It’s Jon Hamm’s most intense role in years, but you never see him. Then again, maybe you can picture him perfectly; the imagination’s the point—and what you’re imagining is horrifying.
In 1977, Indianapolis native Tony Kiritsis fell behind on mortgage payments. When his broker, Richard Hall, refused to give him extra time to pay, Kiritsis took him hostage. He wired the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun to the back of Hall’s head. The wire was also connected to Kiritsis’ finger on the trigger and then tied around Hall’s neck, something known as the “dead man’s line.” That meant that if anyone, like a police officer, shot or attacked Kiritsis, the gun would go off, killing Hall. The same would happen if Hall tried to escape.
The ordeal led to a 63-hour standoff between Kiritsis and police, which culminated in Kiritsis marching Hall through Downtown Indianapolis in plain sight and eventually staging a press conference that was among the first news events to be carried live on local Indiana broadcast stations and radio. As much as Kiritsis was a ranting, raving lunatic, his monologues and speeches, which were laden with expletives and punctuated with emotional outbursts and tears, helped him become “a goddamn national hero,” as he pronounced himself—or, if not that, certainly a captivating media star whose erratic behavior was grounded in something that rapt, disturbed viewers and listeners responded to.
They got to know Kiritsis over the course of those 63 hours because the kidnapper began regularly calling into the WIBC radio station requesting to speak to Fred Heckman, a journalist there that he had always admired. Heckman found himself in the middle of an unpredictable hostage crisis, navigating the demands of a man with his finger on a shotgun pointed at another man’s head. Those demands included Heckman putting Kiritsis on air, not just creating an unprecedented moment in Heckman’s journalism career, but allowing Kiritsis to become a sort of folk anti-hero in his own right.
“I’m from the Midwest. I’m from St. Louis. I was just like, ‘How have I never heard this story?’” Hamm says. “I was just blown away that I was unaware of it.”
The Mad Men star is talking to The Daily Beast over Zoom days after American Hostage, a new narrative podcast that dramatizes the events of that standoff, debuted on Amazon Music. He plays Heckman, the reliable, stalwart journalist who is frazzled when Kiritsis reaches out to him, and who then must steady himself in order to avoid a worst-case, violent scenario while still broadcasting the news to listeners.
It’s the kind of story that seems primed for a juicy TV adaptation, especially given the country’s current true-crime obsession. But Hamm actually found the podcast treatment better suited for the most visceral audience experience, which becomes even more resonant considering how much of Kiritsis’ story unfolded over the radio airwaves.
“In a weird way, you have so much more freedom when you’re telling the story of this kind of moment in time in the seventies,” Hamm says. “You have this ability to be freer with the narrative in a way you don’t have if it’s the seventies on TV and everyone’s in, you know, wide lapels and chunky ties and you’re stuck in that world. In an audio format, there’s so much more that your brain fills in.”
As you listen to American Hostage and learn more about the motivations behind Kiritsis’ actions—his frustrations with what he perceived as injustice, systems that failed him, and the helplessness of feeling voiceless—eerie parallels to today’s powder-keg culture begin to surface.
Media was different then. Again, live broadcasting was only just beginning, and the disturbing nature of the circumstances—at any moment a man’s brains could be blown out in front of a live audience—were considered so inappropriate for television that WIBC almost didn’t air Heckman’s conversations with Kiritsis. But what it meant to be in the spotlight, a “media star,” and what a person might want from that designation was also much different.
“In this day and age, someone would be monetizing this weird thing, but back then that was not the point of, quote-unquote ‘getting famous,’” Hamm says. “He did not want to be famous. He literally just wanted his story to be told. He wanted somebody to hear him. That’s obviously very different from the world we live in now, where people quote-unquote ‘want to be heard,’ but they also kind of just want to be famous for whatever reason. It’s gross.”
“He did not want to be famous. He literally just wanted his story to be told. He wanted somebody to hear him. That’s obviously very different from the world we live in now, where people quote-unquote ‘want to be heard,’ but they also kind of just want to be famous for whatever reason. It’s gross.”
Themes about the role media and technology play in shaping thought formation and attitudes certainly reverberate today. But perhaps more glaring are the echoes of emotion. It’s hard not to listen to Kiritsis’ rants, as dramatized by Power’s Joe Perrino, and not draw a parallel to the anger that simmered beneath the events of Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.
Those similarities prod at uncomfortable questions about the causes of such rage, whether it should be validated, and what happens when it’s ignored. When Hamm first listened to the recordings of Heckman and Kiritsis’ conversations, he was struck by how the sentiments beneath Kiritsis’ grievances “feel like it’s 100 years ago, but it also feels like it’s yesterday.”
Heckman may not be the showier of the two roles in the podcast, but Hamm’s voice is the grounding force that guides the listeners through the mayhem. It tickles Hamm that his voice telegraphs the specific blend of gravitas and comfort that are hallmarks of trusted newscasters. It’s yet another way the timbre of the actor’s voice has been capitalized on because it sounds inherently trustworthy. Think about all those Mercedes-Benz commercials, or, well, his turn as a talking toilet on the animated series Bob’s Burgers.
When we spoke, it was a few days before Hamm’s 51st birthday, which took place this week. When the conversation turns to this birthday, he laughs. “I guess the seasoning such, as it were, on my voice is finally taking hold.”