An Oral History of The West Wing
In 1999 a new NBC drama broke all the rules and changed the face of television forever. The West Wing followed the lives of White House staffers and the President of the United States in a fictional Democratic administration. Created by Aaron Sorkin, the show is regarded as one of the greatest ever network TV shows and it paved the way for an era of intelligent, complex TV drama. Here, the chief protagonists reflect on how The West Wing rewrote the rulebook for network television.
Aaron Sorkin (series creator): People incorrectly assume that the idea for The West Wing came from The American President, a 1995 psychological thriller I made with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, but the show was actually conceived on the set of A Few Good Men [1992 film written by Sorkin and starring Tom Cruise]. Tom Cruise and Tommy Lee Jones [Jack Nicholson] were doing their famous “this pastrami is terrible” scene. And I said to the director Rob Reiner, “can you imagine if these guys had to live together?!”
Rob Reiner (director of A Few Good Men): I do not remember Aaron ever speaking to me on set.
Aaron Sorkin: That conversation with Rob lit a fire inside me. Imagining Tom Cruise and Tommy Lee Jones [Jack Nicholson] living together. And in New York! They would both be single, so you can imagine the fun we could have with that. But the real hook was their conflicting personalities. Cruise would play a neat freak and Jones’ [Nicholson’s] character would be a real slob. This was the era of safe, network TV. No one had thought about having conflicting personalities in your lead characters.
Thomas Schlamme (executive producer The West Wing): I always remember Aaron approaching me about The West Wing. I had never seen him so excited. And he had a dynamite idea, but the conflicting personalities angle was a little ‘out there’.
Aaron Sorkin: With Tommy, his unofficial role was to ground me in reality. I would go on these flights of fancy and Tommy would reign it in a little.
Thomas Schlamme: I think eventually Aaron realized he would need to tone it down slightly if this had a chance of being made.
Aaron Sorkin: I rewrote the first script dozens of times. Yes, I wanted to push boundaries, but we live in the real world. I made Cruise’s character neat, but definitely not a freak. With the Jones [Nicholson] role, it was a complete rewrite. America wasn’t ready for a slob, probably still isn’t.
Thomas Schlamme: We had the characters, we had the script but we didn’t have a network. Aaron wanted Netflix, that shows how ahead of his time he was.
Scott Sassa (former President of NBC Entertainment, West Coast): When Aaron and John [Well, producer] pitched me I knew they had something. But it wasn’t fully cooked.
Aaron Sorkin: The network were interested but they had some concerns.
John Wells (producer): Aaron’s script was a word-for-word copy of the first episode of The Odd Couple.
Aaron Sorkin: When Sassa said, “you gotta change some stuff’ I was livid. I had run up against this on Sports Night [Sorkin-scripted ABC drama that ran from 1998–2000] and I wasn’t going to let it happen again.
Thomas Schlamme: That was a battle that we needed to fight early on. We needed to draw a line in the sand with the network and say, “no interference”. We held firm and NBC relented. The original script was kept. There were some minor tweaks, but Aaron’s vision was kept
Aaron Sorkin: That was an important moment, to let the network know we wouldn’t bend. Switching to a Washington location and making it about White House staffers, that was window dressing. We had kept the show we wanted to make.
Thomas Schlamme: Now we just had to cast it. We were starting from a blank canvass since Aaron got rid of the characters he wrote for Cruise and Nicholson.
John Wells: In my 25 years of working on TV I’ve never an easier time casting. Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, they all signed on immediately. Martin Sheen said yes before I could even show him the script. I literally said, “Hi Martin, my name is…” and he interrupted me and said, “I’m in”.
Rob Lowe (Sam Seaborn, Deputy Communications Director): I’ll always remember where I was when I read the script for the pilot. I was in my agent’s office. That’s where I read scripts.
Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff): This was one of the best scripts I had ever seen. It was so dark, this was darker than anything I had ever seen. And it was funny. Funnier than anything ever seen. Think of any adjective and script was the most of that I had ever seen.
Aaron Sorkin: That first episode we needed to establish just how scared the main characters show are. If the audience didn’t get how scared they were we would be doomed from the start.
Thomas Schlamme: Aaron would always refer to “the fear”. That’s what drives his characters, fear.
Aaron Sorkin: We didn’t want to spoonfeed the audience, this was TV for grown-ups. So we never showed the ghosts.
Allison Janney (CJ Craig, White House Press Secretary): That was the first thing that struck me on set. It’s network TV, you expect they will make it clear from the start that the White House was haunted. But Aaron and Tommy would only allude to it. That was a brave thing to do on network television. NBC were losing their minds.
Scott Sassa: We argued, I wanted that money shot where the ghosts came into view but they said, “no, no. Tell, don’t show”. It’s an argument that I’m glad I lost.
Thomas Schlamme: And that, of course, is how the “walk and talk” began.
Bradley Whitford: Ghosts can’t catch you if you never stand still.
Janel Moloney (Donna Moss, Senior Assistant to John Lyman): I was originally just going to be a minor character.
Aaron Sorkin: When I saw the spark between Brad and Janel on set I knew they would be the show’s “will they, won’t they”.
Janel Moloney: We were like Ross and Rachel. If Rachel was a ghost and Ross was Deputy Chief of Staff in a Democratic White House.
Stockard Channing (Abbey Bartlet): I loved how Aaron never used the word ‘ghost’. He was more subtle. He would call them “other people”. Like I would say “don’t talk to me like I’m other people”.
Martin Sheen (President Josiah Bartlet): When I went to the first table reading Aaron and Tommy said, “we can make your character less racist”. But I was fine with how racist he was.
Thomas Schlamme: We were so happy to get Martin but we were worried he wouldn’t want to play a racist. We offered to tone it down, but he was a pro. He said, “Bartlet’s a racist. This is the real world”.
Martin Sheen: The journey for my character was intriguing. You see this man go from being racist, to slightly less racist. That was an interesting journey. Up until then racist characters on TV either became not racist or maintained the same level of racism throughout.
Dule Hill (Charlie Young, Personal Aide to the President): For my character, to work for this racist man and to then see that man become a little less racist, it was a journey you just didn’t see on network television. Up until then characters would either observe racist characters became not racist or they would observe a racist character maintaining the same level of racism.
Aaron Sorkin: That was another battle with the network. They would send memos saying, “can Bartlet become not racist?” or sometimes they would change tack and say, “can Bartlet maintain his original level of racism?” They were not comfortable with this evolving level of racism.
Martin Sheen: When fans of the show speak to me about Bartlet then never mention his racism, and that, I think, is a testament to Aaron’s writing.
Allison Janney: The only note Aaron ever gave me about CJ was to never forget how tall I was. He would say, “you’re playing the tallest woman in the world Allison”.
Aaron Sorkin: That was always fascinated me. The idea that the tallest documented woman in the world could also be a skilled political operative. How would you show that juxtaposition?
Thomas Schlamme: The watchword on set was ‘subtle’. How can we show something subtly? Yes it was obvious that CJ was tall. But how could we press home the point to viewers without ‘spoonfeeding’ them? Aaron agonized over this. He wanted to show viewers a strong, powerful — and above all tall — woman.
Aaron Sorkin: Everything seemed forced. I wanted the audience to get how tall C.J was but not to feel spoken down to. I always remember my “a-ha” moment. The late, great John Spencer [Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff] said, and I’ll always remember this, he said, “tell them with your words”. And that’s what I did. I would insert the word ‘tall’ into C.J’s lines. Just randomly and only a few times per episode. Tell don’t show.
Thomas Schlamme: That was “tell, don’t show” at it’s best.
Rob Lowe: I’ll always remember where I was for that first scene. It was at the set for The West Wing where we filmed The West Wing.
Thomas Schlamme: With Rob it was just a case of giving him the script and having him say the words. It was that simple. I just said, “Rob, just say the words on the script. But pretend you are Sam Seaborn when you say them. And walk where I tell you. And don’t say other character’s lines”. It was that simple.
CHANGING THE GAME
Martin Sheen: There is a famous scene early in season two where Bartlet walks into a room of talk radio hosts and racially abuses everyone. That scene was the moment I thought, “wow, I’ll never work on a show like this again.”
Aaron Sorkin: That scene is a fan favourite, but the studio fought us on it. But I wrote it so Bartlet abuses all races, he calls CJ a “cracker whore”, and when you’re racist to everyone, you’re racist to no one. That’s writing 101.
Scott Sassa: I never agreed with Aaron’s racist-to-everyone/no-one rule. Never understood it.
Thomas Schlamme: September 11 was the show’s defining moment. We knew we had to say something important. The nation was hurting and we had to address that.
Bradley Whitford: We needed to handle this very carefully. At lot of us were nervous about how best to tackle an issue like this. But Aaron just knew, he knew. He said, “what if Bartlet stops it?”
Martin Sheen: When I heard the idea I assumed that he would get information about the attack in the situation room. But to make it so that Bartlet uncovered it himself. With no help. That was brave.
Aaron Sorkin: That was so interesting to me. The thought of a powerful man, the President of the United States, sitting in a coffee shop and hearing these Muslim men plotting the 9/11 attacks. That dynamic, that conflict, it was so interesting to me.
Richard Schiff: And that scene where Bartlet says, “why won’t you listen to me? They’re plotting something!” And we wouldn’t listen. It was great TV. It was 24 [Fox TV show starring Kiefer Sutherland] weeks before 24 had even aired.
Bradley Whitford: When Bartlet stopped the 9/11 attacks by holding that terrorist until help arrived, that was a healing moment for the country.
Aaron Sorkin: It became too much for me. Writing and acting and singing an entire episode every week was too much.
Thomas Schlamme: Doing the writing on it’s own may have been manageable. But Aaron insisted on acting the entire script out and putting it to music. Every week. That shows the level of commitment he brought to the table. No one, and I mean no one, expected or wanted him to act or sing. All of the fotage was unusable. That is the definition of giving it all.
Bradley Whitford: One day Aaron said, “I’m going to the shop for cigarettes” and never came back. I knew he wouldn’t be back, but I think it was more difficult for others to accept.
Rob Lowe: Aaron will be back any day now.
John Wells: Once Aaron left it was hard for Rob to focus, after a few weeks he wandered out of the studio lot saying he was going to find Aaron. It was one of those moments when you just knew an era was over.
Martin Sheen: It was hard after that. My character wasn’t as racist as he once was, there wasn’t the same tension to scenes I was in.
Bradley Whitford: We definitely drifted for a year or two. The were the London episode and the musical episodes. Of course they worked. But too many hours felt like we were phoning it in.
Jimmy Smits (Matthew Santos): I felt my appearance gave the show new life. Martin always says it invigorated him.
Martin Sheen: I was going through the motions until Jimmy came on board. Suddenly here was something for Bartlet to fight. No way was he going to let a Mexican into the White House!
Allison Janney: We finished on a high. Bartlet had his battles with Santos. My storyline about getting even taller was a great move.
Bradley Whitford: She [CJ] just kept getting taller! That was such inspired writing.
Thomas Schlamme: We exist in a much safer world today. Imagine going to HBO or Netflix and saying, “I want to make a show about a racist, a giant and a group of misfits battling ghosts in the most important office in the world”. They would run you out of town. Nobody wants to see that show. They just want bad game shows and chemistry teachers fighting dwarves for Kevin Spacey’s pleasure.
Bradley Whitford: Fans still come up to me and say, “I’m so glad you and Donna finally got together”. It was bittersweet for me really. For Josh to get the girl he needed to die and become ‘other people’, just like her.
Martin Sheen: People say it was one of the greatest shows. I say it was the greatest. Not the greatest show, the greatest. They ask for clarification, but [stops talking].
Aaron Sorkin: I don’t think about legacies. They are irrelevant. Every time people see the White House or hear any American president speak, past, present or future, they will immediately think of their favourite moment in The West Wing. That, to me, is my legacy.