Mad Men’s Joel Murray on Freddy Rumsen’s Deal with Don and Playing Mozart With His Pants Zipper

Mad Men’s Joel Murray. Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty

The final season of Mad Men opened with a slam-dunk pitch not from Don Draper but Freddy Rumsen, the one-time senior account man at Sterling Cooper who was forced out after peeing his pants in the office during a bender. Redemption? Sort of. Freddy’s on the wagon now, but at the end of Sunday’s episode, we learn that the “It’s not a timepiece, it’s a conversation piece” was, in fact, Don’s idea, delivered with gusto by character actor Joel Murray. On the occasion of this semi-victory, Vulture spoke to the 50-year-old scene-stealer (who just happens to be Bill Murray’s little brother) about being called a sad guy by series creator Matthew Weiner, the craft behind Freddy’s memorable Mozart pants symphony, and channeling his inner Don.

That opening scene almost makes up for the pants-wetting, right?
When I read the script I was like, Oh my god — what the …? It was kind of a shock. They keep Freddy in the dark when he’s not there. It was very exciting to see he had the opening lines of the final season. What a great little Cyrano de Bergerac set-up with Hamm.

And it’s not like Freddy just recited Don’s words — he sold it.
It was strange staring right down the barrel of the camera. Elisabeth Moss was there, sitting behind the dolly grip, the focus puller, and the camera operator, but it opens up and I’m staring at the audience. It was kind of a weird thing to do. And it was a pretty good sized spiel. Jon Hamm has got a semi-photographic memory, and everyone’s so good about lines that you really have to come prepared. Despite how fantastic the show always looks, they don’t do that many takes.

How did you prepare? Were you channeling your inner Don?
I toyed with maybe mimicking his voice a little bit, but I thought it was kind of silly. I did kind of steal his cadence from some of the bigger pitches he’s had on the show. At least I thought I did. When I saw it at the premiere [at Hollywood’s ArcLight Theater], all I could think was, Oh my God, look at the size of that guy’s face! What is he, storing nuts for winter? But I got a couple pats on the back from people sitting around me. I’m always happy to be there in general. I’m happy to be invited to the parties, let alone be on the show. It is all so secretive, the scripts and all, I never know what’s going on in advance.

Any feedback from Jon?
At the party afterwards, he gave me the nod. He was kind of surrounded. I was with my son so I left him alone. John Slattery was very complimentary.

Has it been tough being on and off the show over these past several years, never knowing when or if they’ll need Freddy?
In season four, I came back from rehab with the Pond’s account and I thought, What a great counterbalance between Freddy, now sober, and Don Draper at his drunkest. He’s really hitting bottom, and I’m back! Then I did the first couple episodes of that season and I think the final episode. So just when you think you’re back…

Have you ever had a conflicting project booked when Mad Men has needed you?
It’s come close, but no, I’ve always been available. There’s also a bit of, they know they’re the best show on television and you’re gonna get there. They say, “This is the week we want you,” and you’re gonna get there.

It’s the final season. What’s the mood like on set?
You come out for a break and actors who wrapped three hours ago are still sitting around playing board games and hanging out on the patio. They’re just sitting around drinking wine and hanging out. Slattery and Hamm are two of the coolest guys to hang out with that I’ve ever met. I feel weird not leaving right away but then I realize, “Hey, you were wrapped ten hours ago and you’re still here!” They really do enjoy each other’s company, and there is a kind of melancholy. They know it’s coming to an end.

You’ve been on the show since season one. Do you remember your first audition? What did Matt tell you about Freddy?
The really odd thing about it was I had been writing with this friend of mine and he’s a tall guy, 6’4”, and he looks very much like Matt Weiner. When I went in to read, there were a bunch of writers in the room, and all of a sudden I saw my buddy sitting there. I thought, Wow, that’s great, I’ve got a shot at this. My buddy’s on the writing staff. Then I read one time and Matt stands up. All of a sudden he’s like 5’9” and it’s not my buddy.

Ha, that’s funny.
He starts giving me notes and I’m kind of in shock because he started saying, “You’ve got this sadness about you, you’ve got to go with that…” I’m like, “Actually, I’m a pretty happy guy. Nice wife, great kids, pretty happy,” and he says, “No. You’ve got this sadness.” Okay, sure — I’ve got sadness, if that’ll help. I’ve got boatloads! [Laughs] Freddy has always been a little bit of a tragic character. So the audition was pretty painless and Matt was complimentary other than telling me how sad I am. My first scene was with Elisabeth Moss, and I was in this incredibly tight suit. Matt thought it would be a good idea if Freddy’s suits never quite fit. I’m always in a suit two sizes too small to show he’s not really making the money the other guys are. Some of the suits are a little threadbare.

Also unique to Freddy: He can play Mozart on his pants zipper.
People got quite a kick out of that. I play clarinet and saxophone, so I’m kind of musically inclined. I was practicing and I found that if you pull your pants up high it makes a higher note and if you loosen them it makes a lower note. So I was actually playing it. Before we did the scene, the sound guy was like, “Holy shit, you’re actually playing it! Hold on, let me get another mic.” He sets up a whole stand like I’m gonna be playing a cello or something. I’ve got all these microphones in front of my zipper and I played it. It kind of blew him away. The actor prepares.

Where did that story came from?
Robin Veith, who was one of the writers that season, said that that actually happened. It was Alan Alda originally. He did it at a party. All of a sudden he just started playing his zipper and you could hear he was playing notes. What a moment.

How did you feel when you found out that Freddy was getting the boot after peeing himself in the office?
In my acting life, I’ve had a few of these moments. I was on Shameless the first season, as Joan Cusack’s [character’s] husband. My script didn’t get delivered to the house, and I went in and asked about it, and they said, “Oh, yeah, you’ve gotta get your script from John Wells today.” Uh-oh. Sure enough, I’m jumping in an ice hole and killing myself. On Mad Men, it was the same thing: “Oh yeah, you’ve gotta get your script from Matt. Matt wants to talk to you.” Uh-oh. But I had so much to do in that episode. He wanted to make sure I had what he had in mind and was properly armed for the battle. It was just such a wonderful episode. They ordered it so the scene in the alley where Don puts me in the cab and sends me home was my last shot. We had had a few drinks by that point. It was like three in the morning when he said, “Goodnight, Freddy” and I said, “Goodbye, Don.” I was pretty sure that was it for me on the series. Even now, when I do an episode or two? After that, I’m in the dark. I’m watching like a civilian and I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Hopefully in the last seven [episodes] Freddy will show up. Somebody’s gotta go out that window. That falling man in the beginning — someone’s gotta go over that edge and I’m more than willing to take that leap.

What? No! That would be too sad. He already wet himself!
Matt told me that was actually a story from his career. He told me that a guy passed out and wet himself in the middle of a meeting. It was just a flick of a switch, all of a sudden the guy was spacing out. Functional alcoholic, but there’s a line…

I hated Pete for tattling.
Yeah, what a jerk. Peggy stood up for me. I do get a little pleasure out of the fact that now Pete’s character has this receding hairline. Before work every day, Vincent [Kartheiser] gets his head shaved back, and I laugh a little.

Mad Men’s Joel Murray on Freddy’s Deal with Don