It’s no coincidence that John Spencer was on two series that won a combined five best drama Emmys while he was on board.
David Kelley, who was running “L.A. Law” when Spencer joined in 1990, chose Spencer, who suddenly died of a heart attack Friday at 58, as the perfect man to play rumpled attorney Tommy Mullaney. And another small-screen genius, “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, figured out that Spencer was the only actor who had the gravitas to give life to his Leo McGarry.
Those decisions came years after Spencer, who won his own Emmy for “West Wing” and was nominated four other times, found his way as a successful actor. It was only after a short stint on “The Patty Duke Show” in the early 1960s and then bopping around regional theater for a couple of decades that Spencer made a name for himself. By his own admission, if he hadn’t been cast opposite Harrison Ford in the 1990 thriller “Presumed Innocent,” he might’ve still been playing occasional off-Broadway gigs and eking out a living.
But for viewers of quality TV over the last decade, Spencer will always be McGarry, President Josiah Bartlet’s right-hand man, the chief of staff who made the big decisions when Bartlet or anyone in his administration wasn’t up to the task.
Unlike any other character on the show, he had more baggage than the claim area at O’Hare. McGarry was a drug abuser and alcoholic, and every day in the White House had to battle his demons and hang on to his sobriety.
In his most touching episode from season one, a young White House staffer reveals to the press that there are people in the West Wing with a history of drug use, and the finger eventually is pointed to McGarry. The staffer is soon fired by Bartlet confidante Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and is packing her desk when McGarry confronts her.
Expecting a tongue-lashing, instead she gets a dose of compassion when he learns that her father was a drunk and that she was afraid he’d be making monumental decisions under the influence. He calls her decision to speak out brave and then asks her to stick around and use that courage on the job.
McGarry was the voice of reason in the Oval when others got caught up in self-righteousness. It didn’t take much for Brad Whitford’s Josh Lyman or Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler to lose it, and McGarry was often calming them down, telling them the politically correct move, minus the party vengeance.
But McGarry and Bartlet began to fall out of favor last season, and in a scene that now has eerie implications, McGarry had a heart attack in the woods outside Camp David and lay motionless on the ground. Eventually he would be found and make his way back to work, but with Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg replacing him as chief of staff.
And now that “Wing” was riding high again — creatively but certainly not ratings-wise — Spencer’s death could be a mortal blow, as if the drop in viewership wasn’t bad enough.
It’s never easy to keep a show’s momentum going after a vital member of the cast passes away. ABC’s “8 Simple Rules” was doing just fine when John Ritter unexpectedly died. The execs at the network and on the series but there was no denying the show had lost its raison d’etre. Soon after, the show was canceled.
“West Wing” is an entirely different animal — “Rules” was a comedy with a small cast and was still figuring out what type of show it wanted to be — NBC’s four-time Emmy winner is in the twilight of its run and has a deep ensemble. But now there’s a huge hole in the show, and one that won’t easily be filled.
Spencer’s McGarry had a pivotal role this season as the running mate of presidential candidate Matthew Santos, played by another “L.A. Law” vet, Jimmy Smits. And in a display of the deep respect McGarry had in the Democratic party, in the episode before Spencer’s death, McGarry was being talked about as a replacement for campaign chairman Lyman as the election nears its crucial final weeks.
Never one to backstab a longtime ally or put the party in a bad light, Spencer declined the offer and reiterated his faith in Lyman, with whom he had worked with for nearly eight years.
With probably two or three episodes in the can, “West Wing” writers now have the difficult task of figuring out how to explain Spencer’s sudden absence from the show. Since McGarry had health problems, it would make sense that they could say he had another heart attack or that the stress of the campaign caused a sudden brain aneurysm. But the show has often thrown convention out the window, so who knows?
How will this affect the presidential race? Santos seemed to be a few points down in the most recent polls to Republican nom Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) but the contest was far from over.
There was concern early on when Santos named McGarry as a running mate about how his tenuous health and addictions would be construed by the voters. Does the fact that Santos was assured his health would be OK say something about the president-to-be’s decision-making abilities? After initially extending their sympathies, would the Republicans exploit McGarry’s death for political gain? If he can’t pick a vice president, how can he run the free world?
If any type of tragedy struck the Republican ranks, there’s little doubt that McGarry would’ve been the person the Democrats immediately seek for counsel, asking what’s the right thing to do.
Spencer, ever low-key and always handing off accolades to those around him even though he was as deserving as anyone, would know exactly what to say. He always did.
Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Daily Variety in Los Angeles.