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Vincent Kartheiser feels lucky to be bad guy of 'Mad Men'

Mad Men

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Posted 5:55pm on Tuesday, Apr. 02, 2013

Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men says he never gets recognized in public.

Away from the set of the acclaimed 1960s-era Manhattan advertising drama, when he's not dressed and coifed for the part, the actor looks very different from his character of Pete Campbell.

And given the animus that Pete tends to inspire, Kartheiser is lucky to have the anonymity.

There's just something about that character that makes people want to punch him.

Pete is the ultimate office weasel, a smarmy schemer and a cunning climber. He will stop at nothing to get ahead. He was totally deserving last season when, in a deliciously memorable moment, he got his nose bloodied in a staff meeting. "I often want to take a poke at Pete too," Kartheiser says.

If he looked more like his character in real life, Kartheiser's nose might be perpetually bandaged.

On a lesser TV series than Mad Men (which begins Season 6 at 8 p.m. Sunday on AMC), Pete Campbell could be a character who's easily dismissed as a fool or as comic relief.

But here, you take him lightly at your own peril. Just ask his vanquished rival Roger Sterling (John Slattery) how dangerous he can be.

But interestingly, Pete's also a tragic figure, an example of the American Dream with a sour aftertaste. He has it all -- the wife, the kid, the house and the business success that makes it all possible -- yet he couldn't be more miserable.

How is it that cynical Don Draper (Jon Hamm) once put it? "What is happiness? It's the moment before you need more happiness."

That's Pete Campbell's sad story in a nutshell.

Pete isn't the straw that stirs the drink on Mad Men, of course. That duty rests mostly on Draper's shoulders. But part of what makes this show so compelling is that every character is complex.

Kartheiser says there's a lot of Pete in him and a lot of him in Pete.

"I'm not afraid to cop to some bad qualities," he says. "I think I have a lot of the same bitterness, anger and impatience. I think I have the insecurity."

Career boost

But Kartheiser, to his credit, also knows how to appreciate a good thing when he's got it. And working on Mad Men, a four-time Emmy winner as TV's top drama, has definitely been a good thing.

"How does it feel to be part of that?" he says. "It feels pretty special and it feels pretty lucky. I consider myself a lottery winner. I don't necessarily think I'm any more deserving or more capable than any other actor. So I completely consider myself blessed and lucky.

"All of us on the show feel that way. Every time we come back for a new season, we're like, 'What can we possibly do this year that will be better than what we've already done?' And every year, we're shocked and blown away by the great words and the great scripts and the great plot lines and stories.

"It's been a joy. It's been a glorious train ride."

The two-hour season premiere opens in 1968, with a tone that's decidedly bleak, even by Mad Men standards.

The bulk of the episode, titled "Doors," is spent with Don Draper and Roger Sterling obsessing about death. Roger is working through his issues with the help of a shrink. Don is busy creating a print ad campaign that seems like a suicidal cry for help.

Meanwhile, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) spends most of the episode fixing a problematic ad campaign.

That leaves little room for Kartheiser to flex his acting muscles in the premiere, but his time will come.

Kartheiser is simply thrilled to be a member of this team.

Great TV

When he was cast as Pete Campbell in 2006, he knew Mad Men would be great television.

"I thought the pilot was brilliant," he says. "My expectations were very, very high because I knew the pedigree of the people writing the show. [Creator] Matthew Weiner was coming from The Sopranos. [Executive producer and director] Scott Hornbacher was also coming from The Sopranos. That was one of the greatest shows of all time, so smartly written.

"So I had high expectations. It wasn't the sort of thing where I was like, 'Well, who knows what this will be like?' No, I was like, 'This is going to be great.'"

That said, Kartheiser wasn't sure that the world would agree.

"Oftentimes you do a project that you think is great and the world thinks it's rubbish," he notes. "Other times, you'll do a project that you're not that into but the world thinks is wonderful.

"But when those two things line, when you think it's great and the world thinks it's great, like it is with this show, that's a rarity and it's quite lovely."

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