The high-pressure junk-food sleep-when-you're-dead environment of grad school caused me to miss the first three seasons of The West Wing (and just about every other show, come to think of it). When I got to tour the show's set at Warner Bros. in May 2003, I didn't know Toby's office from Donna's desk or CJ's coat rack. I had, however, toured the actual White House some years earlier, and was amazed at the authenticity of the surroundings.
Little did I know, just a few months after that set visit, Bravo would start showing West Wing reruns and I'd be hooked. Addicted. So hungry for the show I'd curse the weekends when no reruns were scheduled.
The West Wing is one of those rare TV shows where all the disparate elements came together and coalesced beautifully. Producers John Wells and Thomas Schlamme helped creator/writer Aaron Sorkin tap into the cultural and political zeitgeist with intricate, unexpected plotting and simply killer dialogue. The deeply flawed but admirable characters were fleshed out by an incredible acting ensemble, which included Emmy Award-winner John Spencer.
Spencer, who died Friday here in LA, played White House Chief of Staff (and newly-announced VP candidate) Leo McGarry with a quiet dignity and grace. His craggy countenance was one of the best faces you could see on TV, and he could flip from tragic to comic with nary a change of expression. It's one of those fascinating faces every writer wants to write for. Spencer was a veteran actor for much of his lifetime (including a long stint on LA Law), but he never popped up on my radar until West Wing.
All good things come to an end, and The West Wing, as most shows do, has been declining for a few years now. Some say that when Sorkin left, the series lost its vision. I'm afraid that, in the sad absence of Spencer's Leo McGarry, the show may now find itself lacking a heart, too.
I envy the writers who got to churn out dialogue for a great actor like Spencer. But I'd hate to be in the writers' room in two weeks, when the holiday break ends and it's their charge to create a plot explaining why Leo McGarry suddenly dies.
Two weeks ago, as a gift for myself, I ordered the first two seasons of The West Wing. Amazon has 'em marked down to twenty bucks each, and they're worth it for the Christmas episodes alone, especially the first season's holiday ep, a moving tribute to forgotten war veterans that deservedly won an Emmy for Sorkin and co-writer Rick Cleveland. It's an episode that has joined the permanent ranks of holiday classics I watch each year, along with the original Grinch and Charlie Brown Xmas and Pee-Wee's Xmas Special.
And I'll take special time to rewatch those West Wing episodes centering on stalwart Leo McGarry, as he fights alcohol addiction, withstands a mean-spirited Senate investigation, and takes charge when the President and his entourage are felled by snipers.
And I'll be offering thanks for John Spencer's hard and heartfelt work. I searched around the web a while, looking for interviews that might give some insight into his personal life, about which I know nothing. I found this one where he talks about his antique collecting, and it shows a lucky, humble man who found a lot of enjoyment in his life. Reading it doesn't lessen the loss, but it lets me know John Spencer was a happy guy, and sometimes that's all we can ask for.