10 Things We Learned About 'The West Wing' 10 Years Later
By Angelique Jackson and Meredith B. Kile
Photo: Warner Bros. Television
It's an election year in 2016 and the staffers of the Bartlet Administration are back in action!
The team that brought us The West Wing reunited at the ATX Television Festival last week to celebrate the hit series, 10 years after its finale, and share behind-the-scenes secrets.
The Emmy-winning group included West Wing creator and executive producer Aaron Sorkin, executive producer and director Thomas Schlamme, and stars Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Dulé Hill, Joshua Malina, Janel Maloney and Melissa Fitzgerald, with executive producer Lawrence O'Donnell leading the conversation. The reunion was epic for superfans, casual viewers and new converts alike, and we're breaking down the top 10 things we learned from the epic meetup.
1. The West Wing Almost Didn’t Happen, But Was Saved by the Internet
Brace yourselves. We almost lived in a world where the only West Wing was the one in Washington D.C.
While discussing the show’s origins, Sorkin revealed that the NBC drama came "very close" to never being made. The West Wing creator, who also penned 41 episodes over the show’s first four seasons, explained that "a few minutes" after he finished the script for the pilot episode, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.
“We were OK sitting on it [after that],” Sorkin admitted. “[We knew] we simply can’t do this right now. People will giggle.”
Even after the network began production on the pilot, initial screenings drew lukewarm reception and the show’s tendency towards verbosity over dramatic action had some execs worried.
“‘This is just people talking,’” was a note Sorkin recalled. “They had trouble with that.”
In order to sell NBC on the series, Sorkin said, Warner Bros. Television invented four new demographics, all of them categories in which a cerebral, politically-focused show would excel: households earning more than $75,000 per year, households with at least one college graduate, households that subscribe to the New York Times, and most importantly -- at least in terms of ad revenue during the 1999 dot-com boom -- households with internet access.
"That’s what got us on the air, and if you were to go back and look at the episodes with the ads in them… well over half of our ads were for dot-coms," Sorkin revealed. "I'm grateful to the internet for getting this show on the air."
Looks like much-maligned Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) got one right after all: The internet, it’s not just a fad.
2. After Leaving the Show, Sorkin Never Watched It Again -- on Larry David’s Advice
Sorkin left The West Wing after the fourth of seven seasons and admitted that he hasn’t seen an episode since, and has no idea how the series ends. He also revealed the inspiration for the decision, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm mastermind Larry David, who got in touch with him out of the blue after the news broke of his departure.
"Larry David left Seinfeld early too, and he said, 'Listen, this is very important — you can't ever watch the show again,’" Sorkin recalled. "Either the show is going to be great and you're going to be miserable, or the show is going to be less than great and you're going to be miserable. Either way you're going to be miserable."
The Newsroom producer admitted that he initially dismissed the advice, joking with the audience that David is “professionally miserable.” He revealed that asked to see the season five premiere anyway, but didn’t get very far.
"I put it in my VCR, I don’t think twenty seconds went by," he recalled. "I’m sure that it was great, given this cast and given the people who came in behind me and given [executive producer] John Wells. But it just felt like I was watching someone make out with my wife. It felt horrible. I couldn’t do it again."
As for any fans who speculated that Sorkin left "story grenades" in that season four finale, he says that wasn't his intention.
"[I was] trying to set the table for the people coming in. I didn’t want them to have to come back that July with a completely blank piece of paper. I wanted to make a clean break of it and let them make these decisions," he explained, to the agreement of O’Donnell who said he rejoined the show for season five based on the opportunities created in the season four closer. "I was absolutely not trying to burn the Earth. I was trying to seed it."
Practically every actor in Hollywood had a role on The West Wing during its seven seasons (over 1,600 credited actors appeared during the show's 155 episodes), to watch the show now is like leafing through yearbooks from the last two decades of network TV. But during the discussion, the cast reminisced about a very special musical guest star -- Yo-Yo Ma.
The famed cellist appeared in the season two Christmas episode, "Noël," and Schiff recalled one of his favorite moments of the entire series when Hill -- a professional tap dancer -- asked Ma to play a classical piece so he could dance along during a break in filming.
“Before you know it, Dulé’s shufflin’ along to Yo-Yo Ma,” Schiff told the crowd. “It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen, anywhere.”
But Hill, who joined the cast when he was just 24, wasn’t just dancing during breaks (or backstage before the panel, O’Donnell revealed). He was also tapping his way through the scenes.
“Coming as a dancer to the television world, connecting to Aaron’s work, I heard the rhythm,” he explained. “I realized from the beginning that this was a dance.”
And the musical metaphors didn’t end there. The cast also compared the ensemble to an orchestra, with each actor as an instrument creating the music that is the show, after Schiff compared his character, White House senior staffer Toby Ziegler, to an oboe.
“Until everything else stops, you don’t know he’s even there,” the actor said of Toby, whose gruff exterior belied a deeply compassionate civil servant. “It’s also a darker tone, it’s an underbelly.”
“And it squeaks every once in awhile,” Whitford chimed in with a laugh.
During the Q&A portion of the event, a fan with multiple sclerosis stepped to the microphone to thank Sorkin for the show’s representation of the neurodegenerative disease and ask what inspired him to afflict President Bartlet with the condition.
Sorkin immediately apologized for how "glib" his answer was going to sound, explaining that the decision came while having lunch with Stockard Channing, who played First Lady Abigail Bartlet, after her first appearance on the show.
Channing told Sorkin that she was eager to continue appearing on The West Wing, and so Sorkin immediately started thinking up storylines for her character. He wanted to make the first lady a professional of some sort, eventually landing on medical doctor, and that idea dovetailed nicely with another plotline he had wanted to try: the president staying home sick.
“Whatever he’s got, whether it’s the cold or the flu, should also exhibit signs of something else that Abbey is worried about and comes rushing back from some trip,” Sorkin explained of his thought process. “I said, ‘Kevin [Falls, West Wing writer and co-executive producer], can you get the researchers on something? I need just the right disease.’”
After reviewing the research, Sorkin settled on MS, but admitted that he had no idea what the impact of that decision would be until he faced television reporters at the semi-annual TCA presentation, which happened to be scheduled for the day after the episode aired.
“All kinds of hands went up and said ‘Aaron, where are you going with the whole MS storyline? What’s going to happen now?’” he recalled. “And then I went, ‘Kevin, what’s going to happen now?’”
5. The Famous "Walk-and-Talk" Was the Brainchild of Schlamme, Not Sorkin
Before the panel began, attendees were treated to a viewing of the opening scene from the show's first episode, which features a long walk-and-talk from White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), a visual trademark of the Sorkin/Schlamme collaboration, which began on Sports Night before carrying over to The West Wing.
“I don’t write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed,” Sorkin said of that opening scene and Schlamme’s crucial “vision” of the show. “I will never forget Tommy coming into my office, as excited as a kid on Christmas morning, saying ‘Come with me, I want to show you something.'”
“He took me over to our set, which was still in the midst of being constructed...and he took me by the hand through the choreography that you just saw there,” he continued. “That wasn’t me. I wrote the opening. Tommy found that.”
6. Janel Maloney Knew Donna Loved Josh From the Very Beginning
The epic love story between White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Whitford) and his longtime assistant Donna Moss (Maloney) is the stuff of TV legend: a tension-packed slow burn that finally panned out for shippers in the show’s final season. But Maloney told the crowd that she knew it from the beginning, and used it to inform all of her choices as Donna.
“The whole basis of my character, before I even started on day one, was ‘Donna is drop-dead, head-over-heels, 100 percent would die for Josh,” she told the crowd, to a round of applause. “Every file I signed, every policy I asked about, the subtext was ‘I just love you so much, I would do anything for you at any moment.’”
As for one of the pair’s early swoon-worthy moments, when asked about the iconic “I wouldn’t stop for red lights” line, Sorkin admitted that the heartfelt declaration -- which a fan called “the most beautiful way of saying ‘I love you’ without saying ‘I love you’” -- was simply “providence.”
“Most of the time I’m in agony when writing, it’s not going well, it’s too labored,” he said. “That scene wasn’t... I knew I was getting there. I felt wonderful, and I got lucky.”
While Sorkin admitted to the crowd that the two main characters he initially struggled the most with were Toby and White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), some of the actors had no trouble getting comfortable with their roles -- and with the real-life West Wing!
Schiff, who spent much of the panel munching on popcorn in true Toby fashion, remembered his first visit to the White House, when he was on crutches after injuring his knee. “I was hurting, my knee was killing me," he recalled. "And I went over to the striped couch, and I was about to jump on it to relieve the pain, and then I went, ‘Wait a second, we’re in the real Oval Office. Not our Oval Office, where we take naps. This is the real one.’”
8. Melissa Fitzgerald Is Now a Real-Life Civil Servant
While all the cast members admit that their time on the political drama had an indelible impact on their lives and careers, Fitzgerald is probably the most prominent example. After seven seasons playing C.J.’s assistant, Carol, the actress turned her career path to public service, becoming the senior director of Justice for Vets, an organization that promotes the creation of veterans treatment courts, an alternative to incarceration for members of the military who struggle with the transition home.
Fitzgerald even brought her former castmates (including Janney and Martin Sheen, who couldn’t make the panel) together for a PSA to support Justice for Vets, which also aims to provide military veterans with support and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse issues, aimed at reducing recidivism among vets who commit nonviolent crimes.
And that’s not the only good cause that’s brought the former West Wing crew back together. They’ve also teamed up for a real-life version of the show’s infamous “Big Block of Cheese Day,” where White House senior staffers answer questions from anyone who wants to ask.
Throughout the panel, there was lots of good-natured ribbing directed at Malina from the group, especially Whitford & O'Donnell. But the Scandal star didn’t take it lying down, firing back that Whitford was "just jealous, because I’m on a hit show that’s set in D.C. and for him, it's been a while."
Malina, who joined the cast in season four, stepping in as Rob Lowe was exiting the show, said he felt like his character, Will Bailey, was the triangle of the orchestra -- underrated, overlooked, underused but “an important part, nonetheless, of the whole.” To that, Whitford joked, "That must have been the annoying sound I kept hearing."
Nowadays, Malina looks back on his West Wing years via his podcast, "The West Wing Weekly," which he recently started with musician and composer Hrishikesh Hirway. Each week, the two review one episode of the drama (they’re currently about halfway through season one) and some of Malina’s old co-stars have already come on as guests to share their memories and behind-the-scenes moments from the filming of the iconic show.
The ATX panel was released in its entirety as a special episode of the podcast, and the group created an unforgettable moment for fans when Sorkin and Schlamme performed Malina and Hirway’s adopted closing, reciting the iconic West Wing lines, "OK? OK." as the entire theater replied, "What's next?"
The panel opened with a standing ovation for Sorkin from the cast and attendees, and from then on, the rest of the night was a total lovefest.
"It’s a miracle to get a job. It’s a miracle to get a job that’s not humiliating. It’s a miracle to get a job that is the creative experience of your life. It's a miracle to get a job that is the creative experience of your life that is about something," Whitford marveled of his years on the show. "Also, we were lucky because… we realize this is the first line of our obituary."
The West Wing creators shared well wishes from the cast members who couldn't be there including Janney, Sheen and Lowe, and the group also took a moment to remember Spencer, who died at 58 in 2005, during the show's final season.
O’Donnell referred again to the pilot’s opening walk-and-talk, calling Spencer a “Rolls Royce of an actor,” a term Schlamme dubbed “almost an understatement.”
“The man was a gentleman among gentlemen, besides being an extraordinary professional. He was such a loving man,” the director recalled, remembering a moment when Spencer “burst out crying” upon hearing a particularly poignant storyline.
“It has been written before that Martin was the father and John was the mother of this family that existed,” Schlamme continued. “There was a maternal, extraordinary, loving quality about that man that superseded the professionalism that he had. If you look up the definition of actor, you would see his picture.”
To close out the discussion, each actor shared a touching tribute, explaining what the show meant to them and Sorkin thanked fans once again. "The thing about television is, you never get to see the audience,” he told the crowd. “And I just want to tell you, it is great to finally meet you.”