'The West Wing' oral history: 9 things you didn't know or forgot

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Image Credit: James Sorensen/NBC

Since Frank Underwood became president on Netflix’s House of Cards, I’ve had this geek fantasy of him debating Josiah Bartlet, Martin Sheen’s idealistic and professorial president from The West Wing. Bartlet’s Washington, D.C., was the proverbial shining city on a hill, a place where intelligent, well-intentioned people gravitated to do the peoples’ business. Underwood’s capital is the nasty underbelly of a trough coated by man’s craven pursuit of power for power’s sake. It’s practically Kennedy’s Camelot versus Nixononian realpolitik. To paraphrase Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon in Oliver Stone’s 1995 movie, “When [people] look at The West Wing, they see what they want to be. When they look at House of Cards, they see what they are.”

The West Wing was a political world worth aspiring to, and eight years after the show went off the air, many young politicos — more liberal than conservative, of course — reference Aaron Sorkin’s show as an early influence that pointed them towards D.C. The Hollywood Reporter recently published an oral history, celebrating the 15th anniversary of the show’s premiere, with Sorkin, showrunner Tommy Schlamme, and many from the cast and crew contributing. It’s a fun, nostalgic read, one that digs into several what-ifs and reinforces my belief that Bartlet would debate “There’s No ‘U’ and ‘I’ in Education” Underwood under the table.

1. Martin Sheen was practically an accidental president

The show first offered the nation’s top job to Sidney Poitier, and Jason Robards was high on everyone’s list, but the 77-year-old was not in good health and would die in 2000. Hal Holbrook and John Cullum (ER) also read for the part. But Sheen, who’d worked with Sorkin on The American President, was a natural who made the showrunners reconsider the size of the role of their president.

2. Eugene Levy was almost Toby

Can you imagine a communications director with two left feet? The Best in Show star was the runner-up for the role of Toby Ziegler. “I ran into [Eugene] at a party years later,” says Richard Schiff, “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.'”

3. Rob Lowe had to audition, but Moira Kelly didn’t

Sorkin was dead-set against Lowe as Sam Seaborn, because he worried that a “movie star” would upset the delicate ensemble he was hoping to put together. But Lowe blew Sorkin away at his audition and alleviated any concerns. “Pay him whatever he wants,” he told producers. Kelly, on the other hand, was handed the role of Mandy Hampton, the political consultant and ex-girlfriend of Josh Lyman. She lasted just 22 episodes. “Moira was a joy to work with, a total pro who understood as time went on that for whatever reasons — and those reasons had nothing to do with her considerable talent — it just wasn’t working,” said Sorkin.

4. Elisabeth Moss edged Winnie Cooper for the role of Zoey Bartlet

Wonder Years‘ Danica McKellar would eventually get the role of Will Bailey’s stepsister in season 4.

5. Mrs. Landingham’s death was technically a suicide

Everyone remembers when the president’s executive secretary was killed by a drunk driver in season 2, a heartbreaking event that drives the great season finale, “Two Cathedrals.” But actress Kathryn Joosten inadvertently sealed her character’s fate during a cigarette break with Sorkin. “She told Aaron that she was up for a pilot test, and since she wasn’t a regular he knew he couldn’t hold her,” said Kevin Falls, co-executive producer. “At first I could tell Aaron was bummed, and then after she walked away he turned to me and said: ‘We’re going to kill Mrs. Landingham…'”

6. The hours were really arduous on The West Wing, but Bradley Whitford has a more colorful way of expressing that sentiment.

“The invisible carnage of the unf—ed wives and the children not being read to is just wafting out.” — Bradley Whitford

7. The producers at least toyed with the idea of Bartlet losing his re-election

Sorkin and Schlamme left the show at the end of season 4, and the creative future of the show was, if not in doubt, at least on shaky ground. “I pitched an idea to both of them,” said Schiff. “‘You know what would be amazing? If we lost [the election]. Just imagine. No one would be expecting it. We would lose and we’re gone. That’s the end of it.’ Tommy said that was actually an amazing idea but the network and studio would never go for it because they have to make their money back.”

8. Schiff still isn’t over being fired (and Sorkin has his back)

Schiff was never fired, of course, but Toby Ziegler was canned for leaking classified information. Schiff protested privately, and then publicly, and he’s still bummed by the decision, mostly because it didn’t seem consistent with his understanding of the character. “[In a letter to me, Sorkin] said, ‘I’ve heard what’s happening to your character [Toby was fired and faced years in prison during season 7 but ultimately was pardoned] and I’m so sorry,'” said Schiff. “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.”

9. Old presidents don’t die, they just fade away. At least in Sorkin’s mind.

Sorkin returned for the series finale, which culminated in the election of Jimmy Smits’ Congressman Santos as president, but only for an onscreen cameo. But he never had a detailed plan for what his hypothetical capper might look like. “From time to time, my mind would wander to what a series finale would look like,” he said. “I didn’t have any ideas — just an image. Bartlet, the now ex-president, would be in street clothes and a baseball cap and just blend into the crowd until we couldn’t make him out anymore.”

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