The West Wing was a popular political drama that aired on NBC from 1999 to 2006. It centered on the administration of Democratic President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his senior staff. The series was created by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the majority of episodes from seasons one through four.
One Of TV’s Greatest Shows
The series was so popular, it won three Golden Globe Awards and 26 Emmy Awards, including one for Outstanding Drama Series (which it won four times in a row from 2000 to 2003). It averaged around 16 million viewers and has consistently landed on “Best Of” lists as one of the greatest shows of all time.
The Show’s Inception
Aaron Sorkin developed the show following the success of the 1995 film The American President, of which he wrote the screenplay. Sheen received a promotion on the show — in the film he played the White House Chief of Staff. Originally, Sorkin planned on having Sam Seaborn as the center of the series, the Deputy Communications Director (played by Rob Lowe). He intended on leaving the President in a secondary, or unseen, role. However, as the show progressed, the President’s role expanded, and the fans favored his appearances. So Sorkin decided to flush out the character of President Bartlet and put him in more episodes.
The Network’s Initial Indifference
NBC wasn’t initially hooked by the premise of The West Wing. Executive Producer John Wells told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014 that he was in the midst of working with the network on ER and they didn’t want him to cease his involvement with that series to work on another one. Wells remembers hearing network heads say things such as, “The American audience isn’t interested in politics” and “there’s plenty of that on Sunday morning television.” However, Wells was a big proponent of the show and wouldn’t back off. “I insisted on getting it made if I was going to stay with ER,” he said.
Fearing The Show Would Be Too “Liberal”
Garth Ancier, President of NBC Entertainment, told The Hollywood Reporter that The West Wing had one of those rare pilot episodes that absolutely had to make it to air. However, there were some internal politics at the network and those who were concerned about the show’s content. Senior management was “dead set against it,” believing it was “too liberal.” They also feared a collaboration with Aaron Sorkin, feeling he was difficult to work with. They eventually approved the pilot, but Ancier had to meet with Sorkin and John Wells to assuage Bob Wright’s fears, who was particularly perturbed by a Jerry Falwell look-alike in the pilot episode who didn’t understand the Ten Commandments.
Martin Sheen As The President
Martin Sheen played Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet, the Democratic President of the United States. While his role was originally intended to be limited, Sheen’s acting abilities impressed both Sorkin and the audience, which led to him eventually becoming a much more central character in the series. Sheen later said he drew inspiration from Bill Clinton to play the role. “He’s bright, astute and filled with all the negative foibles that make him very human,” he told Radio Times. Sorkin said he created the character based on some of his father’s characteristics, including his love of education and sense of humor.
Others Offered The President’s Role
When casting for the show got underway, the creators and producers received a lot of flack for not including many minorities. However, according to Scott Sassa, who was President of NBC Entertainment at the time, they initially offered the role of President to Sidney Poitier. Unfortunately, the actor turned down the role. Aaron Sorkin told the Hollywood Reporter they also considered Jason Robards, but he was not in good health and wouldn’t have been able to handle the schedule if the series was picked up. Hal Holbrook and John Cullum were also candidates until John Wells suggested Martin Sheen.
The White House Chief Of Staff
John Spencer played White House Chief Of Staff Leo McGarry and later a vice presidential candidate. He won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in 2002 for his role on the show. Spencer and his character were both recovering alcoholics. Ironically, Spencer’s character nearly died of heart attack on the show, and about a year later the actor died of an actual heart attack. Martin Sheen paid tribute to Sheen in a brief message prior to the airing of the episode “Running Mates,” which aired just after Spencer died. The death of McGarry was addressed in the 2006 episode “Election Day.”
A Certified Hit
The West Wing didn’t really take off until the second season. Shows such as Friends, Will & Grace, ER and Law & Order were all doing much better than the political drama in its first season. In fact, it did not even rank as one of NBC’s top five shows during its first year. But demographics were strong, and it became a hit during the second year. Warner Bros. TV Executive Peter Roth recalled attending the television awards in May 2000, and the cast got a standing ovation. He told the Hollywood Reporter: “I’ve been doing this for 40 years; I’ve never seen that happen — nor do I ever expect to see it happen again.”
The Deputy Chief of Staff’s Tailored Role
Bradley Whitford played the Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman. Aaron Sorkin created the character with Josh in mind because the pair had been friends for many years. Lyman was one of the smartest characters on the show and described as a “somewhat cocky, boyishly charming know-it-all.” While researching the role, Whitford read Bill Clinton’s former communications director George Stephanopoulos’s book All Too Human. He explained, “It gave a sense of the sort of smell and the texture and the level of intimacy with the president, which I was just unaware of.” Whitford earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in 2001 for his role.
The “Walk And Talk”
One of the trademarks of The West Wing were the “walk and talks,” which consisted of continuous shots of the cast members having a conversation as they walked through the hallways of the White House. The set was constructed in such a way to allow producers to create shots with very few cuts. Aaron Sorkin popularized this shooting technique and also used it on Sports Night. The technique has been parodied often, and even Sorkin mocked the use of it. In the first season of the show Josh and Sam are meandering around when Sam asks,” Where are you going?” and each man claims to have been following the other.
Rob Lowe played the Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn for four seasons. Seaborn was originally intended to be the main character on the series. During his audition, Sorkin said Lowe’s performance “left our jaws on the floor.” The show eventually started to focus more on President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), who was dealing with things such as multiple sclerosis, a re-election campaign, foreign policy, terrorism. These plots were not very inclusive of Lowe’s character due to his position in the West Wing as communications director. His character left the show in season four but made an appearance in the seventh and final season.
Rob Lowe’s Departure
When the show increasingly started to focus on Josh Lyman, the Deputy Chief Of Staff (played by Bradley Whitford), and less on Sam, Lowe became unhappy. It was also reported that executives refused to give him a pay raise (he had been earning $75,000 an episode compared to Sheen, who’s salary grew to $300,000 an episode).
“As much as it hurts to admit it, it has been increasingly clear, for a while, that there was no longer a place for Sam Seaborn on The West Wing,” Lowe said. He left during the fourth season. He had received one Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations for his role.
Lowe wasn’t the only cast member who felt he wasn’t earning enough money. Several cast members were angry about salary disparities, and they made their feelings public. In 2001, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff and John Spencer were involved in contract negotiations when Warner Bros. threatened to sue them for breach of contract. The four stuck together and were able to double their salaries. In 2003, they succeeded in doubling their salaries again. “We knew that there were some contract disputes, but I never get into that with another fellow actor because, frankly, it’s none of my business,” Sheen later said. “Everyone’s entitled to go for whatever they can get. I did, certainly.”
Joshua Malina Replaces Rob Lowe
When Rob Lowe left the series, there was a big gap in the cast. Josh Malina had read that Lowe was thinking of leaving, and he took action, writing Aaron Sorkin a letter pitching his idea of what another Deputy Communications Director would look like. He told The Hollywood Reporter the content of his email was basically, “What about a less well-known, less good-looking actor who would work for less money?” The character of Will Bailey was initially hired as a speechwriter who later became Deputy Communications Director. He was then promoted to Chief of Staff to the Vice President, Russell’s Campaign Manager, and Communications Director.
The Actress Who Nearly Lost Her Role
Allison Janney played the Press Secretary, Claudia Jean “C. J.” Cregg, and later the White House Chief of Staff. Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers was a consultant on The West Wing, and Cregg’s character was loosely based on her. Although Janney was perfect for the role, she nearly didn’t land it. Executives were concerned because there was not a lot of racial diversity on the show. She nearly lost the spot to Afro-Guyanese actress C.C.H. Pounder. Janney earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in 2000 and 2001 and Outstanding Lead Actress in 2002 and 2004.
The Show’s Political Consultants
During its second season, Co-Executive Producer Kevin Falls ran the writing room. He called it “an intimidating room to be in” due to all the high-powered consultants they were employing: Marlin Fitzwater, Bush’s press secretary; Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s press secretary; Gene Sperling, Clinton and later Obama’s chief economic advisor; and columnist Peggy Noonan. In addition, on staff were former Carter aide Pat Caddell and Senator Daniel Moynihan’s chief of staff, Lawrence O’Donnell. Falls told the Hollywood Reporter,: “Some of these people answered to American presidents and about the only subject I could address with confidence was when we’d break for lunch.”
The Influence Of Real-World Events
The West Wing regularly covered current political issues and real-world events. For example, when President Bartlet hid his relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) it was compared to President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Bartlet was investigated for non-disclosure of his illness and was eventually censured by Congress. A special episode was written following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and while it did address terrorism it did not specifically refer to the event. Other topics the show did address include the genocide in Sudan, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the War on Drugs, the conflict in Colombia and a federal government shutdown.
The Communications Director’s Backstory
Richard Schiff played Tobias Zachary “Toby” Ziegler, the Communications Director. Sorkin chose Ziegler over many other stars who auditioned for the role, including Eugene Levy. Without consulting Sorkin, Schiff created his own background story for his character. While Sorkin and executive producer Thomas Schlamme wanted Ziegler to be divorced, Schiff decided he was a widower and wore his own wedding ring on the show, something the series creators didn’t notice until the eight episode of the first season. His character was known for being rather morose. Schiff won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2000.
Long Hours On Set
The cast and crew spent many long hours making the show. Bradley Whitford told the Hollywood Reporter: “The hours on that show were so bad. I mean, just horrible.” He recalled complaining to Director/Executive Producer Thomas Schlamme about neglecting his wife and children because he was working so much. Schlamme agreed, saying his own kids call his time on the show “The West Wing years.” Schlamme was also working on Sports Night at the time, and on one Friday night it was 3:30 a.m. and he was still working on the Warner Bros. lot. He visited the Disney lot, and no one else was working but the Sports Night crew.
The President’s Personal Aide & Cast Diversity
Dulé Hill played the President’s personal aide on The West Wing. While the character was initially supposed to appear in the pilot episode, he was eventually written out. The NAACP criticized the show for its lack of racial diversity and all-Caucasian cast, so Young was finally introduced in the third episode. The character’s name is derived from the first African-American who become a Colonel in the United States Army and the third to graduate from West Point. In preparation for the role, Hill met with his character’s real-life counterpart, Kris Engskov, who was President Bill Clinton’s personal aide.
Filming In Washington, D.C.
When the crew first went to Washington, D.C. to film, it was a struggle to obtain permission to film in most locations. Many thought the series was “just another bad political TV show,” according to Director/Executive Producer Thomas Schlamme. But once the series aired, feelings about the show changed almost instantly. Schlamme recalled one particular incident, telling the Hollywood Reporter: “I remember one night, Brad, Janel and I were shooting in front of the West Wing, and somebody had recognized Brad and said: ‘We’re doing night duty in the situation room downstairs. When you guys get done, come down and have a drink.’ Next thing we know, we’ve wrapped and we’re in the situation room at 2:30 in the morning drinking vodka.”
Aaron Sorkin’s Drug Arrest
In 2001, Aaron Sorkin was arrested at the Burbank airport in California after he was found with a carry-on bag containing marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and crack cocaine. A metal crack pipe had set off the gate’s metal detector. Sorkin was ordered to a drug diversion program but continued working on the show. Following the incident, Sorkin and the executive producer had a meeting with the cast and crew. “I told them what happened and that I was guilty and I apologized for embarrassing the show,” he explained to the Hollywood Reporter. “They seemed more concerned with my health than with unwanted attention, but that didn’t surprise me.”
Bradley Whitford recalled one particular prankster, Joshua Malina, who he dubbed the “perverse one on set.” He had fun joking around and setting people’s iPods to the Mandarin language or removing the last four pages of a book a person was reading. Malina didn’t have any boundaries when it came to pranks. At one point, Whitford was doing a scene and Jimmy Smits gave him a big hug, telling him: “I love you too, man. And those flowers were amazing and the letter means so much to me.” Josh had sneaked into Bradley’s trailer, stole some personalized stationary, and wrote “a vaguely homoerotic thing to Jimmy about working together.”
An Unexpected Political Visitor On Set
One day the show was filming in Georgetown, and an angry woman visited the set at about 3 a.m. wearing a bathrobe and surrounded by several men. She was not very pleased by The West Wing or their schedule. She said, “What the hell’s going on? I have an early morning at the State Department. And, by the way, you people don’t even have a Secretary of State on your show. And I think you should have one and it should be a woman.” The woman was Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become the United States Secretary of State.
Aaron Sorkin Leaves The Show
In 2003, Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme announced they were leaving The West Wing after season four. Sorkin did not give a specific reason for leaving, though it was reported that writing pressures, increasing budget issues and declining ratings led to his departure. Allison Janney later said: “We all felt kicked in the stomach. We felt like we were being abandoned by our parents. We didn’t understand it, we didn’t want it to happen and there was nothing we could do about it.” In 2016, Sorkin revealed that he never watched the last three seasons of The West Wing.
The West Wing is one of the top award-winning shows in history. Following its first season, The West Wing won nine Emmy Awards–the most won by a series during its first season. For four years, 2000-2003, the series won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series (tying with Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and Mad Men). The show was nominated for that award in each of its seven series on air. The West Wing tied with Hill Street Blues with 26 total awards and the drama with the most Emmy Awards until 2016, when Game Of Thrones earned 35 total awards.
Surprising Emmy Loser
Martin Sheen was nominated six times for an Emmy Award on The West Wing, but he never won. He wasn’t the only one who missed out on receiving an Emmy award for the show. Janel Moloney, who played Donna Moss, assistant and love interest to Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), was nominated twice but did not win. Neither did Dulé Hill, Rob Lowe, or Mary-Louise Parker, who were all nominated one time each. Guest stars Matthew Perry, Oliver Platt, Ron Silver, Tim Matheson, and Mark Harmon also received nominations but no trophies.
Aaron Sorkin’s Letter To His Daughter
After Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, Aaron Sorkin wrote a letter to his daughter Roxy, 15, and his wife Julia Sorkin, expressing his disdain. He led with: “Well the world changed late last night in a way I couldn’t protect us from. That’s a terrible feeling for a father. I won’t sugarcoat it—this is truly horrible.” He criticized the new administration and the “sexists, racists and buffoons” involved in his election. But he also vowed to fight and encouraged his daughter and wife to do the same: “We get involved. We do what we can to fight injustice anywhere we see it—whether it’s writing a check or rolling up our sleeves.”
Fictional Twitter Accounts
Even though the show had been off the air for four years, Twitter accounts representing several of the main characters from The West Wing began appearing online in 2010. They included accounts by President Bartlet, Josh Lyman, Leo McGarry, Matt Santos (who succeeded Josiah Bartlet as President) and Mrs. Landingham (the President’s executive secretary). The accounts became popular for mixing a fictional timeline with real-life events. An account was even created for Gail, the fish from C.J Cregg’s office. Real-life White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Vice President Joe Biden even answered questions from the fictional Twitter accounts.
The West Wing Reinvented
In 2016, Joshua Malina and film composer Hrishikesh Hirway decided to bring back The West Wing. They created a podcast, The West Wing Weekly, and revisited all 156 episodes of the political drama. It includes commentary from former cast member Malina and super fan Hirway as well as trivia and guest interviews. Malina was initially reluctant to do the project because he didn’t feel qualified and admittedly hadn’t seen every episode of the show. “Once I started to rewatch it, I was like, “Wow, yeah. This is firing me up. I do love this show. I’ve got plenty to say about it,” he later confessed.
Not 100% Realistic
While The West Wing is known for being as realistic as possible in matching the actual White House, on some details they did stretch the truth a bit. One unrealistic issue – fast food. Actor Kal Penn who is probably best known for his work as Kumar in the Harold and Kumar films has actually been a government employee and worked under the Obama Administration. In 2009 Kal accepted a position as the associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. Kal has a degree in both film and sociology. Several years later he recounted in an interview with the New York Times about his time with the Obama Administration. He said his first night on the job he stayed working until 11 PM and suggested that they order Chinese. His colleagues quickly informed him that food delivery is not actually allowed in the white house. Kal said he responded, “but they do it on West Wing!”
Nod To JFK
The next time you watch The West Wing, look closely at the opening credits. If you focus on President Bartlett, or Martin Sheen, you will notice a still shot of the character taken from behind him. The character leans on the desk with his head bowed. This still was taken as a direct nod to President John F. Kennedy and the famous photograph taken of him by a White House photographer during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One difference in the photo, however, is that JFK was holding a cigar in the photo while Martin Sheen does not. Oddly enough, this wasn’t Martin’s only connection to JFK.
Martin Sheen Always A President
Martin Sheen is known for his presidential looks and has been cast as a United States President many times throughout his life. He has played both real life political persons and fictional presidents like President Bartlett as well. Just like the previous famous JFK photograph which he emulated, he also took on the role of playing the late President in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy. Martin has also played JFK’s brother and almost president Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Martin Sheen has played the U.S. President many times throughout his career, most notably as John F. Kennedy in a 1983 miniseries. Other political figures Martin has played include John Dean who was the White House counsel under Richard Nixon, the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and the White House Chief of Staff.
White House Homage
The Obama Administration were obviously big fans of The West Wing. In 2014, they even took an element of the show and incorporated it into real life. They hosted their own version of the show’s “Big Block of Cheese Day”. This was to allow regular Americans ask questions to various White House officials. Although, unlike on the show this would take place online not face to face. The announcement for this special day was announced via video which called upon several West Wing stars including Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina. They also held one the next two years as well. The event is described as “like Reddit, but without the weird stuff.” Some of the government officials who answered questions included Vice President Joe Biden, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, First Lady Michelle Obama, HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Senator Cory Booker, and various other political heavyweights.
Rob Lowe Responds To Trump Muslim Ban
After the election of Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed billionaire and reality show star wasted no time jumping into controversy as he announced a ban aimed at preventing Muslims from traveling to the United States. This included placing a permanent ban on the suffering people of Syria as well as other countries with large Muslim populations This effected many, including people who have lived here for many years and even those who hold Green Cards. Much of the American public was outraged and gathered at their local airports to show support for Muslim Americans. Rob Lowe who played, complained on Twitter thought he saw elderly women having to drag their bags for long distances because of the protesters. Meanwhile, Bradley Whitford who played Josh Lyman hilariously responded saying, “Way to speak out, profile in courage.” Later, the courts blocked Trump’s proposed ban, as well his second attempt at passing similar legislation.
Real Life Inspirations
The West Wing often sought advice and consulted with real life political and government and officials. Sometimes these individuals even served as inspiration for the show. One such instance was revealed in a 2006 LA Times article. One of the consultants on the show was Dee Dee Meyers who had been a White House press secretary for the first two years of the Clinton Administration. She was also the first woman to ever hold the position. Needless to say, Dee Dee revealed that the relationship on the show between press secretary C.J. Cregg and reporter Danny Concannon was based on her marriage to New York Times White House correspondent Todd Purdum. Although, the real-life version of the relationship did not start until Dee Dee left her position at the White House.
Praise From Hillary
In 2004, Hillary Clinton was the Senator of New York. The West Wing continued airing until 2006. In real life then Senator Clinton wrote an open letter to the fiction Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford. She wrote the letter after his character on the show suggested closing an actual military base in upstate New York. Of course, the whole thing was done tongue in cheek. She also took a moment to thank fictional character Toby Ziegler for trying to save Social Security. When asked to respond about the rebuke, West Wing producer Laurence O’Donnell who actually wrote the episode said “Josh Lyman is quaking in his boots.” Years later Bradley Whitford supported Hillary for her real life presidential run in 2016, as did many of his cast mates.
Middle East Insight
For the show’s sixth season, they focused almost entirely on the United States relations with the Middle East. In order to get the most authenticity possible, the show actually consulted with the Israeli ambassador at the time. He flew from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles and even visited the set, meeting with various cast and crew. He also took time to fully explain the details of Israel and their relationship with the United States which obviously helped immensely in crafting the season. The season was quite poignant and of course reflected real life, particularly in a post- 9/11 United States.
Revenge Of The Nerds Connection?
Oddly enough, The West Wing has quite the connection to the Revenge of The Nerds films. Multiple actors appear in both the show and the film series. For instance, Bradley Whitford or Josh Lyman on The West Wing also played Roger in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. Timothy Busfield or Danny Concannon on The West Wing played Arnold Poindexter in the first two Revenge of the Nerds films. Ted McGinley appeared in several West Wing episodes as anchorman Mark Gottfried also played Stan Gable in in multiple Revenge of the Nerds movies. Then actor James Hong, appeared in the West Wing as a Chinese ambassador was the actor who played Snotty in the second Revenge of the Nerds film. John Goodman played President Glenallen Walken in The West Wing and was also the football coach in the original Revenge of the Nerds. James Cromwell played former President Newman in The West Wing and also played Mr. Skolnick in all four Revenge of the Nerds movies. And lastly, F. William Parker showed up in the first episode of the West Wing as Reverend Caldwell and also appeared as the policeman in the first Revenge of the Nerds film. Whew! Do they have the same casting director or what?!
In The West Wing, The Oval Office set that is scene on film was originally created by designer Michael J. Taylor. It was originally made for the film Dave back in 1993, which starred Kevin Kline and Sirgouney Weaver. It was later used for the filming of The American President. The film happened to also be written by Aaron Sorkin and starred some of the future West Wing actors including Martin Sheen, Joshua Malina and Anna Deavere Smith. The same Oval Office was used during the filming of Contact which starred Jodi Foster and Matthew McConaughey. Apparently, during Contact the original carpeting had to be replaced which cost $28,000.