, where he was just a lowly drama dork.

"It's pretty much the shittiest thing in the world," says Kartheiser. "I grew up with a bunch of steroided-up hockey players and blond cheerleaders who thought they ruled the world, and I was a little nerd who wore stage makeup and clothes that his mother made for him."

In his early teens, Kartheiser began to find roles in the movie industry. In 1993, he played the role of Orphan Boy in an independent film called Untamed Heart, starring Marisa Tomei and Christian Slater. In the following years, he won parts in the popular kids' movies Little Big League, The Indian in the Cupboard, and Alaska.

But Kartheiser's growing success in Hollywood only antagonized his relationship with his school back home in Apple Valley. Unlike student athletes who traveled the state for sports tournaments, Kartheiser says, he was not allowed by his teachers to make up the work he missed while filming. In ninth grade, he dropped out in favor of a private tutor and correspondence school.

"I was getting all Fs," he says. "And I figured, 'Well, if I'm making three times what my teachers are making, they can go fuck themselves.'"

When Kartheiser was in his mid-20s, it might have looked like his childhood success was fading, his career destined to go the way of so many child actors'. When the movie well ran dry, he turned to television. He landed a role in Joss Whedon's Angel, a spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where he played Connor, the human offspring of the show's namesake. But the WB canceled the show in 2004, and regular work was hard to find.

"I would say things to him like, 'You know, son, you're going to have to get a real job and do this acting thing on the side,'" recalls his father.

In the summer of 2006, Kartheiser's parents traveled to Los Angeles to visit their son as he was preparing for an audition. The script was an early version of a Pete Campbell-Don Draper scene that would appear in the pilot episode of Mad Men: Pete walks into Don's office and gazes around the room, imagining all the ways in which he would redecorate. He meets Don's new, credulous young secretary, Peggy, and offers her the type of advice only Pete Campbell can dispense ("If you pull your waist in a little bit, you might look like a woman.").

As the two men exit the office, the wiser, wittier Don gives young Pete a thorough tongue-lashing that leaves him sullen, and tells viewers, in the show's infancy, that there is some order in the world of Mad Men. ("Keep it up and even if you do get my job, you'll never run this place. You'll die in that corner office, mid-level executive, with a little bit of hair, who women go home with out of a pity. You wanna know why? Because no one will like you.")

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