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An Oral History of the West Wing
May 14, 2014 10:43 AM   Subscribe

'West Wing' Uncensored: Aaron Sorkin, Rob Lowe, More Look Back on Early Fears, Long Hours, Contract Battles and the Real Reason for Those Departures
posted by dirtdirt (39 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's so interesting that CCH Pounder came close to the CJ role. Not that CCH isn't awesome, but man, I do think of Janney's "The Jackal" a lot whenever I need cheering up.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:57 AM on May 14 [8 favorites]


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.
Good for Sorkin, at least. What Wells did to Toby sucked.

Thanks so much for posting this. Excellent interview.
posted by zarq at 10:58 AM on May 14 [9 favorites]


That cigarette mash in the Church is still one of my favourite television moments of all time.
posted by Fizz at 11:10 AM on May 14 [8 favorites]


I love this show so much. This is a great post. Thank you!
posted by kbanas at 11:10 AM on May 14


Also why I can't listen to this song without getting goose bumps.
posted by kbanas at 11:10 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]


RICHARD SCHIFF (TOBY ZIEGLER, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR): I ran into [Eugene Levy] 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."
Perfect!
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:13 AM on May 14 [5 favorites]


Good for Sorkin, at least. What Wells did to Toby sucked.

I could not agree more. For better or for worse, Toby was the moral conscience of the show. He was a prick, but he was also the guy you most wanted to argue your side of an argument.

But it wasn't just Toby that felt out of character. The President's reaction to Toby admitting the truth felt COMPLETELY out of character.

BARTLET
Your actions have pretty much made that impossible. I haven't had much time to absorb this news, so I'll apologize in advance if I express any half-formed thoughts. But the one thought that hits the hardest is that this was somehow inevitable; that you've always been heading for this sort of crash-and-burn. That self-righteous superiority; not that you were smarter than everyone; that you were purer, morally superior.

And the coup de grace:

BARTLET
When you walk out of here, there'll be people out there, perhaps a great many, who'll think of you as a hero. I just don't for a moment want you thinking I'll be one of them.

Source: West Wing Transcripts

I clearly recall my reaction to at the time: Where. The. Hell. Did. That. Come. From.
posted by zooropa at 11:17 AM on May 14 [9 favorites]


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."
Dear god. I am laughing so hard at this.

(Though, having Brad Whitford, who played Josh, talking about Josh Malina, who played Will got confusing a couple of times.)
posted by jacquilynne at 11:27 AM on May 14 [5 favorites]


'The West Wing' Cast Reflects on Favorite Episodes
posted by zarq at 11:32 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't trade Richard Schiff or Allison Janney for anything, but the parallel universe where there roles were played by Eugene Levy and CCH Pounder is one I wouldn't mind visiting.





(Yes, when I imagine myself being transported to a parallel universe, I do imagine watching their TV, thank you very much.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:42 AM on May 14 [11 favorites]


when I imagine myself being transported to a parallel universe, I do imagine watching their TV

I think about living in a parallel universe where everything is exactly the same except the words "convertible" and "transformer", being synonyms, have switched, so we're all watching a show about disguised robot toys with the theme song "Convertibles: more than meets the eye. Convertibles: robots in disguise".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:51 AM on May 14 [3 favorites]


Holy crap, Jennifer Transformers would be an even more awesome store name.
posted by Etrigan at 11:57 AM on May 14 [3 favorites]


"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."

is my new favorite West Wing anecdote. This article is amazing, thanks!
posted by warm_planet at 12:10 PM on May 14 [6 favorites]


Both my wife and I have an enthusiasm for Alison Janney that is boundless, but CCH would have kicked ass.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 12:11 PM on May 14 [4 favorites]


"But the first time I met Martin, he taught me the handshake that Laurence Fishburne had taught him during Apocalypse Now."

This is officially my favorite story from all of show business.
posted by ImmaculatePizza at 1:19 PM on May 14 [7 favorites]


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.

This is kind of perfect as the backstory for Donna's actress.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:39 PM on May 14 [6 favorites]


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."

wait wait this is all kind of perfect
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:42 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


What they did to Toby at the end was completely farcical. It totally marred what was otherwise a really well-done 7th season.

Though I could never decide which was more implausible: That the country as a whole would elect a President as liberal as Bartlet (twice!), or that the Republican Party would nominate someone as socially liberal as Arnie Vinnick.

CHANNING: 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."

Firstly, kinda crazy that Channing and Sheen hadn't worked together, much less met, before WW. But I feel like this meeting set the stage really well for how they portrayed their marriage. They had amazing chemistry. But also, their marriage always just was. They played as people who, being serious Catholics, knew they were together forever no matter how dark things got; their marriage was just a fact of life.

I have a lot of favourite quotes from the show's run, but one I keep coming back to is when Abbey is helping Jed put on pants when his MS gets worse:

Jed: So, this is why they make you take vows, huh?
Abbey: Yep, this is why.
posted by dry white toast at 2:35 PM on May 14 [9 favorites]


This interview is great but
When I'm given the ammo to kill in the room, I'm all about it....

And here's what would've been the worst thing: to stay on The West Wing only to have Aaron leave like he did...

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."
ugh Rob Lowe makes like 4 comments in the whole thing and still manages to be a total ass
posted by likeatoaster at 4:34 PM on May 14 [4 favorites]


Yeah, Rob Lowe was by far the worst part of the show. I don't think he agrees with that opinion.
posted by gerstle at 4:37 PM on May 14


I apparently stopped watching right about the same time Sorkin did, and I hadn't realized he had left the show. The show started to feel preachy and deflated to me right around the 9/11-inspired episode, and it's interesting to hear that the writers were struggling with the tone given the real-world context at that point.
posted by jaguar at 4:56 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


I remember reading a "Commentaries of the Damned" article on AV Club for the "I Melt With You" commentary track, which included Rob Lowe. I had really no opinion either way on the man until I read that and saw how full of himself he was and was willing to trash talk a fellow actor simply because they were having difficulty with a scene. In that later case, he actually quips "Welcome to the NFL", which he stole from Tim Matheson's character in the first season of "West Wing". So, yeah: Prick.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 4:58 PM on May 14


Oh there were some definite egos on The West Wing--and they were well represented in that oral history article--but damn they made it work.

It's rare that a TV show is so memorable for me, but the cast was fantastic and oh man the crazy recaps at MBTV/TWOP and just the vibe of the country at the time...it all really worked. By the late 90s, we were far enough away from Watergate that making a TV show about the President didn't seem like a farce and we weren't yet into the 9/11 'patriotism means never question the President' thing thing either. That era, politically speaking, made for fabulous TV.
posted by librarylis at 6:53 PM on May 14 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Rob Lowe was by far the worst part of the show. I don't think he agrees with that opinion.

Oh, I read his memoir (the first one, not the new one- yes, he has two), and he definitely does not agree with that opinion. The Washington Post describes his new book as, "Rob Lowe mixes humility with narcissism in an enjoyable memoir", and that is my exact review of the first book. Seriously, great beach read.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:27 PM on May 14


Thanks for this. It was glorious to pretend that the real West Wing was filled with earnest, intelligent people during the dark times. Sadly, I have a feeling it's much more like Veep and always has been.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:33 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]


Also why I can't listen to this song without getting goose bumps.

I once found myself crying in a grocery store because they were playing the Little Drummer Boy. I can generally hear that song without crying, but I always expect gunshots in the middle of it.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:38 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


So many wonderful episodes, so many unforgettable scenes and characters, that I could easily watch the whole thing yet again. Many of my favorite scenes are perfectly lyrical and light-hearted like CJ doing 'The Jackal' but I return over and over to moments and story lines like Richard Schiff's Toby in "In Excelsis Deo".
Bartlet: "If we start pulling strings like this, you don't think every homeless veteran will start coming out of the woodwork?"
Toby: "I can only hope, sir."
And for other Allison Janney fans: The Jackal, redux
posted by Anitanola at 8:52 PM on May 14 [4 favorites]


I wouldn't trade Richard Schiff or Allison Janney for anything, but the parallel universe where there roles were played by Eugene Levy and CCH Pounder is one I wouldn't mind visiting.

MCMikeNamara, you may have very well gotten your wish in the parallel universe in the show FRINGE.
posted by theartandsound at 9:26 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


The first four seasons of 'The West Wing' are my favorite TV series, ever. The easy camaraderie of the actors, the absolutely scintillating writing of Sorkin, the beautiful, rich direction by Schlamme and others... I mean, the LIGHTING was terrific, for goodness' sakes. It was a confluence of talent that comes along... once in a generation? It was amazing.

People talk a lot about how it was too liberal, or made brutal fun of conservatives. I always thought its harshest criticisms were for those supposedly bearing the banner of the left. There's a clear tone in that first season of "This is what it could have been, you asshole, had you not concentrated more on getting a blowjob from an intern." Not for nothing was President Bartlet a staunch Catholic on all the "good" Catholic values like fidelity to family.

There's a great scene in the first season when President Bartlet is about to do the State of the Union. He's explaining to the Secretary of Agriculture (who's the guy left behind) what to do if the unthinkable happens. He winds up with this great exchange:

"You got a best friend?"
"Yes, sir."
"Is he smarter than you?"
(Laughing) "Yes, sir."
"Would you trust him with your life?"
(Serious) "Yes, sir."
"That's your chief of staff."

When my best friend got married, he asked me to be his best man. When I toasted him and his new wife, I quoted those lines to him. It was only later that a mutual friend pointed out that I had committed at least a minor indiscretion by fantasizing myself as the President of the United States at my best friend's wedding. My ego knows no bounds, apparently.
posted by aureliobuendia at 10:20 PM on May 14 [7 favorites]


I stopped watching when Sorkin left because I could immediately recognize the drop in writing quality. I remember having several conversations with other fans just to see if I was making too much out of it, but no, everyone agreed, it wasn't just me.

Now it's years later and I'm finally watching the rest of it, and even without Sorkin the show remained far better than most other TV I've seen. With Sorkin, it was one of the best steaks I'd ever had; without him, it was a really great burger. I'd much rather have the steak, but as burgers go, it was pretty worthwhile.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:12 PM on May 14 [5 favorites]


Although... the thing that really gets me about the show is all the times you see Republicans and Democrats hammer out deals. Or all the times the staffers are spun up about logjams with Republican legislators who ultimately throw out partisanship for the good of the country--and they do it like it's a foregone conclusion for them. Or how often the West Wing staffers hold fellow Democrats accountable for their bullshit despite the staff's partisan loyalties.

And I look at that now, and I think, "Wow, this just doesn't seem realistic at all anymore."
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:15 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


The last time I was in a job interview, I was asked about my leadership style. My answer was simple: "I emulate Leo McGarry."

No, not the crotchety political insider who tore Josh a new one every episode. I emulate Leo as the confident, consummate professional who always brings his A game. A man who not only has the respect of his team, but respects *them* even more. A man who walks the walk, talks the talk, and gets the freaking job done.

Not that I always succeed, mind you. But there's no doubt in my mind: I want to be Leo when I grow up.
posted by zooropa at 8:21 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


And I look at that now, and I think, "Wow, this just doesn't seem realistic at all anymore."

I did too. Part of me thinks that actually showing cooperation between political factions for a noble purpose is important to show that it is possible, similar to the way Star Trek influenced perceptions of race, demonstrated in this interview with Nichelle Nichols where Martin Luther King, Jr. convinces her to not to leave the show.

The other side of me thinks that conscience and nobility were overrepresented to an extreme degree, and wants to see what Sorkin would have done with a situation that's closer to the reality.

In the end though, it's better that things were done the way they were. If I need to reinforce my pessimism, I can just watch the news. Having the reminder of the better angels of our nature every now and then is a good thing to have.
posted by chambers at 8:24 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


The other side of me thinks that conscience and nobility were overrepresented to an extreme degree, and wants to see what Sorkin would have done with a situation that's closer to the reality.


Especially when you think of how well it could be done. The fabulous Bartlett-to-Richie line:

"In the future, if you're wondering, 'Crime. Boy, I don't know' is when I decided to kick your ass.

still thrills me just reading it, despite having watched that episode about 100 times in between seasons.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:57 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]


a situation that's closer to the reality.

Important, here, is that that's our reality. The reality that many of us lived right up until the late 90s was much more mixed and moderate. It is sociologically interesting that just as that moderation and party heterodoxy vanished, the idea comes up in a major television show about politics.
posted by dhartung at 1:41 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I seem to have spent the last hours watching West Wing clips on Youtube. Can't imagine how that happened.

Again.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:43 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


I seem to have spent the last hours watching West Wing clips on Youtube. Can't imagine how that happened.

The West Wing being available on Netflix instant is both the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me. I expect to average 6 episodes a week in perpetuity.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:52 PM on May 15


Season 5 was terrible, but the show started coming back in Season 6. Season 7 improved again, and is probably as good as the weaker Sokrin (Season 4).

Except the Toby story line. That sucked. Although, even though I hated the whole scenario, I actually really liked this line:
Bartlet: When you walk out of here, there'll be people out there, perhaps a great many, who'll think of you as a hero. I just don't for a moment want you thinking I'll be one of them.
I agree Toby wouldn't do that, but Bartlet would say that if he did.
posted by spaltavian at 10:27 AM on May 16


I basically don't acknowledge anything between Zoey being found alive and CJ being named Chief of Staff. Then my memory of the show is intact.
posted by dry white toast at 4:08 PM on May 17


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