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Eric: Actors and Producers, and sullen critics: the end of the West Wing and the life of John Spencer

As many of you know, John Spencer -- the actor who played Leo McGarry on The West Wing -- died back in mid-December. I felt badly when I heard. Spencer's McGarry was sublime. It was the best acted, best realized character in a cast full of well realized characters. And John Spencer seemed like a good guy.

I didn't, however, do a retrospective of him. I often do, when people in the media I liked die (typically I frame things in In Nomine terms, which is I suppose as close as I come to religion). However, most of the time it's because the person in question is a writer or songwriter, not an actor.

See, I respect acting. I've acted before (and even been paid for it). It's hard, and it's emotional, and it's sometimes intense and sometimes brilliant. I've seen some truly astounding acting in my time.

And yet, I'm a little nonplussed by it. I'm nonplussed that the "Best Actor" awards on award shows are given so much higher consideration and attention than "Best Writer" awards. Acting is a performance. Sometimes nuanced, sometimes brilliant, often or even nearly always interpretive and creative, but it's putting on the role that someone else created. It's speaking someone else's words. And all too often, that absolutely brilliant performance you see in a movie owes as much or more to the work of the director, the cinematographer and the editors than it does to the actor.

So, when an actor I respect passes on, I feel badly and I know I'll miss him, but it doesn't hit me hard the way some others might.

However, that's a minority opinion, and it's sometimes worth reexamining in the face of new evidence.

The West Wing has been heading towards a major change. Either the entire cast was going to turn over at the end of the year, as a new president is chosen and Bartlet steps down, or it was going to end with the end of the Bartlet presidency. We now know that in early December, before the death of John Spencer, the producers had decided to end the series.

Well, in interviews recently given, we now know the producers gave serious consideration, in the wake of John Spencer's death, to simply pulling the plug. They had five episodes in the can that they strongly considered simply pulling, and ending the series quietly. They didn't see any way they could continue to the end of the season without him.

That's powerful.

If you look at the pilot episode of The West Wing, the very first character seen on screen is Leo McGarry, coming in to work. As it turns out, John Spencer was the very first actor cast on the show. From day one, they knew they wanted Spencer as Leo. And even though Aaron Sorkin was forced out on a rail moved on after the fourth season, it's clear Leo remained the heart and soul of the show. He was the world weary, sometimes flawed but always idealistic figure. The one who sought out Bartlet and encouraged him to run. The one who shored the others up when they were in their darkest place. The one willing to fall on his sword to protect the President. The one the President was willing to fall for, instead.

It's powerful stuff. And again, this is why I didn't bring up John Spencer's death. Because all the stuff I wrote in the last paragraph -- except the part that Spencer was first cast -- was conceived of by other people. It's Aaron Sorkin's work. It's Thomas Schlamme's work. It's John Wells's work. Leo McGarry was given voice and a face by John Spencer, but his spirit was born of others. And it always bothers me to see those others forgotten because the performer's face is easiest to recognize in a supermarket.

It's also too damn easy to ignore the part the actor plays, though. And I think that's what I was doing. Because if it were just a part, if it were just an actor fleshing out a character, then the producers wouldn't have spent three minutes wondering if they should finish out the season. They spent the money filming five episodes and writing a number of others -- of course they would air them.

Only, the producers weren't sure they could make them work without John Spencer. He added too much. He brought too much to the table.

Especially in this final major plotline. Leo McGarry had been named the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate. In fact, given that he was a powerful career politician with heart problems and other baggage in his background who clearly was giving gravitas to the ticket that Matt Santos lacked, one could say he was being raised up as a Dick Cheney analogue.

Since this is the end of the series, one could easily have finished it up with Leo just offstage. After all, we would go weeks or months without seeing the Vice President as a character. A few pointed references ("...Leo's going to catch up. He says we're making too much fuss over this anyway...") to make it clear he was a going concern, and voila.

Only, the producers felt John Spencer brought too much to ignore. So instead of moving Leo offstage, they're going to deal with the repercussions of a Vice Presidential candidate dying just before the election. They're moving it front and center. They're moving Leo front and center, despite and even through his absence.

That's the hardest course for them to chart as they're ending the series, and it reflects a profound respect the producers, directors, writers and fellow cast members had for John Spencer.

And it puts the lie to my whole initial thesis. Because if I was sullen about actors being disproportionately lionized, the loss of John Spencer -- and the ways the West Wing crew are both commemorating the man and acknowledging that loss -- proves I was going too far in the other direction.

Some of the lines Spencer had to sell were hokey. I adore Aaron Sorkin, but he could sometimes overdo. He loved the monologue within a dialogue form, and it's hard to believe that anyone could pull some of them off. But John Spencer could take a five minute joke about falling down a hole and turn it into touching television.

I miss him.

I miss Leo.

I miss what the West Wing finale could have been.

And I'll watch what it's going to be, instead. Because if they're going to acknowledge Leo McGarry... and John Spencer... then the least I can do is be there to see it.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at January 24, 2006 12:25 PM


Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at January 24, 2006 12:40 PM

The only thirtysomething I ever watched was the last twenty, twenty-five minutes of the one when the redheaded guy died. I knew it was going to be on and out of purest curiosity and coincidence I happened to turn it on just as Kevin Olin got the phone call. I'd never laid eyes on any of these characters before and I never did again, but the way those twenty minutes played left me with a sense of loss as if I'd been watching them all along - as if I'd lost something when I hadn't.

I don't watch The West Wing either; I think I saw a whole episode once, at my mother's one night when Angel wasn't on. This tribute to the show, the character and the actor didn't move me as much as that twenty minutes of thirtysomething did. But it came close.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at January 24, 2006 12:51 PM

I think actors bring a lot more to a role than you realize, especially in TV series.

In some series, especially ones that use a revolving cast of writers and directors, the actors are the only ones that maintain their sense of continuity for the character, because they're the ones doing *all* the shows. And you'll frequently hear about actors getting into fights with one-shot writers because the one-shot writer introduced something into a script that ran counter to something already established.

Also, actor's *don't* contain their performances to just the words on paper, and shame on you for thinking that! Writers might have certain layers and subtext in mind when they're writing a part, but nine times out of ten its not for every scene, and a good actor will bring more. And a good writer will, in time, start incorporating what a good actor brings into what he or she writes.

And seriously -- those beautiful speeches and monologues that good writers like to put in their scripts? Give one of those to a lousy actor and see how well it works. Not very. :)

Now, give an average monologue to a good actor and see how *that* works...

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at January 24, 2006 12:53 PM

Oh yeah, in the interest of full disclosure -- theatre major.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at January 24, 2006 12:59 PM

Christopher -- mea culpa. I'm acknowledging my own prejudice, not defending it. ;)

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at January 24, 2006 1:06 PM

You know, once upon a time I had that reading comprehension thing down pat...

... ah, the good old days.

Comment from: Ray Radlein posted at January 24, 2006 1:23 PM

There's a case to be made that the role of actors with respect to a script is often analogous to the role of artists with respect to a comic.

Comment from: Pyrthas posted at January 24, 2006 1:32 PM

I'd be curious to know whether you have a similar response to, say, jazz or classical musicians who just spend their time performing pieces that others have written. I don't mean this to be a criticism of your attitude towards actors; they just strike me as similar cases, and I'm curious.

Comment from: quiller posted at January 24, 2006 2:32 PM

From my experience with music and acting I feel like musicians are actually much more constrained by their material than actors are by theirs. There are definitely things musicians can do to add expression to the music, but humans can detect the range of emotions and personality in speech easier than in music.

Of course, in theatre the writer is much more respected than in TV and movies. There is a 3 part collaboration in theatre where the writer provides the source the actors interpret it and the director provides vision and shapes the interpretations. If any one of the three suck, the play is greatly diminished. In TV and movies the scriptwriter is sometimes treated like an outline writer. Unfortunately, you don't know when you see a movie what is the writer's work, what is the director's work and what came from someone else. Somehow the director gets the glory if it works well and the writer gets the blame if it is incoherent.

Oh, and as an actor who does Commedia del Arte, I will point out that not all actors are saying someone else's words.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at January 24, 2006 2:53 PM

Oh, and as an actor who does Commedia del Arte, I will point out that not all actors are saying someone else's words.

And as a person who's been paid moderately well more than once for Improv, I know that fact.

That doesn't mean I don't get pissed when I read Leonardo diCaprio has final cut on his movies, or Tom Cruise demands that homoerotic subtext be taken out of a movie he's in that's adapted from a book.

I acknowledged, even before the events of this essay, that acting is a noble endeavor and a creative and artistic process. I do not acknowledge that the actor is more significant than the writer even now. I submit that in Commedia del Arte, while one is working inside of archetypes, the role of the writer and the role of the actor become blended.

Comment from: Will "Scifantasy" Frank posted at January 24, 2006 2:53 PM

I stopped watching The West Wing more than a year ago. I watched through the fifth season, saw maybe two episodes I thought were anywhere near as good as Sorkin's work, and the last episode I watched happened to be the one where Leo McGarry suffers a heart attack. I haven't watched the show since.

When I heard John Spencer had died, my reaction was immediate: "What'll happen to The West Wing?" This is a show I hadn't watched in a year, a show I'd written off, a show which, I loudly proclaimed to everyone who would listen and many who wouldn't, had literally jumped the shark--it would never again be as good as it was. All the glory days were behind it.

And yet, I knew that John Spencer's death was a massive deal for the show, far more than just about any other actor loss in the history of television. (Hell, even Babylon 5 could roll with the change of at least two major characters.)

I think I might very well watch the finale.

Comment from: djcoffman posted at January 24, 2006 3:09 PM

I watched West Wing when it first came out and thought it was a great show.. i kinda drifted away from it when shows like THE SHIELD and 24 came around..

Man, I didn't know he died. What a great memorable actor. That's a shame.

Comment from: John Allison posted at January 24, 2006 3:33 PM

I love the West Wing and I even found the fifth season tolerable.

Obviously Aaron Sorkin can't be beaten for whipsmart dialogue and the kind of artistic confidence that only comes with a major cocaine habit - he's a titan in his field. But I think the West Wing is an example of the kind of show that, through the gifts of its ensemble cast, could survive the exit not only of its totemic show-runner but also an actor of John Spencer's calibre. We're only 2/3 of the way through the 6th season here in the UK but I'm excited to watch every week, in a way I often wasn't when Aaron was writing at his windiest and most verbose.

All that aside, I think the show could survive without Leo McGarry, but I'm glad its been cancelled. The seventh season is usually when long-running properties go south fast, even in capable hands.

As for actors being valued over writers, I'm one of the 99% of the public who reads a printed script and gets no life from it at all, no matter how good it is. Long live the interpreter.

Comment from: John Allison posted at January 24, 2006 3:34 PM

Plus there's a new Schlamme/Sorkin show (about Hollywood!) coming next year, so it's not like the world stopped turning. Replace the hat on the side of your head.

Comment from: abb3w posted at January 24, 2006 4:02 PM

For those inclined, you can look up a bit of real election history via Wikipedia; I wonder if the TV Show will pull this bit of trivia out for their viewers' edification. I also wonder if the show will run through Bartlett's lame duck period, or whether they'll leave the series open-ended, with CNN just about to officially announce the election victor.

Comment from: Will "Scifantasy" Frank posted at January 24, 2006 4:15 PM

John Allison: Yes, and apparently Bradley Whitford is being considered for casting but the concerned were worried about West Wing commitments. That's that problem, then.

Let's just hope Joshua Molina makes the transition, too; why ruin a perfect record?

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at January 24, 2006 4:17 PM

According to articles quoted in Diane Duane's blog, the winner of the election will be determined and announced in the second-to-last episode. Wells is quoted as describing the producers' decision process, on who the winner would be, with the phrase "quite a brawl".

Comment from: ExMember posted at January 24, 2006 4:28 PM

I actually had no idea John Spencer had died. Until now I was still holding out hope for seeing Leo McGarry return as the vice-president next season.

Leo McGarry, and John Spencer through him, was the cornerstone of the West Wing. When the show was originally concieved the president was supposed to be an unseen outside influence on everything else. This leaves the Chief of Staff as central figure and puts the whole enterprise on John Spencer's shoulders.

Every episode showed that he was more than capable of carrying the load. I cannot think of an character portrayed on television today with more depth, more completeness, and more truth.

--A fellow actor

Comment from: Montykins posted at January 24, 2006 4:29 PM

I also wonder if the show will run through Bartlett's lame duck period, or whether they'll leave the series open-ended, with CNN just about to officially announce the election victor.

I really hope they have an open-ended conclusion. I like those.

Now that's insightful commentary!

Comment from: larksilver posted at January 24, 2006 4:32 PM

I loved the West Wing, early on. I am, however, clueless. Sometime, oh, about a year or so ago, a season came along that just.. well, it didn't feel right, and I sort of drifted away - I, who had been a rabid "It's Wednesday Night! Don't BUG ME!" fan, just .. well, I just stopped watching. Now I know that this was when Aaron Sorkin left, and it all makes sense.

The thing I love about Aaron Sorkin's works isn't just the snappy dialogue. It isn't just the patented "exposition on the run" thing they do, with six conversations going on at once, all making magical sense somehow. It's the way it makes you feel.

Too much of television and film - even music - seems to be about escaping, pretending that Real Life isn't really there. Even the crime dramas, love 'em though I do, are kind of one-note songs, focusing on horror and the darkness in the human spirit. The West Wing, and all of Aaron Sorkin's works that I've seen thus far, have an inherent.. well, joy, I guess, a special something that leaves you feeling that maybe people are decent and solid after all.

Leo McGarry, and from all accounts John Spencer himself, was pretty darn decent and solid. I didn't know he had passed on. How sad, for the series of course, but also for the Real Lives he touched as an actor, and as a person. I heard him sing, once, and now I can hear it again in my head. (sniff)

Comment from: larksilver posted at January 24, 2006 4:35 PM

Oh - and I'm glad to see that Aaron Sorkin has a new show coming out. I, who don't particularly like sports, adored Sports Night. I don't particularly like politics, but I loved The West Wing (And The American President - yes, I am a sap.

It's about Hollywood? oooh, this could be fun

Comment from: Cornan posted at January 24, 2006 5:24 PM

Sports Night! The last Network show I cared about. How I miss it.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at January 24, 2006 5:27 PM

Ha! It took me SO LONG to go back and realize the sullen critic means you!

I can be dumb!

I've never seen the West Wing or Sports Night, although in a strange coincidence my roommate showed a few of us "The American President" the other day. A funny thing: she'd never noticed who wrote it, as the name Aaron Sorkin meant nothing to her, but she did "sell" the movie to us by explaining that it was very Joss-y (whether that indicates lack of respect for the writer, extra respect for the writer or neither is anyone's guess).

Comment from: LurkerWithout posted at January 24, 2006 5:42 PM

Damn you Eric! I'd finally been driven away from The West Wing by the god awful nucleur melt down plot, and now I'm thinking of catching the final episodes to see what happens...

I hate John Welles. A lot...

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at January 24, 2006 5:48 PM

Siwangmu -- right. ;)

Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon -- and J. Michael Straczynski -- are the vanguard of a new trend that frankly, I like. They're all show creators and runners who describe themselves as writers first, they all have serious writing chops (A Few Good Men made its mark as a Broadway Play long before it was a movie, for example), and they are considered a vital part of the shows they're connected to.

All too often, even show runners/executive producers/writers in combination are completely glossed over when talking about a successful show. People see the actors, you see, so they consider those actors to be the be-all and the end-all of the series. In most cases, a really successful show has someone off-camera who's pouring his soul into the thing, and the actors take that soul up, infuse their own into it, and make it something special. Minus said soul, it becomes....

...well, Becker.

Comment from: Montykins posted at January 24, 2006 6:32 PM

I don't know if it's all that new a trend. Gene Roddenberry was a writer first too.

Comment from: Will "Scifantasy" Frank posted at January 24, 2006 7:21 PM

Eric: You just named my three favorite television writers. *grin*

Comment from: Ray Radlein posted at January 24, 2006 7:41 PM

David R. Kelly is also in the "writer first" camp; heck, even Steven J. Cannell has done more than his fair share of writing.

Comment from: miyaa posted at January 24, 2006 8:00 PM

Reminds me of one of the famous quips from The Goonies:

"President Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Sheen..."
"Martin Sheen? That's President Kennedy, you idiot!"

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at January 24, 2006 8:04 PM

I disagree that Roddenberry was a writer first -- he was an idea-man first. The original Star Trek was not particularly big on continuity, and most of its better episodes were not written by Roddenberry himself but by other writers. Roddenberry oversaw the whole of Star Trek and was involved in the writing but I don't think you can make a case that he thought of his writing as the most important part of the whole shebang.

Comment from: Wednesday White posted at January 24, 2006 9:13 PM

I don't think you can make a case that he thought of his writing as the most important part of the whole shebang.

Should I be digging out Ellison's White Wolf edition of City on the Edge of Forever here? I think that you can make that case, even if that was completely delusional.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at January 24, 2006 9:46 PM

I think you can just look at the screenplay of Encounter at Farpoint. I think Dorothy Fontana wrote a one-hour premiere for TNG, and when the script for Hide and Q came in Gene immediately spotted Q for one of the all-powerful straw men he loved so, and grafted another hour onto Encounter to add Q in and slather his message on.

(I've read Harlan's original City on the Edge of Forever. Harlan has a point, but Gene had a point too.)

Comment from: tynic posted at January 24, 2006 10:14 PM

I was saddened by Spencer's death, but I'm delighted West Wing is ending. The last two seasons ripped out the soul of the show and, I felt, destroyed a lot of what Sorkin had worked towards. Characters and motivations were gutted and twisted to create cheap drama; carefully built-up themes and principles were jettisoned in favour of spectacular, cliff-hanger television. I'd much rather remember its glory days than watch it subside into a little-watched parody of itself, and I'm glad to see it put to rest.

Comment from: Merus posted at January 24, 2006 10:22 PM

I recall something from the commentary tracks of Buffy, back when I decided I'd like to watch that show once. One of the writers said that they ended up having trouble visualising anyone else but the actors saying a particular line. The actors often make an investment in the characters, as you would have to in order to inhabit their skin for so long, enough so that they can influence the writing and their character's direction, even without talking about it to the writers.

Also, anything Tom Cruise does can't be used as evidence. We all know he's loco.

Comment from: Abby L. posted at January 24, 2006 11:23 PM

I didn't watch any West Wing after Aaron Sorkin left, but not because of that, more because the only times I had watched West Wing was when it was already on DVD and the friend who had the DVDs graduated. Still, it broke my heard to hear that John Spencer died. Leo was such a great character.... :(

Comment from: LessThanKate posted at January 25, 2006 12:53 AM

I found the passing of John Spencer to be incredibly sad, even though I haven't watched the show in years. I always liked his character.

Comment from: Wistful Dreamer posted at January 25, 2006 1:02 AM

The West Wing is one of those shows that will leave ripple effects in television (well, at least dramas) for years to come. Much like the "woman coming home" theme propigated to a much larger audience then ever bothered to watch Providence, basic traits of WW's nature are showing up all over the dial. John Spencer's Leo brought a kind of hard nosed respectable machismo that was one half John Wayne, one half Atticus Finch. I'm interested in seeing Sorkin's next project (as frightened as I am of Hollywood types talking about Hollywood). With Spencer on the cast, however, I'm sure I'll end up saying, "this is good, but it's no West Wing."

Comment from: Nentuaby posted at January 25, 2006 6:09 AM



Narbonic comment in 3... 2...


Comment from: miyaa posted at January 25, 2006 6:24 AM

Paul, just a question. What was Roddenberry's point about Q? Immortal Gods are just self-righteous, childish, know-it-alls, assuming they actually exist?

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at January 25, 2006 8:37 AM

Paul, just a question. What was Roddenberry's point about Q? Immortal Gods are just self-righteous, childish, know-it-alls, assuming they actually exist?

Or that at least Yahweh is - that was probably about it, yeah. I don't necessarily have the access to Roddenberry's inner thoughts that I affect for rhetorical purposes. But he was an atheist, and I read at the time he was once named Humanist of the Year or something like that.

I once drew a cartoon in which Captain Kirk is asked, "You don't believe in gods, do you?" He replies, "No. Met too many."

Comment from: Nentuaby posted at January 25, 2006 8:40 AM

And damnit, at any rate, what DOES he want with a starship? ;)

Comment from: Abby L. posted at January 25, 2006 10:03 AM

I know this is a bit off topic, but this line in the original essay:

The one willing to fall on his sword to protect the President. The one the President was willing to fall for, instead.

..can be interpreted in interesting ways when you consider how much Leo/The President fanfic there is.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at January 25, 2006 10:14 AM

..can be interpreted in interesting ways when you consider how much Leo/The President fanfic there is.



Comment from: Darth Paradox posted at January 25, 2006 1:25 PM

I've got a friend who seems to be a big Josh/Sam shipper, if her LJ icons are any indication.

$DEITY bless the Internet, huh?

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at January 25, 2006 2:25 PM

Diane Duane noticed in her blog that there's Bible fanfiction on fanfiction.net. (Or I wouldn't know. I buy milk at the grocery store, not the Super Wal-Mart.) I wonder what 'ships that has.

Comment from: Charles Duffy posted at January 25, 2006 5:12 PM

John Allison: Regarding your failure to get life out of a printed script, I'm curious as to whether that also holds true with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

I had vastly more fun reading that play than watching it -- which isn't to say that the performance was bad, but that it flowed better when paced by the way things ran in my head than when paced by the speed at which the actors carried out said script.

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson posted at January 26, 2006 5:19 PM

Aaron Sorkin's writing greatly entertains me, right up to the point where it greatly irritates me. That's enough to get me to watch Sports Night when I see a rerun, but not The West Wing, which has the added strike against it of being about the White House.

When it comes to Q, he was a much better plot device when the writers started hinting at *why* he kept bugging humans.

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