Inside Jon Hamm's Fascinating Journey to Now: 'I've Survived a Lot in My Life'

He might have become a household name playing the mysterious Don Draper on Mad Men, but Hamm's life is just as colorful and unforgettable

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Jon Hamm is no flash in the pan.

As Don Draper, the magnetic, mysterious and impeccably dressed protagonist of the AMC hit Mad Men, Hamm has become a household name, a sex symbol, and a shorthand for describing classic, old-school cool.

Now, nearly five months after Mad Men‘s seven-year run came to an end and shortly before Hamm, 44, contends for the eighth time for a thus far elusive Emmy for portraying Don, it seems like the whole world is waiting impatiently to see what Hamm’s next move will be.

And yet, even as many eyes are on Hamm’s future, it turns out that his past is just as intriguing.

“I’ve Survived a Lot in Life”

Long before he epitomized the man that women want and that men want to be, Hamm was a self-described “nerdy kid” and a “voracious reader” who played three sports in high school. However, his early like in St. Louis was marred by tragedy: Hamm’s mother, Deborah, died of colon cancer when he was just 10 years old. Hamm and his father, Daniel – whom Hamm has described as a partial inspiration for Don Draper – then moved in with his grandmother. When Hamm was 20, Daniel passed away, leaving the actor an orphan.

“I’ve survived a lot in my life,” Hamm told PEOPLE in 2014. “I’ve had a lot of close calls with a lot of stuff. I think someone’s watching out for me.” Despite the sadness, Hamm doesn’t see himself as a particularly tragic figure: “Everyone’s got a sad story. I’ve had two good decades and two bad ones. No one was raised in Happyland. It doesn’t exist.”

Early Struggles in Hollywood

After attending the University of Texas, Austin, Hamm returned to his high school in Missouri to teach theater for a year. One of his students was Ellie Kemper, who would become his costar in 2015’s Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

“He was not ugly,” Kemper told reporters at the 2015 TCAs. “He was a wonderful teacher.” And she wasn’t the only student who gave him rave reviews: “I was in ninth grade, and he taught me the improv section of my theater class, and everyone loved him,” Kemper revealed.

Despite winning over his students, Hamm moved to Hollywood soon afterward and struggled to make rent as he pursued acting. In addition to waiting tables, Hamm picked up whatever work he could, including a a stint as a set dresser for soft-core porn movies, which he described to Vanity Fair as “soul-crushing.”

But even an appearance on a ’90s dating show didn’t make things any easier for Hamm in those early years. “There were a couple of years when I was living on $5,000 a year,” he told PEOPLE. “With that kind of poverty, you’re not buying food, you’re eating Ramen noodles and living off your roommates’ largesse. It was hard.”

Hamm eventually began landing paying acting gigs – though he wouldn’t land the role that made him a bona fide star until he was 36.

A Reluctant Sex Symbol

Maybe it was the suits, maybe it was the stern, no-nonsense attitude, maybe it was his ability to charm women both on screen and off, but once Don Draper was beamed into living rooms each week, women couldn’t get enough – and Hamm simply didn’t get it.

“It’s silly,” he told PEOPLE in 2014. “First of all, it’s completely arbitrary. Point me to 50 people online who think I’m super sexy, I’ll point you to 50 more who say, ‘He’s old and looks like my dad.’ It’s not universal. If you buy into that, you’re crazy.”

RELATED VIDEO: What If Don Draper and Selina Meyer Hooked Up?

A New Man

Once he slipped into Don Draper’s suit for the first season of Mad Men, Hamm became a legitimate leading and, after years of struggling to get by, understood just how special a role it would be. “I can only look back on it with gratitude and humility and be very pleased that I made the decision very early on to give myself over to this completely,” Hamm told PEOPLE shortly before Mad Men‘s final episodes aired on AMC in 2015. “Not a lot of people in my business get to work this long on something that they can be this proud of.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Hamm wasn’t ready to bid Don farewell for good. “It’s not easy to maintain that head space for a long time. You want to go home. And you want to wash it off and leave it at work,” Hamm admitted. Jennifer Westfeldt, Hamm’s former partner of 18 years agreed: “I think the darkness of Don has weighed heavily on Jon, despite it being the role of a lifetime and the opportunity that gave him the career of his dreams.”

Moving Forward

Leaving Mad Men has been just one of the tumultuous events that Hamm has endured over the past year. In March, Hamm spent 30 days in rehab to treat his problems with alcohol. The news broke in the midst of a press tour for the final season of Mad Men, forcing the normally private Hamm to address it publicly.

In September, Hamm and Westfeldt broke up after nearly two decades together. “With great sadness, we have decided to separate, after 18 years of love and shared history,” the couple told PEOPLE in a joint statement. “We will continue to be supportive of each other in every way possible moving forward.”

Though the couple never married, Hamm called Wedtfeldt “the love of my life” and often credited her with believing in him long before he became famous.

“There’s another person who’s actually sitting in the audience who basically told me when I wasn’t working that I was still talented,” Hamm said during an acceptance speech at the 2014 PEOPLE Magazine Awards. “And she’s stuck with me for the last 16 years, even if the talent question remains up for grabs.”

Now Hamm is yet again turning a page on his ever engrossing life story. Whether the next step leads him to a peak or into a valley, Hamm has shown more than a few times that he is well-suited – emotionally and sartorially – for whatever lies on the road ahead.

Reporting by AILI NAHAS

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