News Column

'Mad Men' creator turns L.A. into New York of the 1960s [Pasadena Star - News (CA)]

June 22, 2013

YellowBrix

LOS ANGELES - As the sixth season of AMC's "Mad Men" draws to a close Sunday, Matthew Weiner, its creator and executive producer, has a surprising response when asked if there's a tie that binds the show throughout the turbulent 1960s.

It's neither Don Draper's philandering nor Pete Campbell's toadying.

It's not Roger Sterling's snide humor nor Joan Harris' magnetism.

Nope. The show, which focuses on a group of Madison Avenue execs in their heyday, is -- in many ways -- an advertisement for historic preservation even as it bulldozes through 1968.

"If there's a message, it's 'stop tearing stuff down,'" said Weiner in an interview from the Los Angeles Center Studios located in the old Unocal Building at 5th and Bixel just east of the Harbor Freeway downtown.

Draper, the show's central character played by actor Jon Hamm, is an imposter. For Weiner's purposes, so too are Los Angeles and Pasadena.

Because -- as it turns out -- locations from San Pedro to Pasadena do a great job pretending to be mid-century New York City.

"I love that we get to use (the area's) responsible behavior towards (the) past," said Weiner, who cut his teeth writing episodic television for David Chase's "The Sopranos."

Early on in his writing career, Weiner had his eyes set firmly on the '60s and the styles of the decade.

"It was the 'Mad Men' script that got me my job on the 'Sopranos,'" Weiner said.

It's actually an impressive pedigree. Chase wrote many episodes of the "Rockford Files," the contemporary mid-century cop drama that celebrated Los Angeles locations for what they were back then.

Don't doubt that the connection is a strong one. When asked early on who should play Don Draper, Weiner said his ideal would be James Garner, who played Rockford in the series.

That Hamm is able to project a Garner-esque charisma on screen amid all the period distractions of time and place speaks volumes about his acting abilities, Weiner said.

"Jon Hamm's got his own thing, but it's because he has a lot of those same qualities -- a charismatic inner virtue and sensitivity. He's a moral person in a situational way."

Which, in many ways, lends an air of authenticity to a series that revived the coolness of skinny ties, smoking in restaurants, soaking in three martini lunches and skirt-chasing on the job.

It could only really work in Los Angeles.

So much so that in 2011, Weiner was honored by the Los Angeles Conservancy for his commitment to preservation.

For good reason. Film L.A., a nonprofit which coordinates the permitting process for studios working on location in Los Angeles, indicates that U.R.O.K. Productions, Weiner's company, has pulled 125 different permits for the show since April 2008. Among the recognizable L.A. locations which have stood in for mid-century New York?

* Griffith Park, above Los Feliz;

* The Biltmore Hotel, at Pershing Square;

* Cole's Restaurant, downtown;

* Rod's Grill in Arcadia;

* and Musso and Frank in Hollywood.

Los Angeles isn't just impersonating New York City in "Mad Men." The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was cast as Rome for Don and Betty Draper's last vacation as husband and wife.

The pilot was filmed in Manhattan, while Weiner was still writing for "The Sopranos," but it was clear -- almost from the start -- that preservation efforts in Southern California would benefit "Mad Men" once the show went into production, Weiner said.

"You know, we finished the pilot in New York City in 2006, and the next day they were taking the windows out of the office building," he recalled. "Other than the Lenox Lounge, every other location where we filmed in New York City was destroyed by the time we went into production."

Being a part of the '60s is fun for local businesses too, said Ed Mysliviec, owner of Beckham's Bar and Grill on Walnut Street in Pasadena, which doubled as a midtown English Pub in Season Five.

"It's really fun to observe what it takes to film even just a two- minute scene," he said. "If I didn't know, I wouldn't have recognized the place because the scenes are closeups."

Mysliviec said he was impressed by the show's attention to detail.

"They make changes to the scenery to make sure that everything is authentic. If there's a picture on the wall that would not have been hanging on the wall back then, they take it down," he said. "They're very thorough. Even down to the shape of a liquor bottle."

Tonight's episode brings 1968 to a close. Via the cast, viewers have seen the American Dream come apart at the seams. Various episodes have dealt with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, growing opposition to the war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the riots outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the election of Richard Nixon and the explosion of violence and squalor on the streets of New York.

"We've gone through eight years of these people's lives," Weiner said. "The actors have grown."

The '60s? "It was a time of a lot of drama and unpleasantness," he added. "And the show? It gets to be its own example of how time passes for all of us."

Staff Writer Libby Rainey contributed to this story.

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