Friday, December 16, 2005

A Passing of Note

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a big watcher of TV, but I do have my favorites. For the past few years, THE WEST WING has been one of them. (Yeah, I'm a big governmental policy wonk. Color you SHOCKED, I'm sure.)

As an aside, I urge anyone who's never had the pleasure of watching THE WEST WING to check out the reruns that air almost every weekday on Bravo. The writing and acting are superb, and's not REALLY a show about the government. It's a show about a bunch of smart, funny, interesting people who happen to work for the government, just like ER is a show about a bunch of screwed up folks who happen to work in a hospital.

Today, Emmy Award-winning actor John Spencer, who played the character of White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on THE WEST WING, died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 58.

Quoting Lynn Elber of the AP:

"Spencer died at a Los Angeles hospital, said his publicist, Ron Hofmann...

He was 'one of those rare combinations of divinely gifted and incredibly generous,' said actor Richard Schiff, who played [White House Communications Director] Toby Ziegler on the NBC series.

'There are very few personal treasures that you put in your knapsack to carry with you for the rest of your life, and he's one of those,' Schiff said. He said Spencer had been struggling with health issues but seemed to have rebounded.

'John was a consummate professional actor and everyone adored him,' said actress Allison Janney, C.J. Cregg on the NBC series. 'We will miss him deeply.'

'We have all lost a dear, dear brother,' said
Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman.

'We're shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden death of our friend and colleague,' Aaron Sorkin, who created the series, and Tommy Schlamme, one of the original executive producers, said in a joint statement.

'John was an uncommonly good man, an exceptional role model and a brilliant actor. We feel privileged to have known him and worked with him. He'll be missed and remembered every day by his many, many friends,' they said.

'He was my brother; that is the most I can say,' said Martin Sheen, who plays the president, when reached at home yesterday. 'I just adored him. It's too big a hole.'

Series executive producer John Wells remembered Spencer not only for his acting but as 'a generous and
gracious friend.'

NBC and producer Warner Bros. Television issued a statement calling Spencer a 'remarkable man with enormous talent.' They did not address how his death would affect the Emmy Award-winning series, in production on its seventh season.

Spencer, who also starred on LA LAW as attorney Tommy Mullaney, received an Emmy Award for his performance on THE WEST WING in 2002 and was nominated four other times for the series.

The actor, whose world-weary countenance was perfect for the role of McGarry, mirrored his character in several ways: Both were recovering alcoholics and both, Spencer once said, were driven."

For me, the character of Leo McGarry was the grandfather I'd always wanted--solid, principled, compassionate, good-humored, courageous, and with "a map of the world on his face." The actor who embodied him earned my respect by breathing life into the lines written for him, and making him human--so human that the tears I shed this evening when I heard of his death were for both the man and the fiction he'd created.

Those who knew him say John Spencer was a man among men. Leo McGarry was, to my mind, the soul of what is arguably the finest hour of non-premium television on the air today. It is well that THE WEST WING is likely in its last season, as I cannot conceive of how it would continue without him.

The following is from a Season Two episode titled "Noel." In this scene, Leo is talking to his Deputy, Josh, who is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome following a shooting. Josh fears that he'll lose his job at the White House due to his ongoing problem.

Leo says:

"This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?'

The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?'

The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by. 'Hey, Joe, it's me, can
you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole.

Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.'

The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out.' "

Leo always knew the way out. And John Spencer knew how to make us believe in Leo.

Godspeed, Mr. Spencer. You'll be missed.

And good night, Mr. McGarry, wherever you are.


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