'Mad Men': Joel Murray on Freddy Rumsen's Return and His Unlikely Bond With Don Draper

The actor tells THR about his big turn during the season 7 premiere, hoping for phone calls from Matthew Weiner, gourmet prop food and his time on the Chuck Lorre gravy train.
Joel Murray on "Mad Men"

Until very recently, Joel Murray's defining Mad Men moment was Freddy Rumsen's infamous pants-peeing incident from the second season.

The recurring player may have one-upped himself during the recent premiere, which opened on Murray delivering Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) a flawless pitch for Accutron watches -- the result, we learn later in the episode, of a deal to be Don (Jon Hamm)'s creative ambassador. The pair now have more in common than any viewer might have predicted back when Freddy became the first Sterling Cooper staffer to take an involuntary leave of absence.

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Murray, who's made sporadic appearances on Mad Men since his character's accident-induced axing in 2008, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week about his latest return and how he channeled his inner Don Draper. He also confirmed that the sandwiches he and Hamm had to eat while filming, like all Mad Men set food, were delicious, and talked about being an early player in Chuck Lorre's sitcom empire back when he had a supporting role on Dharma & Greg.

Yours was not the first face most expected to see opening the final season of Mad Men.

Matt said I had a nice part. When I got the script, I was kind of shocked that I opened on this long monologue by myself. Peggy was there, but it was pretty much me staring straight into the camera. It's a nice vote of confidence.

Freddy does a pretty compelling Don.

I did the first take, and we got through it all without a problem. The camera man actually came over to me said, "You know, you didn't blink for a minute and a half." That was how into it I was. Originally it was one long pull-out shot, but they cut it together so it came in and out again. I did blink when I watched it.

It's easy to forget that Freddy was put on a leave of absence, like Don -- not flat-out fired. They're oddly kindred now.

The similarities are pretty amazing. When Freddy says bye to Don, getting into the cab at the end of [season 2 episode] "Six Month Leave," I thought I was done. I didn't think I'd be coming back at all, because I've had that in my career -- my poor character on Shameless went down that ice hole. But I think Don is coming back from this, call me crazy. That last scene, where I say, "You don't want to be damaged goods," it's powerful, because they've been down the same road, and I do know what I'm talking about in this instance. I love the parallel lives that they're living there.

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Did you and Matthew Weiner talk about how to channel Don in the pitch?

Matt didn't give me a lot of notes on that at all. He said, you know what to do with this. I toyed with the idea of imitating Hamm a little bit, but I kind of just stole his cadence from his bigger pitches over the years. It was a bit monotone in a way. I wasn't given a lot of direction. I was allowed to do my own thing. And the words were really good.

Maybe that's what they'll write on Mad Men's headstone.

Yes, all hail Matt Weiner.

Do you ever worry you're going to have a conflict when they ask you to come back?

They know that they're kind of the best show on television, so they know you're going to get there somehow. I haven't had any difficulty with anything going up against it yet, so I've been lucky in that way. I'm just standing by now, hoping I get called in -- in the dark, of course. Freddy stays in the dark.

Did you petition for a dramatic circa 1969 haircut?

The first season, I said, "I hope I have a Mike Brady perm by the end of this show." You kind of look forward to getting the short haircut, but they don't trim that much anymore. In the first season, it was like going into the army -- very high and tight. Hamm's hair stays the same, but everybody else's keeps getting longer.

You'll go over a year without playing Freddy. Do you wonder what he's up to?

When you're gone, you become a civilian. You watch the show, and you don't know what's happening next. When you come back, Matt only tells you what you need to know -- the things that have changed around you and how it might affect your performance. It's a need to know basis kind of thing. I get a kick out of it when I'm home watching, thinking, "Boy it would be great if Freddy walked in right now." But he doesn't, and I already know that.

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So you keep up with the show?

My wife and I have loved the show from the get-go, and I'd seen a couple episodes and loved it by the time I auditioned. We never missed one. It's date night.

There was a lot of sandwich eating in the premiere. Does Mad Men serve good prop food? 

It was a really good sausage sandwich, and it was really spicy too. You could almost feel your face getting redder. I had another scene one time where I was eating a roast beef sandwich and smoking a cigarette at the same time. The roast beef sandwich was phenomenal. The only bad food experience I had was at the end of season five. They cut out a line that my wife had me on a diet, and I was eating cottage cheese and Melba toast. Melba toast is the worst possible thing to put in your mouth if you're trying to act. It's incredibly dry, and I was gagging through the scene. It's funny, when shows get more money, normally it goes on the screen, but they have the best food there. An army marches on its stomach, and they don't spare any money on the food budget.

How do you think Freddy peeing his pants ranks in the pantheon of shocking moments?

I think it's up there with the lawnmower. People bring it up anytime they talk to me about the show. And with people who don't know the show very well, I say, " I'm the guy who peed his pants." "Oh yeah!" I'll say it's top 10, but Betty shooting birds was pretty big...so was the picnic where they just left their garbage and it blew off into the wind.

Freddy and Peggy seem to be in a better place. Do you think he's evolved?

From the first season when I said, "Yeah, it was like watching a dog play the piano," commenting on Peggy pitching the Basket of Kisses? Yeah, Freddy has come a long way.  But even in that last scene [in the premiere] I made a comment -- "Well, she lifted her leg on it" -- again a dog reference. You saw that Freddy's stuff was kind of hackneyed, she was getting more power, and he was old school. I like to think that he still gets it. There is a universality to the ad game that doesn't all have to change and be freaky Old Spice ads. There's a romanticism you have to have in the ad world, and I think Freddy's got that at least. His relationship with her has always been kind of paternal to me.

What do you think of the empire Chuck Lorre's built since Dharma & Greg?

Here's a guy who Cybill Shepherd fired from the show he created for her. He created Grace Under Fire and [Brett Butler] fired him. He had some tough luck. With Dharma & Greg, he really hit his stride and got that universal respect throughout the industry. He is a great fixer of scenes. If something is wrong, he can walk in and within 30 seconds tell you what the deal is and fix it. He's always had the talent, but the empire is incredible. I've only done four or five episodes of Two and a Half Men, and its amazing how many people recognize me for that more than anything else in my career. The crew on that, they all worked on Dharma. It's hysterical to go back there and work with these people who are in he same place as 1997 and have the most steady gig in the world. They're all pretty happy.
Do you miss sitcom work?

It's the best gig in the whole world. We shot Dharma & Greg six blocks from my house for five years. I had a Dodge Durango that I sold after five years, and it only had like 12,000 miles on it. My whole life was within eight square blocks of my house. There was a golf course across the street. In my downtime, I was on the driving range. Everybody on that show just knew that it was the gravy train with biscuit wheels.

And you directed there as well?

I love directing the four-camera. I'd love to get back into that, but everything went single-cam for a while. Now Chuck has one director, Mark Cendrowski, for The Big Bang Theory and James Widdoes on Two and a Half Men. And Mike and Molly, James Burrows was directing all of those for a while. Three guys making millions. On Dharma, every three episodes, we had a different director.

Sitcoms have become very monogamous with directors.

It's painful for the rest of us.