A version of this story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
NBC executives stood before a sea of media buyers in Avery Fisher Hall 15 years ago this month and unveiled a series they hoped would defy television’s odds. The show, titled The West Wing, from Sports Night producers Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, would explore the personal and professional lives of those in the White House who worked directly for the President of the United States. And if viewers embraced it, the drama would become the first White House drama in the medium’s history to succeed.
The following May, that same Madison Avenue audience would rise to its feet when the West Wing cast, led by Martin Sheen, took the upfront stage, this time at the Metropolitan Opera House. “A standing ovation. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is a phenomenon,’ ” recalls Warner Bros. Television chief Peter Roth. Although the unapologetically liberal drama only would crack Nielsen’s top 10 one season in its seven, it was showered with awards (26 Emmys, including four best drama series wins), critical praise and a high-profile fan base that included President Clinton.
Over the course of its run, The West Wing weathered its share of loss, both onscreen (Rob Lowe departed midway through season four; star John Spencer died during season seven) and off (Sorkin and Schlamme exited after season four).
Here, the cast, creators and executives involved look back at the series that paved the way for a new generation of political series from Scandal to House of Cards.
‘I’D LIKE TO DO A SERIES ABOUT STAFFERS AT THE WHITE HOUSE …’
AARON SORKIN: I didn’t really know anything about television beyond watching a lot of it, and my plan was to come up with an idea for a new play or movie, but my agent wanted me to meet with John Wells, and I said, “Sure.” The night before the meeting, there were some friends over at my house, and at some point [Akiva Goldsman and I] slipped downstairs to sneak a cigarette. Kivi knew about the meeting and said, “Hey, you know what would make a good series? That.” He was pointing at the poster for The American President. “But this time you’d focus on the staffers.” I told him I wasn’t going to be doing a series and that I was meeting with John to meet John — I wanted to hear stories about China Beach and ER, and I especially wanted to hear about his years as stage manager for A Chorus Line. The next day I showed up for the lunch, and John was flanked by executives from Warner Bros. and agents from CAA. John got down to business and said, “What do you want to do?” And instead of saying, “I’m sorry, there’s been a misunderstanding. I don’t have anything to pitch,” I said, “I’d like to do a series about staffers at the White House.” And John said, “We’ve got a deal.”
JOHN WELLS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: I had a deal at NBC because they wanted me to continue to be involved in ER. So we developed West Wing there, but they didn’t want to do it right away. “The American audience isn’t interested in politics” and “there’s plenty of that on Sunday morning television” were some of the things I recall hearing. But I insisted on getting it made if I was going to stay with ER.
SORKIN: Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield were running NBC at the time the pilot script was delivered. Sitting in a meeting in Warren’s office with John, my sense was that the network executives were respectfully underwhelmed. Referring to one of the stories in the pilot that was about Cuban refugees fleeing to America on inner tubes and should we or should we not send the Coast Guard out to help them, one of the execs suggested that it might be better if [Bradley Whitford‘s character] Josh Lyman went out and saved them himself. I tried not to make it an awkward pause before I said, “You mean actually swim?” He said, “No, that would be ridiculous. I mean he rents a boat. A motor boat, a skiff, but the boat’s too small to get all the refugees on board and he has a moment like Oskar Schindler where he’s saying, ‘I could have rented a bigger boat! I could have saved that guy over there and those kids over there!” It was hard to avoid the awkward pause then because I honestly didn’t know if I was being messed with or not, and I didn’t want to insult the executive or appear to be difficult to work with (even though I badly needed the network to pass because by this point ABC had ordered 13 episodes of Sports Night) so I said, “That’s worth thinking about.” Sometime in the middle of shooting the first season of Sports Night, Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield were replaced at NBC by Scott Sassa, who took The West Wing out of the drawer.
SCOTT SASSA, THEN-PRESIDENT OF NBC ENTERTAINMENT, WEST COAST: I was inexperienced enough in that job that I didn’t know why I should not like it, so we set it up.
PETER ROTH, WARNER BROS. TV EXECUTIVE: I joined Warner Bros. in February 1999, and the script had already been written. My introduction to Aaron Sorkin was when I called him and said, “I think this is the most brilliant script I’ve ever read, but you should know that in the history of television, there has never been a successful series set in Washington, D.C., on broadcast television.” To which he said, “Why should I care about that?”
FILLING THE WEST WING
SASSA: It was one of the first shows greenlighted that season but the last one cast. One of the things we got crap for was not having enough minorities, but what people didn’t realize is we had offered Sidney Poitier the president role.
SORKIN: Those talks didn’t get far. Next was Jason Robards, but Robards was in bad health, and it was determined that if the pilot got picked up for series, he wouldn’t be able to handle the schedule. We also read Hal Holbrook and John Cullum, and they were both great, but one day John Wells called and said, “What about Martin Sheen?” I’d loved working with Martin on The American President but didn’t think we had a shot at him for this. A few minutes later Martin called and said he’d read the script and he’d like to do it. At the outset, I’d imagined that the president was a character we’d only see once in a while, and so Martin was originally signed to a contract that would have him appear in four out of 13 episodes.
WELLS: Martin was the highest-testing character in the pilot, by far. The network said, “We probably want to have more of him.”
SORKIN: I offered Brad [Whitford] one of the leads in Sports Night, but he was also offered a lead in a Carsey Werner show [Secret Lives of Men]. The Carsey Werner show had a guaranteed pickup and Sports Night didn’t, and Brad had recently gotten married and his wife was pregnant with their first child. So Brad, wisely, took the show with the better prospect of long-term employment. The Carsey Werner show was canceled.
BRADLEY WHITFORD (JOSH LYMAN, DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF): It’s hilarious looking back because my biggest concern [about doing Sports Night] was that Aaron, Mr. Big Feature Writer, would have nothing to do with the day-to-day writing. I always joke with Aaron — and it goes for Tommy, too — that The West Wing was a great show about democracy run by a couple of Kim Jong-ils.
SORKIN: I had no idea Rob was coming in [to read for Sam Seaborn], and once I saw that he was, I was determined not to cast him. Tommy, John and I were putting together an ensemble, and while it was all right with me that the president was being played by a movie star, I thought having one play Sam would throw the balance of the cast out of whack. And then he read the first of three scenes he’d prepared. I don’t remember the second or the third because he’d already gotten the part a page into the first, and I was thinking of stories for a character who has no idea he looks like Rob Lowe. “Pay him whatever he wants,” I said.
ROB LOWE (SAM SEABORN, DEPUTY COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR): Sam was the only role I ever wanted to play, and I was told that I would have to audition for it. My thought was, “Great.” When I’m given the ammo to kill in the room, I’m all about it.
SORKIN: I told Tommy and the casting directors, “We need someone like John Spencer” [for President Bartlet’s chief of staff Leo McGarry]. Tommy asked, “What about John Spencer?” Toby came down to a two-man race between Richard Schiff and Eugene Levy. Levy was fantastic — strong and sad and very compelling — but you couldn’t take your eyes off Richard.
RICHARD SCHIFF (TOBY ZIEGLER, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR): I ran into [Eugene] at a party years later and he told me, “I was sure I was going to get it because I put my ear to the door when you auditioned and I couldn’t hear anything.”
SORKIN: For C.J. [Cregg, press secretary] it came down to Allison [Janney] and CCH Pounder. The only thing I’d ever seen Allison in was Primary Colors, and she’d made an immediate impression on me with a simple trip on a flight of stairs. Pounder’s auditions were great, but looking back, it would be hard to argue we made the wrong decision casting Allison, who became the heartbeat of the show.
ALLISON JANNEY (C.J. CREGG, PRESS SECRETARY): I remember going back to the hotel I was staying in, the Montage, and I had a huge bouquet of flowers in my room. They were from Aaron, welcoming me to the pilot.
SORKIN: Moira Kelly didn’t have to audition; she was offered Mandy [Hampton, political consultant]. Moira was a joy to work with, a total pro who understood as time went on that for whatever reasons — and those reasons had nothing to do with her considerable talent — it just wasn’t working. She was a model of graciousness. Janel Moloney came in to read for C.J., but when it became clear that Allison was going to get the part, we asked her if she’d like to help us out and play the relatively thankless role of Donna [Josh’s assistant] because who knows? We may see her from time to time.
JANEL MOLONEY (DONATELLA MOSS, JOSH’S ASSISTANT): I was hostessing at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills called Il Pastaio, and I kept my job at the restaurant at first. But by the third episode, I knew that they were never going to get rid of me.
ELISABETH MOSS (ZOEY BARTLET, PRESIDENT’S DAUGHTER): The girl who was on The Wonder Years, Danica McKellar, was in the waiting room as well, and I was like, “I’m screwed. She’s totally going to get this.” [McKellar later was cast as Will Bailey’s stepsister in season four.] I was 17 at the time.
DULE HILL (CHARLIE YOUNG, PERSONAL AIDE TO THE PRESIDENT): I hadn’t done much TV, and I was definitely overwhelmed. But the first time I met Martin, he taught me the handshake that Laurence Fishburne had taught him during Apocalypse Now. The relationship that Charlie and the president had started [first began] offscreen with myself and Martin.
STOCKARD CHANNING (ABIGAIL BARTLET, FIRST LADY): I was on a layover in Calgary when my agent called. I was literally wearing hiking boots and a coat, changed planes and went to Los Angeles. The next morning, I was thrown into an evening gown on the set. Martin was sneaking a cigarette, and they shouted, “We’re ready for you.” We had to descend a staircase, and I said, “Hi, how do you do?” never having met him before. He said, “Oh, hello, we’ve been married like 35 years, and we have three children.”
‘I’VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR 40 YEARS; I’VE NEVER SEEN THAT HAPPEN’
GARTH ANCIER, PRESIDENT, NBC ENTERTAINMENT: It is rare in your career to see [a pilot] that absolutely must make it to air. The West Wing was one of those rare instances. The only challenge was NBC internal politics. Senior management was dead set against it: “Too liberal.” “Isn’t this Aaron Sorkin guy difficult to deal with?” The attitude was, essentially, you can put it on the air, but it’s on your head. I said to [Bob] Wright, “OK, let me meet with Aaron (and John Wells, who I already knew) and talk about how we can assuage your worries.” [Wright] was particularly upset at the Jerry Falwell look-alike in the pilot, who came off as uninformed on the Ten Commandments.
SASSA: We started having our writers meetings that summer, and the first meeting we have is for Third Watch, John Wells’ other new show with us. The room is packed, and they bring in these gigantic white boards — each episode has one. There are columns for A stories, B stories, C stories, and it’s done with color codes — firemen are red, police are blue, paramedics are brown — and they have these five boards filled out. Aaron walks in afterwards, and he’s got nothing. He goes, “Uh, well, I don’t know what this guy had for breakfast or where he went to school. This morning I woke up and said he’s a two-term governor from New Hampshire because it sounded good. That’s just how I write, OK? The script you have is what you have.” Now I’m terrified. And he was writing Sports Night at that time too. I said, “Remember we talked about fixing that Jerry Falwell thing, how’s that going?” He looks at me and says, “I’m not doing it.” So I sat there, and I had a bad, bad temper then, and I did the math in my head: He doesn’t have the greatest relationship with ABC management like Lloyd Braun, so if I start screaming at him, I’m going to be just like Lloyd, so I said, “Alright, that’s cool. No problem.” I got in my car and drove from Warner Bros. to NBC a block away, and the pages were already faxed. It was a test.
THOMAS SCHLAMME, DIRECTOR/ EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Before we aired, I remember talking to John, who had just talked to Peter Roth about how this was insane and we’d have to be more fiscally responsible. But then the [episodes] started coming in, and people started to see the kind of show that we were doing. It wasn’t that we didn’t hear from them at all. John shielded most of those calls, and then I would get them and shield them so that Aaron could continue to write.
SORKIN: Tommy created the look of the show, and then he ran the show. He took the heat for cost overruns when the cost overruns were because I was taking 10 days to write a script instead of eight. Tommy put his body in between heat and me.
WHITFORD: The hours on that show were so bad. I mean, just horrible. I remember going to Tommy and saying to him, “The invisible carnage of the unf—ed wives and the children not being read to is just wafting out.”
SCHLAMME: I think Brad thought of that line later and wished he had said it to me. (Laughs.) But I’ll tell you, it’s the truth. Fortunately, our children are still standing, though my three still call it “the West Wing years.” We were doing Sports Night and The West Wing at the same time, and Disney and Warners are five minutes apart. There was one Friday night deep into the season, and it was about 3:30 in the morning. What I realized was at Warner Bros., the massive lot where we did West Wing, there was no one else working but us. And when I went to Disney, another massive lot, where we did Sports Night, there was no one else working but us. And I thought, “Aaron and I might be the worst producers in the history of television.”
SASSA: West Wing didn’t become a hit until the second season. We had Friends, Will & Grace, ER, and then we had Law & Order — they all did better than The West Wing. It was not even in the top five shows on NBC in the first year, though the demographics were really strong. It wasn’t until the second year that it really took off.
ROTH: I vividly remember when the cast of The West Wing came out onstage at the upfront in May 2000. They got a standing ovation. I’ve been doing this for 40 years; I’ve never seen that happen — nor do I ever expect to see it happen again.
In its first season, The West Wing won nine Emmys, including outstanding drama series, the first of four consecutive wins in the top category.
SORKIN: Martin had to be convinced to submit himself in the best leading actor category instead of supporting actor. He felt it was an ensemble and that there was no lead on the show and that to submit himself for leading actor would be an insult to rest of the cast and particularly John Spencer. It was only after telling Martin that he might be taking a supporting actor nomination away from John, Richard, Brad or Dule that he agreed. It was for the same reason that Allison did the opposite. After winning best supporting actress two years in a row she wanted Janel or Stockard to be recognized, so she submitted herself for best leading actress and then won that too.
KEVIN FALLS, CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: When Sports Night went down, Aaron asked me to run the writers room on West Wing, which was going into its second season. Our consultants were Marlin Fitzwater, Bush’s press secretary; Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s press secretary; Gene Sperling, Clinton and later Obama’s chief economic advisor; columnist Peggy Noonan. On staff was former Carter aide Pat Caddell and Sen. [Daniel] Moynihan‘s chief of staff, Lawrence O’Donnell. Eli Attie, a Gore speechwriter, came on in the third season. It was an intimidating room to be in, and I was very nervous my first day. Some of these people answered to American presidents and about the only subject I could address with confidence was when we’d break for lunch.
SCHLAMME: The first time we went to Washington, D.C., it was very difficult to get anyone to let us shoot anywhere. They just thought it was another bad political TV show. Then we came on the air and everything changed. I remember one night, Brad, Janel and I were shooting in front of the West Wing, and somebody had recognized Brad and said: “We’re doing night duty in the situation room downstairs. When you guys get done, come down and have a drink.” Next thing we know, we’ve wrapped and we’re in the situation room at 2:30 in the morning drinking vodka.
FALLS: The  Democratic Convention [in Los Angeles] coincided with the [peak] popularity of the show, and we had these big parties on our stage during the convention. One of the days an office production person said, “Hey, we’re going to take Martin to the convention. Do you want to go?” I thought, “I’ve got to do this.” So we go downtown, and we have to walk a quarter-mile to Staples Center, and as we’re walking, everyone recognizes Martin — hard hats, delegates, everybody — and Martin is embracing it. Martin thinks he’s president. He’s waving, signing autographs. It was surreal.
THE GLORY DAYS
SORKIN: The series began one year into Bartlet’s first term, and as we went on I began feeling like there were a lot of good stories that happened before the series began — like how they all got together in the first place — and I was looking for a way to start telling some of them. Also, the audience for the show, which started out relatively small, had been building all year. I felt like I wanted to re-pilot the show at the beginning of the second season — to write an episode for the newcomers. In March I went to Tommy with a sketch of an idea I had for the second-season premiere and he was pretty startled because he was used to getting information about an episode two days in advance and not six months. He liked the idea, and I started working backwards from there — having the season-one finale set up the season-two premiere and so on. Except by the time we started filming the season-one finale I still didn’t know which one of the characters was going to be shot, so Tommy had to shoot that exterior scene in Rosslyn, [Va.] — the attempted assassination — in such a way that it wouldn’t disqualify anyone. And instead of shooting both the last scene of the last episode and the first scene of the first episode all at once — which would have made sense — Tommy had to go back and re-create every square foot of every frame in the scene. Tommy, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I think in the end it turned out good and you won your 148th DGA Award for it but, again, sorry.
WHITFORD: I remember in Washington, when we shot the scene at the end of the first year. We knew that somebody was going to get shot, and I remember Aaron saying to me, “I think it’s going to be you,” which just scared me.
SORKIN: His fear didn’t last long. After the table read I said, “Do you want to know why it’s Josh?” and he said, “Cause you wanted your friend to win an Emmy?”
WHITFORD: I hadn’t told anybody, and I remember I called my mom, who has since passed away, on the East Coast the night it aired and said, “I just want you to see the beginning of the show.” I remember her screaming and hanging up on me when she saw it was me.
FALLS: Kathryn Joosten, who played Mrs. Landingham, would have probably survived the run if she hadn’t decided to step out and smoke a cigarette with Aaron and me at an awards show. She told Aaron that she was up for a pilot test, and since she wasn’t a regular he knew he couldn’t hold her. At first I could tell Aaron was bummed, and then after she walked away he turned to me and said: “We’re going to kill Mrs. Landingham …” He wasn’t angry, he was just happy he had a story, and it became the crux of “Two Cathedrals,” where, ironically, Bartlet crushes his cigarette on the floor of Washington Cathedral after a tirade pointed to the heavens where he questions, among other things, a God who would take someone like Mrs. Landingham.
SORKIN: We shot the service at the National Cathedral, and during rehearsals there were a number of clergy standing around watching. I walked up to a priest who was standing nearby and said, “Excuse me, Father? I think you should know that in the scene we’re about to do Martin Sheen is going to curse at God.” He smiled and said, “I know, it’s gonna be great.”
TROUBLE IN CAMELOT
In April 2001, Sorkin was arrested at the Burbank airport with a carry-on bag containing marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and crack cocaine.
SORKIN: Tommy and I called the cast and crew together the morning after I was arrested. I told them what happened and that I was guilty and I apologized for embarrassing the show. They seemed more concerned with my health than with unwanted attention, but that didn’t surprise me.
WHITFORD: It happened the day after he finished the [second] season, and one of the things that has saved him in that struggle is his writing. Look, I had known he had struggled with this stuff before, and I was terrified for him. I remember saying to him, and it was very emotional, but I said, “Don’t jeopardize all of this. It’s a sweet life you have ahead of you.” There were a number of people in the cast [including Sheen and Spencer] who struggled with those issues and that was harrowing.
SORKIN: Most of the cast had lowered their quotes considerably because it was an expensive show with an uncertain future, but after two seasons, the future was more certain and some of the actors wanted to renegotiate their contracts, which is both reasonable and common. What wasn’t common was that it wasn’t every man for himself: John, Allison, Brad and Richard wanted to negotiate as a group, and they all wanted to be paid the same. Brad said, “I don’t want to be doing a scene with Allison and know that I’m getting paid more than she is because I have a previous quote and she doesn’t.”
JANNEY: It was a very, very scary time to go through that renegotiation period. I really don’t enjoy that part of the business. That’s why I hire lawyers and then managers and agents. I said, “I am going to go crawl under a rock; let me know if I can come out.”
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
FALLS: Everything we came up with just paled in comparison to what was happening in the world. “Isaac and Ishmael” [a stand-alone episode that for the first time addressed the news] was an effort to be relevant as it pertained to 9/11, but I think doing that every episode would have been a mistake. So it became something that was there, that was the new world, but we never mentioned real historical figures during that time. The show managed to go on for five or six years, but nothing was the same after that.
SORKIN: Because our characters lived in a parallel universe, as opposed to the characters on Mad Men who live in historical fiction, our characters were the only ones not affected by 9/11, and that was a problem.
SCHLAMME: The Clinton administration was unbelievably generous with us and very helpful; then the Bush generation came in, and though we had our fictitious president calling the new president a white-knuckled drunk doesn’t help open doors, it was 9/11 more than that. Whether it had been a Gore administration or a Bush one, all doors were shut to us — and they should have been after 9/11.
A FEW DEPARTURES (AND A NEW FACE)
The fourth season (2002-03) brought several exits from the West Wing family. First, Lowe decided to leave, reportedly over money and screen time. As big a blow as it was, it was nothing compared to the departure that would follow.
LOWE: It was one of those moments that I think people have where you can stay static or you can invest in yourself, and both choices are legitimate choices. It just depends on what kind of person you are. And here’s what would’ve been the worst thing: to stay on The West Wing only to have Aaron leave like he did.
SORKIN: Tommy, John and I did everything we could to try to change his mind, but Rob had his own plans, and after he gave us his best for three-and-a-half years, we wanted the best for him.
WHITFORD: There’s a natural anxiety when you’re lucky enough to be on a show that’s taking off to wonder who the show is about. And it became very clear that it was about all of us and that there was tremendous strength in that. I think that where Rob was in his career, he felt like it needed to be more focused. He needed to be elite. I thought it was a mistake.
JOSHUA MALINA (WILL BAILEY, DEPUTY COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR): I read that Rob Lowe was thinking about leaving, and I really needed a job. I sent [Aaron] an email, the contents of which basically were: “What about a less well-known, less good-looking actor who would work for less money?” It was shameless, but to my surprise, Aaron’s response suggested that he had already talked to Schlamme about the idea. I drove to meet him at the Four Seasons for lunch, and he said, “Here’s the character I’m thinking of for you.”
SORKIN: Tommy and I had been discussing our exits from the show since the third season. It was an impossible decision because we’d built a home for ourselves and even felt like we kind of had kids — although by then we both actually had kids — but we also knew that it was time to do whatever we were going to do next and give the show to fresh legs. On a rainy day in late March, we asked our publicists to work with the publicists at Warners to draft a press release. We gathered the cast in the Roosevelt Room and told them that this was our last episode. We didn’t plan it this way, but the next scene they had to shoot was Bartlet resigning and John Goodman being sworn in.
SCHLAMME: When that decision was made, it was very quick. We’re talking 24 hours. I remember it being an unbelievably difficult thing.
JANNEY: We all felt kicked in the stomach. We felt like we were being abandoned by our parents. We didn’t understand it, we didn’t want it to happen and there was nothing we could do about it.
SCHIFF: I pitched an idea to both to them: “You know what would be amazing? If we lost [the election]. Just imagine. No one would be expecting it. We would lose and we’re gone. That’s the end of it.” Tommy said that was actually an amazing idea but the network and studio would never go for it because they have to make their money back.
ROTH: It was a very difficult experience for all of us. The only thing that mitigated it was the fact that we had John Wells, who brilliantly took over. I’ve thought a lot about what happened during the course of it, things like overages and late material, and you ask yourself: “What happened?” When I really think back, what happened most especially was the country changed post-9/11.
WHITFORD: We were like Branch Davidians and David Koresh left. I think John would tell you that he felt like the first year after Aaron left that we tried to do the show the way Aaron would do it, which was a mistake. But I remember John gathered us all there [after Aaron and Tommy had left]. He stood up and he said, “Jesus, I feel like Ethel Merman‘s understudy.”
WELLS: We were all scared to death. The obvious concern that everybody had was, would the quality suffer dramatically while we were trying to learn on our feet how the show was going to operate without Aaron and Tommy? There were episodes that I thought we did very successfully and then ones that were kind of pale imitations. I remember saying to [Aaron] when I took over: “Aaron, you wrote a cliffhanger. What happens next?” And he said, “I haven’t any idea.” That wasn’t a good moment.
SORKIN: At the time I’d been reading stories about Rapturists — people who want to hasten the end of the world by creating the appearance of an international incident so that there’d be an international incident. I decided that’s what happened to Zoey but we wouldn’t know that until the start of next season. In my mind, Nancy McNally [Anna Deavere Smith] was right when she said we’d find Zoey tied to a chair in the back of a muffler shop upstate. But I wasn’t as interested in the thriller aspect as I was in the suddenly powerless president whose daughter’s life is in danger. Are he and his wife being kept under guard in the East Wing? Blair House? A hotel? And what if Bartlet didn’t like some of the commands that were being given by his temporary successor and he gave Leo a contradictory instruction? Would Leo be loyal to the Constitution as Bartlet promises his Cabinet he will be? What if Josh or C.J. or God forbid, Fitzwallace [John Amos], decides to be loyal to Bartlet? In my mind we’d explore all those things over the course of one long night-into-day-into-night at the White House. When I left the show I didn’t leave any instructions or last wishes. I wanted John and the new writers to do what they wanted and not have to write someone else’s idea.
MOSS: I spent that whole summer with people coming up to me on the street in New York and being like, “Are you going to be okay? Are you alright?” and I was like, “Well, I’m fine now. I’m having a good summer, thank you.” I didn’t know [what was going to happen].
WHEN THE CAMERA WAS OFF
LOWE: I can remember vividly doing one of those unending Oval Office scenes. That was always the Bermuda Triangle for us. We died there. Aaron learned the first year not to put all of us in a scene there, and if you watch the show, after the first year you saw less and less of all of us in the Oval.
SORKIN: It would get rowdy in the Oval Office, especially at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning trying to shoot a nine-page scene with 11 actors, one of whom blows his one line on page eight. But I wrote them anyway because I loved them. The worst offenders were Richard and Allison. If they had a scene together they’d be serious geniuses for three takes and then they’d lose it. It got to the point that where we were doing single coverage, we’d have to move one of them out of the room. Many of the best moments of Toby talking to C.J. are Toby talking to the Script Supervisor.
SCHIFF: When I am on that borderline of emotional intensity, I can trip over into hysterical laughter at a moment’s notice. Somebody says something the wrong way and I’m off on a 45-minute laughing binge that the crew starts hating me for. This was a pattern of behavior that went on for many years on The West Wing because there was a lot of very emotionally intense stuff.
JANNEY: Richard Schiff and I would constantly think of terrible ways to spend our time waiting to work. We started doing just ridiculously silly things in my trailer like playing air guitar and lip-syncing to crazy songs. We made Aaron come in to see us do “The Jackal,” and then he put it in the show.
WHITFORD: Josh was the perverse one on set. He’d set everybody’s iPod to Mandarin, or you’d be reading a book on set and the last four pages are torn out. And he had no sense of proportion. One day I am doing a scene and there’s a big crowd of people and Jimmy Smits comes over and he hugs me and goes, “I love you too, man. And those flowers were amazing and the letter means so much to me.” Josh had snuck into my trailer, gotten my stationary and written a vaguely homoerotic thing to Jimmy about working together.
MALINA: I would, with great frequency, find my way into Brad’s trailer when he wasn’t there, just to see what I could do. He’d keep weird, life-affirming Post-its on his mirror and I’d change them into horrible insults. Janel came to me one day and said, “We should send some sort of bouquet from Brad to Jimmy for Valentine’s Day,” and I thought, “Oh my god, that’s brilliant. Plus, I have personalized stationary, which will certainly add artistic verisimilitude.” We bought something ridiculous like three dozen roses to be delivered to Jimmy.
WHITFORD: I remember I had a check written for $3,000 to the guy who was editing the In Memoriam reel at the SAG Awards because I thought “How great, let’s kill Josh.” But the guy chickened out. So when I wrote my second script, Josh had to say several times on national TV, “I’m a terrible actor. I can’t act.”
MALINA: The entire cast was on the Ellen show just before or just after the airing of the final episode. We were all interviewed together, and at the end there was a cake for each actor with our names on it. They were about to role the credits and I caught Jimmy whispering to Richard Schiff, “I’ll give you $5,000 if you smash that cake into Josh’s face.” I instantly started running. I didn’t really care that I was on TV.
The seventh and final season of the show split its focus between Bartlet’s last year in office and the presidential race between Jimmy Smits’ Congressman Matthew Santos and Alan Alda‘s Sen. Arnold Vinick.
JIMMY SMITS (MATTHEW SANTOS): I was in New York doing Shakespeare in the Park [Much Ado About Nothing], and I had gotten a couple calls from my team that John Wells wanted to have a conversation. This was a year after Sorkin leaving, and I’m not going to say there was a slump in the show, but I think they wanted to mix it up a little.
WELLS: We were very lucky to get Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda to come and work. And then I made a phone call to Rob [about returning at the end] just because you want to give fans some sort of closure to it.
LOWE: It was a very easy decision because I loved the show. I always did, and I also just wanted Sam to be there for the end. But The West Wing, with all due respect to everybody, is Aaron, full stop. I turned it on once [after I had left] and saw a flashback to when John Spencer [Leo] was a young man wading through a rice paddy in Vietnam. I thought, “You know, I don’t think I’m really going to watch much more of this.”
MOLONEY: We had joked about [Josh and Donna getting together] with Tommy and Aaron, but I think all of us knew that it wasn’t going to happen until the very end. And it was so much better than I would have imagined. I was always afraid it was going to be a “very special episode of West Wing” and something schmaltzy, but it wasn’t. I don’t think Aaron ever watched the show when he stopped writing it, but I think he would’ve enjoyed how it was done.
SORKIN: I was always scared to get Josh and Donna together. I don’t know why. I know it was something the audience wanted to see and something that would make sense but I didn’t do it.
WHITFORD: Unlike in life, in television there’s nothing more boring than consummation. I remember thinking, “How emotionally constipated is this dude?” But I think they wisely held off. I remember we finished the scene where we finally end up in bed, and I said, “We need to reshoot that. I got shot in the f—ing chest, and there’s no scar.” We never reshot it and nobody noticed.
SCHIFF: Aaron wrote me a very lovely email saying that Toby is one of his favorite characters he’s ever written, and he talked about our relationship building that character. He said, “I’ve heard what’s happening to your character [Toby was fired and faced years in prison during season seven but ultimately was pardoned] and I’m so sorry.” And that’s how I felt: very sorry that they had chose to do what they did. They didn’t tell me in advance like Aaron and Tommy would have. Clearly they didn’t want to tell me because they were scared of my reaction to it. I would have talked them out of it because it was not in line with the six years of work that I built with that character. I was very, very hurt by it.
Another disaster hit the West Wing family, one it ultimately wouldn’t recover from: Spencer’s death of a heart attack on Dec. 16, 2005, days before his 59th birthday.
WHITFORD: I remember getting a call that John was in trouble. I was with him for quite a while after he had passed away. Stockard was there, too. And then I was a pallbearer at his funeral. You don’t want to exploit anything, but we all felt that honoring his character in the show would have been something he’d be comfortable with.
CHANNING: It was devastating. I remember the funeral episode, and I think we did two takes and we were just bawling. John died at Christmas and it was within a month or so that we filmed it. It was raw enough for all of us.
HILL: The episode where we actually had to carry his casket because his character had died … it was an empty casket, but it wasn’t an empty casket.
WELLS: I couldn’t get my mind around how to do the show without him. My heart kind of went out of it. I don’t know if NBC would have picked us up for another year, but I called them and said, “I think we’re finished.”
SORKIN: From time to time, my mind would wander to what a series finale would look like. I didn’t have any ideas — just an image. Bartlet, the now ex-president, would be in street clothes and a baseball cap and just blend into the crowd until we couldn’t make him out anymore.