The moment I picked up Rich Sommer’s phone call in late April, 30 minutes after our scheduled interview time, the actor from AMC’s hit drama series Mad Men was quick to apologize. He hated being late, he said, but had been playing a board game with a fellow cast member and simply lost track of time. I was immediately struck by his sincerity and self-deprecating sense of humor. It was obvious that the successful actor who was calling from his home in Hollywood, Calif., hadn’t lost his “Minnesota nice.” He was easily—and immediately—forgiven.
While Sommer has performed in numerous theater, television and film projects, he is perhaps best known for playing the unscrupulous character Harry Crane during all seven seasons of Mad Men, which was set in a prestigious New York City advertising agency in the 1960s.
During our conversation, we discussed Sommer’s career, his Stillwater ties, and the Stillwater Public Library Foundation’s May fundraising event, where he would be toasted as the guest of honor.
Sommer’s family moved from Ohio to Stillwater in 1986. He attended Stonebridge Elementary, Oakland Junior High and then Stillwater Area High School, where he graduated in 1996. During those years, his parents divorced and he split his time living with his mother and his father, who settled in an apartment located across the parking lot from the Stillwater Public Library.
How often do you come back to Minnesota?
Rich Sommer: We get back quite a bit. My wife [Mankato native Virginia Donohoe Sommer] brings our two kids back a little more often, but we are generally there five to six times a year. I have high school and college friends that we visit, as well as my best friend from third or fourth grade—she and her husband have a house in Lake Elmo, which has sort of become the meeting place for everybody.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re here?
RS: My goal is always to squeeze in a trip to Stillwater, even if I just drive downtown. Nearly 100 percent of the time I end up at the Daily Grind. I actually don’t do a lot of Stillwater nightlife. I was a bit of a square in that I didn’t ever drink, so we always stayed home playing games or watching movies. In fact, one of my best friends from growing up [is now] a pastor. We would cause just enough trouble—the guy in from Hollywood and the pastor—I think we wouldn’t make the right kind of splash if we blew it up downtown. So we try to keep a low profile.
Have you and your wife ever considered moving back?
RS: Definitely. We want our kids to have the opportunity to grow up the way we did. As much as I like Los Angeles, it’s not quite Minnesota.
How would that impact your career?
RS: It all depends on what happens next. We both have master’s degrees in fine arts (and are] interested in teaching acting at the college level, so that’s something that would definitely bring us back to Minnesota. But if, somehow, my acting went miraculously well, which neither of us is predicting, we’d love to live in Minnesota part of the time like Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange did when I was growing up.
Have you always been interested in acting?
RS: Yes. The only award I ever received in junior high was for my [ninth-grade] theater class. I was not a great student, so that’s the only time I ever got my parents the bumper sticker that said, ‘My kid is the student of the month.’ It was something I was always into. The fist play I was ever in was in kindergarten. I was Johnny Tremain in the elementary school production of The Life of Johnny Tremain, which was very exciting. I did church and school plays and [studied theater in Concordia College in Moorhead], but nothing professional until after college.
Memories of the Library
What is your connection to the library?
RS: A long time ago, they had a youth board and I was on it. We would organize the screening of Laurel and Hardy or a youth book club, and things like that. And then [for seven years after my parents divorced,] I was at the library constantly. Summers meant just walking across the parking lot to get a movie or more books. Fast-forward, one of my other [childhood] best friends, Matt Thueson, contacted me about the possibility of coming back to do a community fundraiser of any sort. [He suggested the library.] I was really excited about that idea because I spent so much time there and it really is a place that I have a lot of good feelings about.
How does it feel to be acknowledged as a special guest at the library event?
RS: I’m really excited that they’re giving me the chance to come back. I remember standing in line at the library when local authors would visit. I would buy their book and they would sign it, so it’s very odd to have my name on the event flier. It’s exciting, too, because no matter what happens out here in California with my job, nothing can ever take away those feelings that you had as a kid. I’ve had some incredible opportunities and have met some amazing people, but nothing quite compares to going back to those places that I hold in such high regard.
How does a young guy from Stillwater go on to join the cast of a hit drama series?
RS: It’s hard to put it in a nutshell. What is it that they say? “Luck is opportunity meets preparedness”? The only thing I had control over was to be ready if the opportunity ever presented itself. It’s been a series of coincidences and meeting people who gave me a chance. Anyone will tell you there is no single answer, and I’m still trying to figure it out now that Mad Men is over. It’s challenging and exciting. We’ll see what happens.
SCV: How does it feel to be part of a cast that has received so many accolades?
RS: My goal was never to be on a big show. The goal was always to make my living acting, whatever that meant. If that meant somehow, someday, getting roles at the Guthrie—which still remains a dream job—that would have been just fine. If that meant becoming a regional theater actor and touring the country, or cobbling together small roles on TV, that would have been unfathomable to me in the beginning. It still is sort of unfathomable that this is how it ended up working for now.
SCV: Is this how you imagined it would feel to be a professional actor?
RS: I had hoped that at some point I’d feel some security, but I now know that there never will be. [The feeling that every job will be the last job] is a very real and terrifying feeling. But of course it’s better in a million ways because I set a lofty goal to make my living by acting, and the way in which it has gone has so far has exceeded any plans I set for myself.
Getting Into Character
Can we talk a bit about Harry Crane’s fashion sense, or lack thereof?
RS: Of course!
What did you think when the show’s costume designer, Janie Bryant, wanted Harry’s clothes to represent the “Peacock Era” of the ’60s?
RS: As an actor, one of the most pleasing things to do is to put on something so ridiculous that when you walk into a room every character looks at you like you’re an idiot and every word you say is firmly sticking your foot in your mouth. It was always a delight. I do miss that.
Was that your real hairstyle and sideburns?
RS: All mine, except the sideburns. The way it was cut made it difficult to wear it any other way in my day-to-day life, so I wore a lot of hats during that time …
Would you like to see any of Harry’s fashions make a comeback?
RS: No! Would you? It’s a nightmare.
How do feel about the final episode [aired May 17]?
RS: To me, it feels like a natural conclusion to the show. I think every character follows a pretty natural trajectory, which makes sense, so I’m very pleased with it.
(From L to R: Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) in the award-winning series, Mad Men.)
Love for a Library
The Stillwater Public Library Foundation was established in 2007 to raise funds to enhance the materials, programs and services of the city’s beloved library, which was built in 1902 with money provided by Andrew Carnegie.
“It amazes me how many people describe the library as being a treasure,” says Ann Wolff, president of the foundation. “Not only is it beautiful and unique, but it welcomes people of all ages and abilities and does so freely and openly, without cost. That’s what we’re supporting. We help give it that extra boost so the opportunities are rich.”
The “Rich Sommer Mad Men” event was a tremendous success, selling out with approximately 240 people in attendance and raising more than $11,000, which will go toward the foundation’s ongoing efforts. “We have given over $100,000 in direct grants, and we host events in the space that generates additional funding [for the library],” Wolff says. The foundation also supports an event coordinator, who oversees the events as well as the work of volunteers, who contributed 2,500 service hours last year.
Thinking back to the May 9 event, Wolff says, “Rich was just delightful. Everyone had the feeling that he was a special person, and the library was special to him; it was an all-around wonderful connection.”
For those interested in getting involved, the library welcomes volunteers with varying skills, such as events, grant writing, nonprofit work or any other talents and interests.