Vincent Kartheiser on Mad Men's Pete Campbell

Homegrown star of AMC hit reflects on his character

Sitting in a L.A. hotel room, Kartheiser and his dad rehearsed the lines over and over the weekend before he was scheduled to read for the part. "It was pretty relaxed, because it was at that point just another script," says Jim. "At that point, nobody had even heard of Mad Men."

Kartheiser nailed the audition and got the part. But he couldn't have known what the show would one day become. At the time, AMC (full name: American Movie Classics) was a little-known cable station. The channel launched in the 1980s, primarily broadcasting commercial-free black-and-white films. It was an unlikely venue for a hit television show — even one created by Matthew Weiner, who wrote for later seasons of The Sopranos.

The Mad Men pilot was filmed in late summer 2006, as Weiner was still wrapping up The Sopranos, and used the same New York City studio lot, as well as members of the HBO show's crew. The episode premiered more than a year later, about six weeks after they had begun filming the rest of the first season.

Kartheiser in Alaska, a 1996 film about two kids who embark on an adventure to find their father, with a little help from a polar bear
Douglas Curran
Kartheiser in Alaska, a 1996 film about two kids who embark on an adventure to find their father, with a little help from a polar bear

Pulling the show off was something of an endurance contest. During the first season, each 52-minute episode — roughly the equivalent of half a feature-length film — was shot in seven days (they now get eight). To finish on time, many crew members often worked 15-hour days (they still do).

"You put that in context," says Kartheiser. "Usually, even the lowest-budget film will take four to six weeks to shoot double that. So you're shooting in no time at all. You just have to be on point with very little notice, very little rehearsal, very little time with the script."

More than 900,000 viewers tuned in to the first episode, a record for AMC. By the the second season's premiere, viewership more than doubled to two million.

AMC reinvented itself with Mad Men. The show continued to amass an audience, along with awards and critical acclaim, and paved the way for future AMC hits like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.

As his fame grew, Kartheiser developed a reputation for his eccentricities. He lives in a tiny, one-room house in Los Angeles that contains no mirrors — part of a conscious effort to avoid his reflection. NBC once hailed Kartheiser as a "Green Warrior" on a special about eco-friendly celebrities. In the interview, he said he was a vegetarian and that he would never have kids, both of which he called "green choices." He now eats meat and seems undecided on procreation.

"Since I've known him he's been a vegetarian and then not a vegetarian," says Christina Hendricks, who met her husband through Kartheiser. "He didn't have a car for over a year and wanted to take the bus and be more eco-conscious, and now he has a car. I think he's very conscious of trying to contribute in his own way and he's experimenting with how best to do that."

Kartheiser chalks the inconsistencies up to a series of "strange phases," and nothing more. "You say something when you're 23, and you're still answering questions about it when you're 40. You know what I mean?"

As the show turned into the hit it is today, Kartheiser found himself being recognized in public. Perhaps unfortunately, most identify him with his weaselly role.

"They're not wrong to do that," says Kartheiser. "I'm not totally opposite to that role. There's elements of me in that role. I'm not delusional enough to believe that I don't have some of the problems that Pete Campbell has."

On an April morning at Bryant-Lake Bowl, no one pays much attention as Kartheiser strolls in the front door and finds a secluded table in the back of the bar. He doesn't order a drink — part of his detox routine. Not to mention it's 11 a.m. If he were drinking, though, it would probably be something Pete Campbell would order.

"You get to a certain age where you don't want the mixer anymore," he says. "It's just, like, added liquid that you're putting into your system. It's like, 'Give me a gin on ice with an olive in it, or a glass of Scotch, or something.'"

Kartheiser has been in Minneapolis for the past week, and it might be the last time he'll make it out here for months. Now that Mad Men is on a break from filming, Kartheiser is temporarily venturing away from television. This month, he begins filming an independent movie in New York City tentatively titled Beach Pillows. After that, it's off to San Jose, where he will star in a play called The Death of a Novel.

He talks only vaguely about what he will do beyond that. Throughout the latest season of Mad Men, the internet has been abuzz with speculation that Pete Campbell is going to die. It didn't happen this season, and Kartheiser certainly isn't going to give anything away — "It's all top secret," he says — but the warning signs seem to be there. In one episode, he laments to Don Draper, "I have nothing." It's enough to suggest that Don's warning in the pilot episode could come true: Maybe Pete Campbell is destined to die alone.

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