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The West Wing earned 26 Emmys and the respect of Washington’s elite.
But there were several points early in the Aaron Sorkin series’ run when the drama about the personal and professional lives of those working in the White House could have taken a drastically different turn. Bradley Whitford as Sam Seaborn? Considered. Toby Ziegler, the widower? Richard Schiff was sure of it. And a director other than Tommy Schlamme? He wouldn’t have had a choice.
The Hollywood Reporter conducted nearly two dozen interviews with actors, producers and executives affiliated with the series for a comprehensive oral history that sheds light on everything from casting the actors to bidding farewell to the series. Below are 12 things, including that time Alan Greenspan tracked down Whitford at the White House Correspondents’ dinner, that didn’t find their way into the oral history.
1. Politically incorrect
Had NBC executives been aware of the stranglehold The West Wing would ultimately have on the Emmys, they likely would have loosened up earlier in the process. But Sorkin’s liberal fantasy was potential cause for concern for precisely that reason – it was a liberal fantasy, airing on a “broad”-cast network that couldn’t afford to alienate half the audience. “At the beginning there was a lot of nervousness about a lot of things we were doing on the show,” said Sorkin, who recalls: “At the end of the second episode an Air Force plane carrying military doctors and medical personnel accidentally wandered into Syrian air space and was shot down. NBC got a strong rebuke from the [American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee]. A few episodes later, I wrote a throwaway line where Toby refers to Hebrew slaves in Egypt 3,000 years ago and I got a note back from the network’s legal department with the line circled and a note saying, ‘Please show your research.’ “
2. Making the walk-and-talk
Few things are as quintessentially West Wing as the walk-and-talk. Schlamme’s go-to transition from one scene to another (and often entire scenes on their own) found the cast traversing the labyrinthine halls of the White House while deep in conversation or debate. The producer-director says he got the idea from a two-night stay in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton administration. “I just remember watching everybody, and it just felt like there was so much going on,” he said. “I was in an office and we were waiting to visit the president with my son and my wife, and all I remember is [Henry] Cisneros came out, [George] Stephanopoulos was moving in there, and five or six people were coming in and out of meetings, and I looked down the hall and there were more people talking. … That memory jogged when I read Aaron’s pilot. That’s the way it should feel.
3. Putting “POTUS” into the pilot — and pop culture
It’s a term thrown around even more than commander-in-chief — hell, it’s even the name of a political radio station — but “POTUS” was not yet a common moniker for U.S. presidents during the early Internet days of the Clinton administration. “The only thing I had going for me when I started writing the pilot was that very few people at that time were familiar with the acronym POTUS,” said Sorkin, who employed the term from the start — and frequently. “That would be enough to get me through the opening and introduce some stories, but I was going to have to think of the stories. I had an idealistic tone in my head. In pop culture our leaders are almost always either Machiavellian or dolts, but I wanted to turn that on its head and make our people competent and committed.”
4. Gail, the immortal goldfish
Rarely mentioned, but always there, Gail the goldfish first arrived on C.J.’s desk in the series’ ninth episode. Her bowl stayed in the office for the rest of the series, with rotating aquatic decor to correspond to each episode’s theme. Allison Janney thinks it was the same goldfish every episode for seven years. “Don’t break her heart and tell her we went through a couple of hundred of them,” Sorkin told THR. But Janney is still in denial after hearing the news. “They never told me. I didn’t want to know,” she says. “As far as I was concerned, there was only one Gail and she worked from start of work to end of picture. She had a running contract and it was the same goldfish.”
5. Toby’s accidental ex
Schiff had a different relationship history in mind for his character than the writers did. After electing to wear a wedding band in the first episode, he created a reason as to why, and not because he was married. He thought of Toby as a widower that refused to take off his ring. So when the writers approached him later in the first year to tell him that they were writing his ex-wife into the story, Schiff had to adjust his background. He’d now just be someone who wanted to be married to his ex-wife with whom he was still in love. “When you’re doing TV it’s just very funny how you create this whole history for yourself and you find out in the next episode that you know your history was wrong,” he said.
6. Diagnosing President Bartlet
Stockard Channing (Abbey Bartlet) sat down to a lunch with Sorkin shortly after taking the job, eager to know more about her character. “I asked him, ‘What is she like?’ And he said, ‘I don’t work that way,'” she recalled, adding of the meal: “We sort of stared at each other because we really didn’t know each other, and he said to me, ‘Well, what would you think about being a doctor? Because I’ve finished the teaser, and I’ve given Martin a cold, and so I’m thinking maybe you’re his doctor. And I’m also thinking maybe he has M.S.” Had the lunch not happened before he had written the teaser, Channing is not certain Bartlet’s series-long M.S. storyline would have made it in.
7. Separation anxiety
Many of the castmembers talk of the post-Sorkin (and Schlamme) chapter with residual disappointment in their voices. As Lowe put it, “The West Wing, with all due respect to everybody, is Aaron, full stop.” But the shake-up wasn’t all negative, particularly for a cadre of executive looking to normalize an often-delayed schedule and lofty budget. “It became somewhat of a more predictable work environment because there was a group of people writing,” Janel Moloney acknowledged of the John Wells era that began in season five, before adding: “But there was an excitement to having Aaron and Tommy there and a kind of a headiness. We all really worshipped them and competed for their attention and their affection.”
8. Lost storylines and procrastination
Co-executive producer Kevin Falls was always more of a sports section guy, but he had to learn to read the front page for The West Wing. Occasionally Sorkin would have an idea for an episode, but often he relied on the stories the writers — many of them former White House employees — presented him. Sorkin would let the ideas percolate, and about 20 to 30 percent of the time they’d turn up in the story. “You can probably have 10 more seasons from the episodes that were rejected,” Falls said with a laugh. Though potentially frustrating for the studio, Sorkin didn’t write until he was ready. He’d be spotted on the Internet or laying on his couch for hours at a time, recalls Falls, and then suddenly he would get up, shut the door and write. “The thing that amazes me more than anybody that I’ve ever worked with is that act that came out of his computer was nine times out of 10 the act in the shot,” Falls added of the lack of revisions.
9. Life imitates art
Nielsen ratings and Emmy wins weren’t the only measure of impact for those on The West Wing. Everyone involved seems to have at least one life-imitates-art moment, whether it’s Elisabeth Moss (who played the first daughter) entertaining Chelsea Clinton during a set visit on the Warner Bros. lot, or Martin Sheen greeting hordes of fans as though he were president as he made his way into the Democratic National Convention in 2000. Whitford remembers being at the White House Correspondents’ dinner and being tapped on the shoulder. “I turn around and it’s Alan Greenspan with a face that is the result of trying not to express anything for decades,” he joked, adding: “And he said ‘I was very upset about the show last week.’ I said ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘The Fed chief died and no one cared.'”
For Sorkin, the one that sticks out came at the end of the first season when they were shooting exteriors in Washington, D.C., and he was called to the office of President Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. “He wanted to know why there was no national security advisor on the show, and I promised him I’d take care of that, and that’s how we all got to work with Anna Deavere Smith,” he said, continuing: “The next night we were shooting on a street in Georgetown and it turned out it was Madeleine Albright‘s street. She wanted to know why there was no secretary of state on the show. I told her I’d just had this same conversation with Sandy Berger. There was a pause and she said, “I run the freakin’ State Department!”
10. “Thank God for blow jobs”
It’s hard to imagine what The West Wing would be without Schlamme — the man responsible for the show’s look and feel — but it almost came to that. Schlamme received Sorkin’s scripts for Sports Night and West Wing on the same night, and upon reading them called his agent, Ari Emanuel, to say he was desperate to do both. Had both shot at the same time, that plan would not have worked, and Schlamme’s résumé would have made him a better fit for Sports Night. But NBC execs were skittish about West Wing, which Schlamme and others suggest had a lot to do with the state of presidential politics, which at that time was focused on the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“NBC decided to hold off on West Wing given the exhaustion that people were having with the administration,” recalled Schlamme, noting that that decision, which lead to Sports Night shooting first, worked in his favor. Sorkin and Schlamme bonded on the latter, and when NBC was ultimately ready for West Wing, Schlamme was the first choice. “We were already partners on Sports Night, so why don’t we do the same thing on West Wing?” he said, pausing: “Thank God for blow jobs.”
11. Whitford’s rocky path to Josh
Whitford is the first to acknowledge he nearly blew it during the audition process. “They wanted me to come in and read with Moira [Kelly] and I thought it was Moira’s audition, so I kind of turned my back. It was about just being the reader for her,” he remembered thinking. “I got home and got a call that Moira blew me off the screen. And I was like, ‘Was that my audition?'” Whitford took it hard, particularly since Sorkin had told him he had written the part of Josh for him, and now he was about to lose it. Trying to make it right, Sorkin suggested he could still be in it if he’d play Sam instead. (Whitford remembers a short-lived plan entailing him playing Sam and Rob Morrow playing Josh.) But Whitford balked: “I said, ‘Aaron, I’m not Sam. Sam’s the guy with the hooker in the first episode. I’m the guy who attacks the Christian right. I’ll do whatever you want, but I really think I’m Josh and not Sam.” In the end, Sorkin got everyone involved to agree.
12. The dramatization of randomness
Though Mark Harmon‘s arc as Simon Donovan, C.J.’s Secret Service bodyguard and love interest, wasn’t lengthy, it was long enough to garner a particularly passionate fan base, which included the female members of the West Wing crew. And none of them were too pleased when his character was shot dead in a Manhattan bodega late in season three. “Every once in a while I like to dramatize randomness. Things in stories have to happen for a reason.” (Mrs. Landingham had to die to get Bartlet to the edge of the abyss, etc.) “But sometimes I like to have something happen for no reason,” explained Sorkin, noting that Harmon’s character was born to die. “When setting Mark up for his last scene, the women placed the squibs in his suit were quick to point out to me that they’d put them in places where he could survive — and they let me know if I didn’t want my tires slashed he’d survive. I told them it was his destiny. They hit me in the head.”
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