Mad Men is the ultimate prestige drama. Even with its occasional dips in quality across its first six and a half seasons and recent run of being ignored by awards shows, it remains one of the most critically adored TV shows since The Sopranos, making somebodies of relative nobodies (in terms of notoriety) like Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery. It is the show that put AMC on the map as being something other than the place to catch marathons of the Halloween movies. However, it has never really been a bonafide hit, existing as one of those odd shows whose impact upon pop culture has been outsized relative to its actual viewing figures. Breaking Bad regularly doubled if not tripled Mad Men‘s ratings, and they were both trounced by AMC’s true hit, The Walking Dead. In fact, Mad Men‘s most recent season, part 1 of the seventh and final season, was the show’s least-watched since 2009. There are those who’ve stuck with Mad Men through one too many bad decisions from Don Draper and one too many lengthy delays between seasons due to heated arguments between show creator Matthew Weiner and the people who finance (Lionsgate) and air the show (AMC). After all of that, the show appears to be going out on a creative high note.
Now, Mad Men‘s final 7-episode half-season, which wrapped filming July 2014, is due to start next month. As such, Weiner and the actors are gearing up for somewhat of a PR victory tour, landing on the cover of the most recent issue of The Hollywood Reporter and unleashing a fascinating oral history of the show. Here are 14 things I learned:
1. Matthew Weiner got his job writing for The Sopranos based on the strength of his Mad Men pilot script
Weiner wrote the pilot script over 6 days in 2001. Nobody bought it, but David Chase liked it enough to interview him for 45-minutes over the phone, after which he hired him as a writer on HBO’s The Sopranos.
2. If not for a manager’s assistant, the Mad Men script may never have made it to AMC
Matthew Weiner (creator): I finished the script and sent it to my agents. They didn’t read it for three or four months. (They’re not my agents anymore.) I was advised not to send it anywhere because that was at a time when there were big overall deals for comedy writers. People would pay for the anticipation of what your project would be, and actually having one was going to hurt you. I kept trying to get into HBO, but I never got a meeting. And I met with FX, which Kevin Reilly was running at that time. He talked to me about making it into a half‑hour. Then people started talking to me about a feature. It was my manager’s assistant who gave AMC the script. That’s who they were pawned off on.
3. It reminded them of Revolutionary RoadChristina Wayne (former senior vp scripted programming, AMC): Years earlier, I’d wanted to option Revolutionary Road [Richard Yates‘ novel about suburbia in the 1960s]. But I was a nobody screenwriter, and [Yates’ estate] held out for bigger fish, which they got with Sam Mendes. So when I read [the Mad Men script], it resonated with me. This was a way to do Revolutionary Road, week in, week out. When we had lunch with Matt for the first time, I gave him the book. He called me after and said, “Thank God I’d never read this because I never would have written Mad Men.”
4. AMC self-financed the pilot
Christina Wayne: So we self-financed the whole thing ourselves. The pilot cost $3.3 million, and we did it in New York in the downtime when Sopranos was [on hiatus]. We used all of their crew.
5. Several actors from That ’70s Show auditioned for the pilot Matthew Weiner: There were famous people who came in to read. The guys from That ’70s Show came in — not Ashton, but the other guys. I’m still impressed by Danny Masterson. But at a certain point, it was working against them. My theory was that The Sopranos casting was great because you didn’t know who any of those people were.
Christina Wayne: Matt sent us two actors: Jon Hamm and Mariska Hargitay‘s husband, Peter Hermann. The quality of the
that we were using sucked, and you couldn’t see how good-looking Jon Hamm was. We were like, “Really, this is who you think?” And Matt said, “Absolutely.” He’d been in the room, and he felt something with Jon. We had him come in again. We had to be sold, so we flew Jon to New York and took him for a drink at the Gansevoort hotel. He was nervous, but I knew that he had star potential. I whispered in his ear before he left, “You got the job.”
7. John Slattery wanted to be Don Draper.
John Slattery (Roger Sterling): I went in to read for Don; they wanted me to play Roger. Matt Weiner claims I was in a bad mood the whole [pilot]. I had a couple of scenes, but I wasn’t as emotionally invested as some of the people because there wasn’t that much of Roger in evidence yet. Being a selfish actor, I didn’t necessarily see the full potential in the beginning.
8. Christina Hendricks and Alison Brie both had competing projects.
Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway): I was up for another pilot, and I chose Mad Men. The [agency I was with] was like, “It’s on AMC, it’s a period piece, it’s never going to go. Are you crazy? You’re not going to make money for us …” I thought it was a little impatient of them. So I moved on.
Weiner: Alison Brie was a big lesson because we couldn’t afford to make her a series regular. And we gambled [Community] wouldn’t happen. We were wrong.
9. The Don Draper/Dick Whitman backstory was spurred on by a note from AMCChristina Wayne: We said to Matt, “OK, this is a great show about advertising, but what are people going to talk about week in, week out? What’s the bigger story for Don?” He went off, and a few months later he came back and pitched the entire Dick Whitman/Don Draper story. We were mesmerized.
Matthew Weiner: So I told [AMC] I had this 85-page screenplay that was Don Draper’s backstory. It was called The Horseshoe, and I abandoned it five years before I wrote Mad Men. The last scene is this character taking Don’s name and leaving his [dead] body at a train station.
John Hamm: I remember Matthew asking me before we started shooting the pilot, “Do you want to know Don’s backstory?” I’d say, “Do you want to tell me?” He told me the back-and-forth of Dick Whitman and Don Draper, and I was like, “Jeez, that sounds Dickensian.”
10. There was instantaneous pushback on Weiner’s decision to split time between work and Betty and Don’s home life instead of keeping it a purely workplace drama
Matthew Weiner: Most of the fighting came on episode two. They were really annoyed that I was paying attention to [Betty]. I wanted to branch the show out, and I felt that if Don was cheating on this woman, that was the story. They just wanted it to be a formula in the office.
January Jones: I was shielded from all of the “We don’t care about Betty.”
11. Don and Betty almost had a happy ending to that first season
Christina Wayne: My biggest argument with Matt was on the ending of season one: Don coming home and telling Betty he couldn’t go to Thanksgiving. He’d written it that Don comes home, hugs Betty, and they drive off into the sunset. But that ties the show up with a bow, and we had to do season two. He got so mad he hung up, but he called back and said: “You’re right. I just love my characters so much, I wanted them to be happy.”
12. The negotiations between Weiner, AMC, and Lionsgate were exactly as ugly as we’d heard
Matthew Weiner: AMC had waited a very, very long time [to renew the show for a second season]. I remember seeing them at the  Emmys and, with an Emmy in my hand from The Sopranos, yelling at everybody from AMC, “You don’t want Mad Men? Let it go.” I knew there was a really good chance the show could end up on HBO. After season four — and our fourth Emmy in a row — my contract expired again [in late 2010]. Nobody from AMC or Lionsgate would talk to me. Bryan Lourd [at CAA] got involved. He said, “Don’t worry about it.” Cut to six months later, and it’s, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.” They came in with a very low offer and stipulations about cutting time and adding commercials, getting rid of 30 percent of the cast. I was like, “No to all that.” They kept offering me more money to take those things, and I kept saying, “No, this is not about money.”
13. AMC wanted spin-offs, one about a contemporary Sally Draper, another about Peggy
Sandra Stern (COO, Lionsgate TV): When we first started negotiating with AMC, one of the things they wanted was a spinoff. We talked about doing a contemporary one. Given the fact that [Mad Men] ends nearly 50 years ago, most of the characters would be dead. Sally was the one character young enough that you could see her 30 or 40 years later. There was a time we wanted a Peggy spinoff, too, and, a la Better Call Saul, a minor character going off to L.A. Matt wasn’t comfortable committing to a spinoff.
14. Even they get sick of Don always making the wrong decisions
I bailed on Mad Men at the end of season 4 when Don seemingly threw away an entire season’s worth of self-improvement and legitimate growth by ditching a girl who was his equal and rather suddenly proposing to his sexy secretary. I know more than a few other Mad Men fans who felt the same way, although I did eventually circle back around to the show on Netflix. It turns out that even the people making the show had trouble dealing with that storyline.
Sandra Stern (COO, Lionsgate TV): Matt and I were sitting at the table read for the last episode of season four. Don Draper had started dating a psychologist named Faye, an equal. Then, in the last episode, he runs off and he marries his young secretary. I was a little surprised, and I said to Matt, “I’m sad — I thought Don had finally pulled it together.” And Matt said, “Yeah, me too. I really thought he could do it this time, but he couldn’t.”
Jon Hamm: Obviously it’s no fun to play a person who only makes the right decisions all the time, but it can be difficult to watch somebody, time and time again, who just continually makes [the same] mistakes. I think it got progressively more difficult for me. As Don’s downward spiral continued, it became kind of relentless, and that takes its toll on your psyche.