It all started with a party. In the sixth episode of the third season of Mad Men, the offices of Sterling Cooper threw office manager Joan Holloway a surprise send-off on what was to be her last day in the office. On the same day, as the party raged on, new Co-Head of Accounts Ken Cosgrove announced that he had landed the business of John Deere, and the celebration suddenly included a John Deere riding lawnmower. In a high-rise. In Manhattan. The rest, as they say, is television history.
Also in attendance were the higher-ups of Putnam, Powell, and Lowe, the British agency that had purchased Sterling Cooper the season before, including a promising young executive named Guy MacKendrick, who was supposed to take over as the new chief operating officer. “Supposed to” is the key phrase in that sentence, because as you can see in the full clip, Sterling Cooper secretary Lois Sadler lost control of the mower and ran over his foot, sending blood and tissue and sock flying onto the faces of some of her shocked co-workers. It was abrupt and gory, and kind of hilarious, especially for a show not exactly known for its abruptness, gore or hilarity.
Since the episode aired — since the instant it happened on screen, to be more accurate — this moment has been one of the most memorable in the show’s entire run. With the first of the final seven episodes of the series premiering this weekend, we decided to look back and talk to some of the main players in the scene to get the full story. We spoke to the mower, Crista Flanagan (Lois Sadler); the mow-ee, Jamie Thomas King (Guy MacKendrick); and two of the actors who got sprayed with blood, Michael Gladis (Paul Kinsey) and Rich Sommer (Harry Crane); as well as showrunner and creator, Matthew Weiner.
What follows is a brief oral history of the infamous Mad Men lawnmower scene.
A Scene Intended To Lighten Things Up
“… and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s this new guy who comes over to take over the office and you’re going to run over him,’ and I was just laughing.”
CRISTA FLANAGAN (Lois Sadler): Somebody called and said, “Hey, we need you for tractor rehearsal,” and I had no idea what they were talking about because Mad Men doesn’t let the scripts out ahead of time. And I was like, “I don’t understand.” And they said, “We don’t know, you just have tractor rehearsal.” I kept thinking, do we all go to a farm? We must all go to a farm.
RICH SOMMER (Harry Crane): I thought this was where we jumped the shark. And I read it and was as shocked as I’m sure any viewer who watched the episode was. Totally didn’t see it coming. I remember saying to Michael Gladis and Aaron Staton, “Is this it? Is this where it happens? Is this where we did something so crazy that we’ll never be able to come back from it?”
FLANAGAN: I showed up at the studio, and there was a guy with a tractor in the parking lot, and he had set up these orange cones for me to practice driving. The tractor had a clutch and it was stick shift, and there was this whole thing happening. I could drive it, but I practiced in the parking lot and Rich Sommer and Aaron [Staton] came out. I remember them running out and saying, “Oh my god, do you know what you’re doing on the tractor?” And I said, “No, I have no idea what’s happening right now.” They were laughing, and they were like, “Oh my gosh, there’s this new guy who comes over to take over the office, and you’re going to run over him,” and I was just laughing.
MATT WEINER (Creator/Showrunner): The story was inspired by, how could it be that these people were so drunk all the time at all these parties and nothing like this had ever happened? But what I was really interested in was telling a story where it was about expectation, where you are anticipating something and it is completely removed. And are you changed by that?
FLANAGAN: Matt Weiner, so often, he came up to me right away and was like, “The episodes have been really heavy lately and so I wanted to lighten it up, and I thought of you.” [Laughs] I said, “Okay, that sounds about right.” I’m here to do something strange. And he was like, “Yeah, we just want a lighter moment here.” So, that’s kind of crazy that that was the lighter moment.
SOMMER: It was a long day obviously because there were so many moving parts, literally and figuratively. I remember they had a little trouble with the lawnmower, but we had trouble with everything because almost everything was a vintage prop.
FLANAGAN: This was a 1960s riding lawnmower, a for-real deal 1960s riding lawnmower, so the exhaust on it was crazy. Every time we fired it up, the room would fill with exhaust. Some kind of carbon monoxide alarm would go off, and then we’d have to turn it off, open up the sound-stage, and air it out. That became very quickly, “Okay, we can’t do this.” So, a couple of the set guys tied a rope to the front of the tractor, and what you see is the tractor is not actually on — I’m not actually driving it. What you’re watching when you watch the scene is a couple of guys pulling the tractor with me on it and me pretending to drive it.
MICHAEL GLADIS (Paul Kinsey): The day that we shot it is, and probably always will be, one of the best days I’ve ever spent acting on any set or stage. Rehearsals were full of giddy anticipation, and as for the actual shot of us getting blasted by blood, they were hoping to get it in one take.
FLANAGAN: I guess somebody else could have done it, but [my character] was such a ding-dong it was sort of perfect for me. I remember I put down my glass of champagne and walked over and was like, “Oh, I want a turn!” And then I got on there. I remember it was really hard. My skirt was really tight, and I had pantyhose. I was like, “Oh my gosh, everybody’s looking up my skirt.” It was just this crazy, crazy moment.
JAMIE THOMAS KING (Guy MacKendrick): It felt very calm and focused on set when we filmed the lawnmower scene. Since we could only do some things once, we had to get them absolutely right on the first take. We had one day to film all the stunts. It was rehearsed a lot and the stunt people had storyboards so we knew what shots we needed. It was very carefully planned and executed.
FLANAGAN: Just in general my part on Mad Men […], it was always like, Don Draper fired me, okay, so I won’t be on the show anymore. And then I come back. And then I would prank call Peggy and Peggy would yell at me. And then I was like, “Okay, so I probably won’t come back.” And then when they said I was going to chop this guy’s foot off with a tractor, I was like, “Okay, I can’t possibly come back after this.” And I did. [Laughs] So that was pretty funny.
There Will Be Blood
“So there was a lot of blood. Maybe some people think too much, but who cares. It was awesome.”
FLANAGAN: One of the first things we shot in that scene was the aftermath. I run over his foot and then there are four people standing there who get sprayed with blood. I remember that was a big effect that day and getting that right. How much blood? What are the pieces of the stuff that’s going to hit them? It’s obviously not human foot so, what is that? It was pretty funny.
WEINER: [Director] Lesli Glatter, being more experienced, told them that she would be spraying them with this stuff that was supposed to be coming out of the lawnmower that is pieces of foot and shoe and sock [laughs] and blood on the count of three, then arranged with the the special effects coordinator to have him do it on two. So, the actors were standing there doing their scene and she said, “One, two…” then it went off and that’s how she got that great look of surprise.
SOMMER: I remember the countdown, and they hit the button, it blew at us, then it was just silence. Then applause after it was done. It was sort of cold and sticky. There were lots of bits of cloth. I remember them saying it was torn up t-shirts or something to simulate the sock and the leg and the shoe and all of that. It was gross, and then we had to sit in it for it felt like two or three hours because we didn’t know if they were going to cover more of that angle. So, we had to walk around not moving our faces or hands.
KING: The one thing I will always remember is something that was too gory for the final cut, the prosthetic foot they made. It was amazing. It was so gory and gross, sliced up fake toes and blood spilling out of a mangled up shoe.
GLADIS: I do remember the effects technician pouring in the better part of a big bottle of blood, stopping, and calling out, “More?” and after a pause, a voice from across the room yelling, “Yeah!” So, there was a lot of blood. Maybe some people think too much, but who cares. It was awesome.
SOMMER: We really only got one shot at it. The one that’s in the show is the one that we did. We did a lot of rehearsal leading up to it. Nothing could really prepare you for the visceral nature of the effect. It was in our mouths, it was in our eyes, it was all over us.
GLADIS: I don’t get blasted in the face with fake blood very often. I don’t remember the moment, which is why I’m glad the cameras were rolling. That weird little arm gesture/flail was not pre-planned.
SOMMER: When it cuts back to Dale later, Joan or someone tells Dale to get someone or call someone. When he comes back, he has a little less blood, and they did that because it was so ridiculous how much blood was on him. I just loved how bloody he was after that initial splatter.
WEINER: We had done a lot of vomiting and some bleeding and car accidents, so this was a big stunt for us that required a lot of preparation.
Just Another Day At The Office
“People were calling me saying, ‘Oh, my god.'”
SOMMER: I should have had more faith in people who were creating the show because, obviously, they knew better what audiences could handle story-wise than I did. Story-wise, I’m an idiot. Knowing the resonance it had, not just through the rest of the series but culturally it’s, again, I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to story because it worked perfectly.
GLADIS: I don’t think I’ve ever read any reviews of any particular episodes, but I was shocked and kinda happy when the GIF of us getting splattered was everywhere. That one-second loop is probably the finest acting I’ve ever done.
FLANAGAN: I was on Mad TV at the time, and I remember my co-workers, I mean, I had been on several episodes of Mad Men before, and everybody, when they saw me, it was sort of a, “Hey, great job on the show!” and this was, stop everything. People were calling me saying, “Oh, my god.”
SOMMER: In the eight years of making the show, there were really only two or three days that felt like we were making an action movie. When Don Draper’s in Korea, the lawnmower scene, and, I don’t know, maybe a car crash.
FLANAGAN: It was all fun and games until somebody got hurt. Behind the scenes, it was a really good time. We knew it was funny, but it was funny and bloody.
GLADIS: I remember turning to Rich Sommer right before they started to roll and saying something like, “We have the best job in the world.”
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