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Alan Alda: He Really Was a Contender

On The West Wing, Alda played Sen. Arnold Vinick, a Republican candidate for president. He is perhaps best known for his work on the TV series M*A*S*H. His autobiography is Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. This interview with Dave Davies originally aired on Sept. 21, 2005.


Other segments from the episode on May 12, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 12, 2006: Review of the television show "The West Wing;" Interview with Brad Whitford; Interview with Alan Alda; Interview with John Spencer; Review of the film "Down…


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interviews: Cast members Bradley Whitford, Alan Alda and John
Spencer talk about NBC drama series "The West Wing"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

NBC's "The West Wing" presents its final episode this Sunday after seven
seasons on the air. The network is preceding this last hour of "The West
Wing," with the very first hour, by repeating the 1999 pilot that launched the
series. So today on FRESH AIR, in addition to commenting on the way "The West
Wing" started and is ending, we'll revisit interviews with some of its cast
members: Bradley Whitford, Alan Alda and the late John Spencer.

The pilot of "The West Wing" was a brilliant hour of television, a virtually
perfect TV pilot, introducing the characters, settings and conflicts in one
seamless entertaining package.

Aaron Sorkin, who created the series, wrote the script and Tommy Schlamme
directed it. That first "West Wing" introduced us, not only to the primary
characters but to a previously unfamiliar acronym. In a key early scene, Rob
Lowe, playing presidential adviser Sam Seaborn, has just spent the night with
a woman he met in a bar. What he doesn't know until later in the show is that
she's a prostitute. What she doesn't know, until he gets an urgent message on
his beeper, is that he works for and in the White House.

(Soundbite from "The West Wing" pilot)

Unidentified Actress: (As Lori, a prostitute) How you doing, Sam?

Mr. ROB LOWE: (As Sam Seaborn) Let me tell you something. The water
pressure in here is really impressive.

Actress: (As Lori) I know.

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) You could have hydraulics in here.

Actress: (As Lori) You want some?

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) I'm fine.

Actress: (As Lori) I'm wasted.

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) And probably free of cataracts.

Actress: (As Lori) I get that. That's funny.

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) Thank you.

Actress: (As Lori) Oh, wait. I'm sorry. Your message--your pager went off
while you were in the shower. I hit the button because I thought it was mine.
`Potus in a bicycle accident. Come to the office.' I memorized it just in
case I erased it by accident. These things look exactly alike. Anyway, like
I said, I'm totally baked. But tho--it's not like I'm a drug person. I just
love pot.

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) Lori, I need to go.

Actress: (As Lori) You're kidding me. It's 5:30 in the morning.

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) I know this doesn't look good.

Actress: (As Lori) Not that good, no.

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) You know what, I really like you, and if you give me
your number, I'd like to call you.

Actress: (As Lori) Stay right here. Save yourself a call.

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) It's not that I don't see the logic in that but I
really got to go.

Actress: (As Lori) Because Potus was in a bicycle accident?

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) Yep.

(Soundbite of paper tearing, kiss)

Actress: (As Lori) Tell your friend Potus he's got a funny name, and he
should learn how to ride a bicycle.

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) I would but he's not my friend. He's my boss. It's
not his name, it's his title.

Actress: (As Lori) Potus?

Mr. LOWE: (As Seaborn) President of the United States. I'll call you.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: That's how "The West Wing" started. How it has ended, for the
last season and a half, is with a fascinating look at a presidential election
from both sides of the political fence. Alan Alda plays the Republican front
runner, Arnold Vinick. Jimmy Smits plays the dark-horse Democratic
challenger, Matt Santos. Both of these tenured TV stars have been terrific in
their roles.

And as Josh Lyman, who handpicked Santos to run and guides his dark-horse
presidential campaign all the way to victory, Bradley Whitford has been the
real star of this final year of "The West Wing." Certainly, he's the one
original cast member who's gotten the best story line and done the most with
it. When Josh melted down, trying to track the anomalies of the vote on
election night, Whitford's portrayal was equal parts passion and panic and was

Terry spoke with Bradley Whitford four years ago. At that point on "The West
Wing," Josh's problems and Whitford's performances were just as memorable as
they've been this season. Josh was deputy White House chief of staff then,
and CJ, played by Allison Janney, was the press secretary. They're discussing
the crisis of the moment, which is typically complicated. President Bartlet,
played by Martin Sheen, is about to go public in a nationally televised
interview with the formerly secret news that he suffers from multiple
sclerosis. CJ and Josh don't know how he'll break the news, or even how he'll
answer the question about whether he'll run for re-election.

(Soundbite from "The West Wing")

Ms. ALLISON JANNEY: (As CJ) We'll call them Answer A and Answer B.

Mr. BRADLEY WHITFORD: (As Josh Lyman) Yeah.

Ms. JANNEY: (As CJ) Mr. President, does this mean you won't be seeking a
second term? Answer A is `You bet! I will absolutely be seeking a second
term. I'm looking forward to the campaign. There is great work for us that
is yet to be done.'

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Yes.

Ms. JANNEY: (As CJ) Answer B.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) `Are you out of your mind? I can't possibly win
re-election. I lied about a degenerative illness on the target of a grand
jury investigation, and Congress is about to take me out to lunch. I'd sooner
have my family take their clothes off and dance the tarantella on the Truman
balcony than go through a campaign with this around my neck.' Think that's two
on the nose?

Ms. JANNEY: (As CJ) I do.

(End of soundbite)


Brad Whitford, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. WHITFORD: Thank you. It is such a joy to be here.

GROSS: Well, President Bartlet is about to publicly disclose that he has MS,
and we and his staff are kind of waiting to find out if he's running for
re-election or not. Any clues what we're in store for tonight?

Mr. WHITFORD: I can tell you that nobody knows, in the cast. I don't think
Aaron has made a final decision yet, and there are actually more ways that
this could go than one would think. So, there's a big question for Bartlet as
to whether an election is viable now. And there's a question, I think, for
Martin Sheen about whether he wants to do a TV show.

GROSS: Ah-ha.


GROSS: Here's the problem, if President Bartlet decides not to run again, and
Martin Sheen decides he doesn't want to do a TV show, like you and the rest of
the White House staff are kind of out of a job, aren't you?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, there are a lot of scenarios that could remedy that. We
have a very tricky vice president, of course, Hoynes, who we don't quite get
along with. Things could happen to Hoynes. I've always kidded Tim Matheson
that he's a heartbeat away from a regular. So there are all sorts of things
that could happen. It's very funny because we started doing this show a year
into our term, and when a show does as well as this has, which has really
shocked us all, I think we all thought it would be maybe a snooty little
critic's darling, but when a show does this well commercially, they start to
look way down the road, and you know, they're looking for ways, you know,
either--we may have to change the Constitution to get to syndication.

GROSS: Last season ended with a would-be assassin shooting one of the members
of the White House staff. It was a cliff-hanger ending, and we didn't know
who was shot until the first episode of the new season. That person turned
out to be you.

Mr. WHITFORD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: When did you find out that you were the one who was shot?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, I was--we were shooting the final episode of the first
year, and we were at the Newseum in Virginia outside of Washington, DC. And
the way we shot it, there was--you would just hear the shots. We were
screaming `Gun,' and there was chaos, chaos, chaos, and nobody knew who was
going to be shot, and Aaron just kind of casually walked by me, and said,
`It's going to be you.'

GROSS: Tag, you're it.

Mr. WHITFORD: Tag, you're it. And then it was very funny because I kept the
secret even from my mother who actually lives in Philadelphia, and it was very
funny because when the second season premiered, I was at work, and it was
about 6:00, and the show was on at 9 in Philadelphia, and I said, `I just want
to listen to the teaser with you, so stay on the phone.' And she said, `Oh, my
goodness, they shot Martin,' because they revealed that the president got
shot. And then when it was revealed that I was shot, she said, `Oh, dear! I
have to hang up now,' and she hung up on me.

GROSS: Now why did you have to wait until the night of the broadcast to tell
her? Why couldn't you tell her before?

Mr. WHITFORD: I just thought that she would enjoy the experience of the show
a little more.

You weren't afraid that she'd take it to The New York Times and spill the

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, she's got a mouth on her, yeah. She basically walks
around Philadelphia with a sandwich board on her back saying `My son is on
"The West Wing,"' so she was not somebody I wanted to tell.

GROSS: Now when Aaron Sorkin told you that it was you, it was your character
who was shot, did you think, `Well, that's a good thing. You know, now you'll
have more, kind of, subplots,' and your character will be the center of
attention for a while, or did you think, `Wait a minute. What if the
character dies?'

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, I was fairly confident that the character was not going
to die. I was also--it was fairly clear that this was not a good time to
renegotiate. But I was actually quite honored by it, because I--it was an
important event in the show, and it meant a lot to me, that I think part of
the reason Aaron did it was because he felt like people would not want you to
be shot. And it felt like a compliment getting shot.

GROSS: Well, your character healed pretty quickly physically, but you became
a little edgy, a little paranoid and started behaving kind of inappropriately.
And in the Christmas episode, the chief of staff actually sends in an expert
in dealing with posttraumatic stress syndrome to help you out.


GROSS: And so let's hear a scene that's an example of why the White House
staff was so worried about you. Here you are in the Oval Office with the
president and the chief of staff behaving quite inappropriately.

(Soundbite from "The West Wing")

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Did I say I think it's a bad idea?

Mr. MARTIN SHEEN: (As President Bartlet) Why?

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) It's not something Didion's going to like.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Well, I'm just talking about a meeting but if I
decide to do it, the president controls the SPR, not Congress.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Yeah, but Didion controls the IMF vote.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) The two aren't related. Let's move on.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) The two are related.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) How?

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Through Didion.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) I'm saying the strategic petroleum reserve and
forgiving the IMF debt are not related.

Unidentified Actor: (As chief of staff) Anything else?

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Of course, they're related!

Actor: (As chief of staff) Josh!

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) If Didion doesn't like what's happening to the SPR,
he's not going to let the IMF debt out of committee.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Well, talk to him tonight.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Mr. President...

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) At the Christmas party, we'll talk him aside.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) No! Sir, you can't just take him aside.

Actor: (As chief of staff) Josh! We can move on from this.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) We can't move on from this.

Actor: (As chief of staff) Josh!

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) We can't just take him aside! If we tell him we
need his help, then we give him visibility and power, and we put him in a
position to say no and be a hero to his party, and who wouldn't want to do
that for a living?

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Josh, Didion's a good guy. We can talk to him.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) You need to listen to me. You have to listen to
me. I can't help you unless you listen to me. You can't send Christmas cards
to everyone. You can't do it. Forget the SPR. Let's get the IMF loans like
we said we were going to. Listen to what I have to say about Didion, and,
please, listen to me.

(Soundbite of Josh's breathing)

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Josh.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) All right. Let's move on.

Actor: (As chief of staff) Josh, go wait in my office, would you?

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) I suppose if it's just a meeting...

Actor: (As chief of staff) Wait in my office, would you?

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) OK.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That scene is really kind of out of character for you, which is why
they sent in the traumatic stress expert, but as an actor, it must have been
interesting because it gave you a chance to show a different side of your
character and of yourself.

Mr. WHITFORD: Yeah. I--you know, the challenge in that episode was to get a
Josh that could conceivably get through the day who wasn't clearly nuts, but
there was something very dangerous going on with him. It was difficult
dealing with--the most interesting thing was to deal with his attempts at
humor, which are a defense mechanism for Josh and something he's very, very
good at. And in this particular episode, it was very tricky trying to sort of
find a way to do his humor in a way that simply did not work. It was very
difficult to scream at Martin that way because he just looked heartbroken, and
I adore Martin. It was a very difficult thing to that inappropriately

BIANCULLI: Bradley Whitford, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll continue our
tribute to "The West Wing" in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's return to our interview with Bradley Whitford who plays Josh
Lyman on "The West Wing." The final episode of the series airs on Sunday after
seven years on the air.

GROSS: "The West Wing" started in the Clinton era and was perceived as an
idealized version of the Clinton White House. Now that Clinton is out and
George W. Bush is in, do you think that there's been changes on the script or
are you expecting changes in the series to kind of reflect that there's a
Republican White House now.

Mr. WHITFORD: No, I--you know, first of all, we were clearly not Clinton.
Bartlet is clearly not Clinton. He is a progressive Democrat. I actually
think that the current scenario is, for the show--this is different from what
I think would be the best thing for the country, but for the show, I think
that the current scenario is actually the best because it would have been
awkward if we were portraying a progressive, heroic Democratic president in an
era where, you know, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. We would have been
sort of anachronistic, I think. But now we're able to be a kind of a
contrast. I also believe that--I think there's something inherently heroic
about a progressive Democratic president. And I don't think our show would
work if at the end of the hour, the music swelled and we were all, you know,
jumping up and down in the Oval Office saying, `You know, hey, we're drilling
on protected lands.' You know, `We got the huge tax cut for the top bracket.'
You know, I just don't think it would work.

GROSS: How closely do you watch the White House and how closely do you watch
your counterpart in the White House?

Mr. WHITFORD: I watch it very carefully, actually. I mean, I follow in the
papers, I have spoken to Josh Bolten, who is President Bush's deputy chief of
staff, and I've spoken a lot to Steve Riccetti who was Clinton's chief of
staff. In each White House, the roles of deputy chief of staff or chief of
staff are--have many different responsibilities. On our show, we should
probably--we should have a show that has 40 characters in it. There are so
many roles in the White House that we dramatically cannot cram into a one-hour
show, so my deputy chief of staff, you know, is actually down on the Hill,
cajoling representatives and senators, and you know, I'm meeting pollsters at
the airport. I'm doing a lot of the things that would be a little more farmed
out in the actual White House.

GROSS: I know that there have been episodes of "The West Wing" that have been
loosely based on things that have actually happened. I'm wondering if the
opposite has happened, if you've done episodes and then watched the real
version of it later play out at the White House, and if so, if you were
watching carefully to see how the deputy chief of staff at the White House was
dealing with it.

Mr. WHITFORD: How he was reacting to it?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WHITFORD: You know, there's actually a rumor, and I don't know if it's
true, we did a thing about the Antiquities Act where the president was trying
to preserve a piece of land, and there were some difficult negotiations with
the Senate. At the last minute, I pulled up the Antiquities Act and we used
it to preserve this land. There is a rumor that some people in the Interior
Department sort of picked up on that, and that some of the Clinton antiquities
actions were the result of that, but I don't know if that's true.

GROSS: Has anyone from the White House ever called you up and said you got it
right or you got it wrong?

Mr. WHITFORD: Yeah, I'll tell you. Last night I was sitting with Aaron
actually here in New York, and a guy from the State Department came up and
said that we had gotten a hostage situation in Colombia absolutely right. He
had dealt with one and was amazed at how accurately we had portrayed the
situation in the situation room and in the situation in Colombia. And that's
always shocking to us. I mean, what is surprising is the people in Washington
have taken it from both sides of the aisle, have taken it much more seriously
than we expected, I think partially because we are not portraying them
cynically. Usually politicians are either saints or buffoons, but we're
portraying smart people in--making very difficult decisions. But the other
thing is that we didn't anticipate was the power of--we did a show about the
census where there was an argument going on between computer sampling and head
counts, and this is a fairly esoteric policy argument that most people don't
think about. And we were able to get the bullet points of both sides of this
argument across to 18 million people in the course of doing a show that our
intent was not to feed America their vegetables and give them a civics lesson
but to entertain them. But in the course of that, you know, we happened to
get this across, and people in the White House have said that's an incredibly
powerful thing.

GROSS: Well, Brad Whitford. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WHITFORD: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Bradley Whitford speaking in 2001 with Terry Gross. We'll have
more of our salute to "The West Wing" in the second half of the show. I'm
David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


BIANCULLI: Coming up, we continue our tribute to the TV series "The West
Wing." The first and the last episodes air Sunday on NBC.

We'll hear from Alan Alda who played a Republican senator and the late John
Spencer who played the president's chief of staff.

Also, David Edelstein reviews "Down in the Valley," the new film from writer
and director David Jacobson.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry

On today's show, we're listening to interviews about "The West Wing" as a
salute to the show going off the air Sunday after seven years. Last fall, at
the beginning of the final season of "The West Wing," guest host Dave Davies
spoke with Alan Alda who had taken on the role of Republican presidential
hopeful, Arnold Vinick. While running for president on "The West Wing," Alda
also won rave reviews and a Tony nomination playing the desperate salesman
Shelley "the Machine" Levene in "Glengarry Glen Ross" on Broadway.

After all those years as Hawkeye on "MASH," Alda couldn't have hoped to find
an equally meaty and challenging role in a TV series, but as Arnold Vinick on
"The West Wing," he did. He came to "The West Wing" acting more like the
show's star than a guest star in a part that called for precisely that.
Here's a scene from early in this final season of "The West Wing." Vinick is
meeting with President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, to work out a deadlock
which has occurred in the Senate. The Republicans want a bill on the national
debt ceiling while the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage. Vinick has
come to the White House to negotiate.

(Soundbite from "The West Wing")

Mr. ALAN ALDA: (As Senator Arnold Vinick) Mr. President, I'd hate to think
that you were consulted by Democrats on the Hill about doing something as
irresponsible as playing games with the debt ceiling.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Have a seat.

(Soundbite of someone sitting in a chair)

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) But I'd like to think they'd follow your leadership if
we could agree on a way out of this mess.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) You came to the right place.

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) Good. What did you have in mind?

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Democrats withdraw a minimum wage amendment from the
debt ceiling bill. You pass the bill. Then you give them a vote on the
minimum wage.

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) You'll lose a vote on the minimum wage.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) We might be able to shame enough Republicans into
doing the right thing in an election year.

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) How about you withdraw the minimum wage amendment, we
pass the debt ceiling clean, and I round up enough Republican votes to pass
the minimum wage increase?

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) You can get that done?

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) We have Republican senators in seven states with
higher minimum wages than the federal level. California, it's about 50
higher. We don't want jobs moving to lower-wage states. I can get you the

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) What do you want from me?

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) I announce the deal.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) I know a few Democratic candidates for president who
wouldn't be happy watching you take credit for this.

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) Then let them pass the debt ceiling for you and get
you the minimum wage increase.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Anything else?

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) Help me keep a secret.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) What's that?

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) That I just gave you more than you asked for. Let me
hang around for a while as if we were really slugging it out in here.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Bartlet) Can I get you anything?

Mr. ALDA: (As Vinick) Where's the ice cream?

(End of soundbite)


My guest, Alan Alda, playing Senator Arnold Vinick on "West Wing."

You know, it's interesting because in "Glengarry Glen Ross," the Broadway
play, you play kind of a guy who's sort of desperate, pathetic, struggling
salesman. Here, you're a guy who wields power with such ease. Tell us about
getting into that role.

Mr. ALDA: I just shook hands with the part of myself that's powerful and at
ease with it. And so, it's actually fun to get to be different kinds of
people. I've always enjoyed playing somebody more powerful than myself and
more at ease in an emergency or more of a leader and that kind of thing. And
I found, even in my 20s, when I would play a part like that, I somehow was
able to take on those attributes in my normal life. The bad parts of the
characters that I played haven't stuck with me. I haven't gone on to be a
homicidal maniac after playing one. But I did take on some of the stronger
qualities. I think somehow playing it ou--having the freedom to play it out
and feeling the pleasure of it has sometimes allowed me to do it in real life.

But it's not as if it wasn't there in the first place. That's the interesting
thing about this process, this profession. You look inside yourself and find
out--very often you find out what has been in there all along that seems so
different to you and so alien to you. But we're made up of many different

DAVIES: Does Arl--does your wife, Arlene, know when you've brought a piece of
a character home with you?

Mr. ALDA: Yeah, unfortunately, while I'm playing the part sometimes it shows
up in the--even the negative side of it shows up in daily life. While I was
doing "Glengarry Glen Ross," I was cursing a lot. You know, I'd go to hang up
a jacket in the closet, and it would slip off the hanger, and you had--you
would have thought that I was being accosted in an alley, and I was fighting
for my life and I'm cursing and screaming and ye--and she, `What? What?' I
said, `A hanger fell.' And she says, `Boy, I can't wait till this play is
over.' Because I just wouldn't--I was the guy all the time.

BIANCULLI: Alan Alda, speaking last year on FRESH AIR with Dave Davies.
We'll conclude our salute to "The West Wing" with the late John Spencer, who
died suddenly last year after suffering a heart attack just four days shy of
his 59th birthday.

Spencer's great strength as an actor, portraying White House chief of staff
and then vice-presidential nominee Leo McGarry, was to convey, all at the same
time, a sense of intelligence, a sense of urgency and a definite sense of
humor. On the page, many of his lines, especially the ones written by series
creator Aaron Sorkin, may have looked almost minimalistic, but like the
dialogue of David Mamet, "The West Wing" has a definite musical rhythm to its
speech. And John Spencer was a virtuoso at hitting all the right notes. Here
he is talking to Josh, played by Bradley Whitford, in one of those familiar
scenes where the characters trade lines while marching briskly through White
House corridors. In backstage "West Wing" shorthand, these are called `walk
and talk scenes,' and Spencer was brilliant in them.

(Soundbite from "The West Wing")

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) You wanted me?

Mr. JOHN SPENCER: (As Leo McGarry) Yeah. It's all set up.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) The meeting?

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Yeah.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) This is great. Good is going to come from this.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Maybe.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Maybe, yeah, but how often do you get the...

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Yeah.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) When's the meeting?

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Day after tomorrow.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) You're kidding.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) No.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Perfect.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) You wanted to do it right away.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) What's the problem?

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Nothing.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) What's the problem?

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) There's a woman I've been see...

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Amy Gardner.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) I hear things.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) I know.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) I try to forget them quickly but...

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) We were supposed to--this is ridiculous but we were
supposed to go away.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Where?

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) It doesn't matter. We just--we've been having
trouble getting together--day after tomorrow?

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Go.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) I can't.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) Go.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) I need to be here for this.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) No, you don't.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Don't worry about it.

Mr. SPENCER: (As McGarry) My wife lives in my house. I live in a hotel.
And this is why.

Mr. WHITFORD: (As Lyman) Yeah. All ri--OK.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: John Spencer won an Emmy for his role as Leo. He also co-starred
on "LA Law" and made his first movie appearance in "War Games." As a teenager,
he was featured on "The Patty Duke Show," as British cousin Cathy's boyfriend.
He acted often on stage, and his other film roles included "Presumed Innocent"
and "The Rock." Terry spoke to John Spencer in April of 2000.

GROSS: Your character is a former alcoholic...

Mr. SPENCER: That's right.

GROSS: Who hasn't touched a, you know, drink for several years.

Mr. SPENCER: Right.

GROSS: I forget how many.

Mr. SPENCER: Eight.

GROSS: Recently, the fact that he had been to a rehab center was made public
by a kind of new aide in the White House...

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Someone who is very young and very new...

Mr. SPENCER: Right.

GROSS: this kind of job. Was she an intern?

Mr. SPENCER: She was an intern. She worked...

GROSS: Yeah, she was an intern.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. She worked in the administration office. She really
didn't work in the West Wing itself. She was in administration. But that
gave her privy to files.

GROSS: Well, so she secretly makes this file public...

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah.

GROSS: That, you know, you were in rehab.

Mr. SPENCER: She leaked it to a friend socially...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: ...and who was in the opposite political party, and he took the
football and ran with it.

GROSS: And it gets into the press, really big story...

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...very, very difficult for the White House to handle.

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely.

GROSS: One friend of yours suggests that you resign. He's no longer your
friend, I think.

Mr. SPENCER: That's right.

GROSS: And then, when the story's traced back to the intern, she's fired.
She comes into your office...

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...because you've invited her in.

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You talk it through, and then you tell her to keep her job.

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I was thinking, I wonder...

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, I...

GROSS: ...if the chief of staff would really say to the intern who leaks
something like this, `Go ahead, keep your job.'

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm. Being in recovery myself for 10 years, I kind of have
an intimacy with the rooms--with AA--and one of the precepts of the program is
forgiveness and lack of proselytizing. Share your story, don't do inventory
on other people's points of view. Love and forgive constantly.

And I think the turning point for Leo, which I had to find as an actor, I
think it just--you know, it is a conversation, he plans to fire her. He asks
her why she's done this, and in questioning why she did this, when she comes
out with the fact that her father was an alcoholic, and his irrationality and
strange behavior were so aberrant to her, so horrifying that--this was the
only other alcoholic she knew and suddenly finding out that the chief of staff
of the White House of the United States was also an alcoholic, her only point
of reference was her old man, was her dad. And I can't imagine how horrific
it must have been for her, thinking someone with these mood swings, someone
who might act like this, is in such a seat of power where people's lives could
be affected. And as she expresses that, I think myself, as Leo, have to
realize, well, the motivation is a positive one. The result might have been
horrible for me and for my friend the president and for our administration,
but this woman--it was not kind of nasty, you know, water-cooler gossip. It
was someone who really feared that it would--could be very dangerous to have a
man with this weakness or this problem in this important position. And when I
see that and I kind of note that she has a love of the government and a love
of its responsibility, feeling that she was well-motivated, I think I have to
give her a second chance, and God knows my character's been given through his
life a lot of second chances, so how can you get and not give, you know?

GROSS: Was the chief of staff character originally written as a recovering
alcoholic or was that aspect of his character written in after you got the
part because of your own experience?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, good question and often asked me. The truth of the
matter is it was not originally written that way. I have since because I've
been asked this question so many times, gone to Aaron and said, `Listen, how
much did I--did my life influence you there,' because we've talked very rarely
about it. I mean, I remember one time going into the sound stage and I was
yet struggling again with the cigarette-no cigarette thing, and we were
talking about addiction and I said, `Well, this is the last threshold for me,
and this is the hardest,' and then I started talking about being in recovery.
And I don't know if he knew about it before then or not, but it was a very
light, casual conversation. And since the episodes have aired that cover
this, I've been asked that question a lot because I'm not anonymous and people
know that I'm in recovery, so it seems like it's the obvious question. So I
went to Aaron and I asked him if my life influenced his desire to put the
character that way, and he said, `Absolutely not.' He said, you know, it was
part of his creative imagination, part of his own life experience, knowing
people in recovery, and I triggered it off by saying I was in recovery but he
was not basing it on my life.

GROSS: In TV, you're best known for your roles on "LA Law" and "The West
Wing" but your first recurring TV role...


GROSS: ...was on "The Patty Duke Show."

Mr. SPENCER: It certainly was.

GROSS: As Cathy's boyfriend, the British identical cousin.

Mr. SPENCER: The British identical cousin, I think. I for--what was the
role called? Henry Anderson, I think was the guy's name.

GROSS: You don't even remember.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I was 16. I'm 53 now so it was a while ago. Yeah, well,
what a lucky stroke! It was one of the first jobs I ever did in the show
business, and it was a lucky break. I mean, they were basically casting what
they saw is what they got. I had no training at the time, and I guess there
was something in my personality that they thought suited that character and
they just hired the man to play the character the way they wanted, and that's
what they got.

GROSS: Why don't you refresh our memory and describe the character?

Mr. SPENCER: Oh, he was kind of goofy. It was, you know, kind of a typical
teenager in the '60s. I don't--I watch some of the rewinds every once in a
while, and I look particularly tall and skinny to myself with very big ears
and the kind of voice that cracked as it got up in the higher register. So,

it's almost at times if I see that like I'm watching a different person, you

GROSS: Were you in it from the first episode or was the character written in

Mr. SPENCER: It was recurring. I was in the first episode, and I say I
would--maybe did 10 or 15 of the 22 of the first two seasons. And then the
show moved to California because Patty turned 18, and it was working codes and
things. She was not under the child labor law any longer so they could easily
do the show in California, and they didn't take any of the recurring people
with them to California, so I was only on the first two seasons.

GROSS: Did she get a new boyfriend?

Mr. SPENCER: Cathy? Cathy kind of played the field, as I remember.

GROSS: She was such a swinger. No, she wasn't.

Mr. SPENCER: No, she wasn't. The other one was. Do you remember the theme

GROSS: Oh, of course.

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, I do, too.

GROSS: Why don't you sing it? I'm not going to.

Mr. SPENCER: I can't sing. I won't go near that, but it's amazing how many
people do.

BIANCULLI: The late John Spencer speaking in 2000 with Terry Gross. We'll
hear more of their conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music and drums)


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with the late John Spencer,
who played White House chief of staff and vice-presidential candidate Leo
McGarry on NBC's "The West Wing." We'll pick up where we left off, when they
were discussing his recurring role as a teenager in the 1960s on TV's "The
Patty Duke Show."

GROSS: For a lot of people who grew up with "The Patty Duke Show," they
probably thought that, like one day they'd be old enough to go to the malt
shop with a date...

Mr. SPENCER: Oh, I know.

GROSS: Did the whole idea of what being a teenager was on "The Patty Duke
Show" affect your idea of what it meant to be a teenager?

Mr. SPENCER: We were kind of different teenagers, a little more jaded, a
little more worldly wise, a little more out there, because we had no time to
go to the malt shops. We were either at the studio or trying to make up

GROSS: I'm not sure you could have found the malt shop like that in

Mr. SPENCER: We had a place called Rudley's, which was right by the school.
It was a coffee shop. No longer there. The Gulf & Western Building is there
now. And we would often talk--I'm talking out of school here, Terry. We
would often cut classes and hang out there and drink Coca-Colas and eat
English muffins and smoke cigarettes, a habit that I picked up early on and
I'm still trying to get rid of.

GROSS: It's hard. It is really hard.

Mr. SPENCER: Oh, boy! It seems to be my Achilles heel. I--this is now my
third attempt. I stopped for 18 weeks and then very cavalierly over Christmas
decided, `OK, I'm strong. You know, I'll have a few cigarettes. I'm on
vacation.' Wow! There was a really stupid point of view because within three
or four days, I was smoking completely again.

GROSS: So you're trying to stop again.

Mr. SPENCER: I've just been hypnotized. That was not the greatest tool. So
I'm going to go back to the patch and Zyban which I used and kept me free for
18 weeks. Actually, I used them for 12, and six weeks I was totally clean.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. SPENCER: So I know that to work so I'm going to try that again.

GROSS: Your character on "The West Wing" doesn't smoke, does he?

Mr. SPENCER: Not at all.

GROSS: That's good because you wouldn't have to smoke--you wouldn't--that
would really hurt...

Mr. SPENCER: No. I...

GROSS: have to smoke to be in character.

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely, I made that as a conscious choice. Also, the White
House is a smoke-free area.

GROSS: Of course.

Mr. SPENCER: So we'd have to run outside to have one. Do you smoke?

GROSS: Oh, I gave it up a long time ago.

Mr. SPENCER: You did? How'd you do that? Cold turkey? Or did you use

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what happened to me. I lost my voice twice on the
air because I had a cold, and I was smoking right through it.

Mr. SPENCER: That will do it, won't it?

GROSS: And I realized, you know, this is going to be really awful...

Mr. SPENCER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...if I lose my voice again like this. So that definitely inspired me
to stop. And I didn't--I just stopped.

Mr. SPENCER: You did?

GROSS: I mean, I was sick when I stopped. I had a really bad cold, no voice.


GROSS: So it was easy to get through that and then keep going. But I had
stopped, you know, an amazing number of times before that and started again.

Mr. SPENCER: It's a squirrely habit. It really gets you.

GROSS: It really does.

Mr. SPENCER: If I had to do it again, one of the regrets in my life is ever
starting. And I remember my father--I guess I was 15, we were in an airport
and I was running to get something and I gave him my coat to hold, and I came
back and his demeanor had totally changed and he had obviously gone in my
pocket and found this pack of cigarettes.

GROSS: Mm, yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: And we had this huge fight in the airport. I remember--and, of
course, nothing he said meant anything to me. He was an old man with no
knowledge of what I was going through. And I remember his words ingrained in
my mind today of `You will regret this day, John, believe me. You will come
to the point where you will wish you'd never done this.' And he was right.
Father knows best.

BIANCULLI: John Spencer speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. He won an
Emmy for his role as Leo McGarry on "The West Wing" in 2002 and died last
December of a heart attack.

Spencer's unexpected death threw "The West Wing" into a sudden, frantic
rewrite phrase. It's been reported that the original plan was to have Vinick,
the Republican win the election. But when Santos lost Leo, the producers
didn't want to have him lose the election, too. So a funeral is staged for
Leo, and the sudden opening of a vice-presidential spot on a newly elected
ticket becomes one more hypothetical dilemma for the West Wing to explore.

I've complained earlier this year about NBC pulling the plug on "The West
Wing" too prematurely and talked about how the battle for the presidency
between Alan Alda as Arnold Vinick and Jimmy Smits as Matt Santos has
reinvigorated the show. So I won't go over that territory again, except to
say that the recent plot twist, which had the Democratic Santos reaching out
to the Republican Vinick and offering him the position of secretary of state,
promised plenty of juicy conflict for the next administration of "The West

But at least we'll have a solid sense of closure. A show that began midway
through the first term of the Bartlet administration, with Martin Sheen
playing a thoughtful and passionate commander in chief, will end Sunday with a
peaceful transfer of power to the new Santos administration. Since I don't
have the power to give "The West Wing" a reprieve, what I hope most from
Sunday's last episode is that Bartlet, in one of his final acts, gives a
presidential pardon to Toby, his former staffer played by Richard Schiff.
Toby took a principled stand over national security issue and is facing a
lengthy prison term unless Bartlet forgives him and steps in. He should. It
didn't bother me when the gang from "Seinfeld" ended up in jail as the final
episode ended on that show, but Toby deserves a better fate. So does "The
West Wing." When a show's ending is this good, maybe it shouldn't be ending.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Down in the Valley."

This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews "Down in the Valley"

Writer and director David Jacobson won surprising critical acclaim for his
2002 biopic, "Dahmer," based on the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Jacobson's new film, "Down in the Valley" also is a study of aberrant
psychology. He sets it in Southern California's San Fernando Valley, where he
grew up. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: The love story "Down in the Valley" is both romantic
and disturbing. More disturbing than romantic actually, but the writer and
director, David Jacobson, has caught hold of a romantic idea and done it full
justice: how real love can bloom out of a mutual delusion. The female
protagonist is Tobe--that's short for October--a California teenager played by
Evan Rachel Wood. On a trip to the beach, with her bubbly San Fernando Valley
girlfriends, she gazes through the windshield of her car at the man pumping
gas. He wears a cowboy hat and has a twang, and the other girls snicker. But
something in her stirs. As played by Edward Norton, the man is rangy and
diffident and soft-spoken. He tips his hat and says, `Ma'am.' He's in a
different universe from her widowed father, a conscientious but overbearing

corrections officer played by David Morse. For his part, the cowboy called
Harlan, responds to the steadiness, the un-Valley girlishness of Tobe's
attraction to him. He thinks that he can share his dreams with her, the
dreams that take him out of the valley to the mountains, to the ranches and
horses and trees above the smog line. Soon she's up there with him,
captivated by his homespun poetry.

(Soundbite from "Down in the Valley")

(Soundbite of wood creaking, like a rocking chair)

Mr. EDWARD NORTON: (As Harlan) You think things have a purpose?

Ms. EVAN RACHEL WOOD: (As Tobe) What do you mean?

Mr. NORTON: (As Harlan) You think everything has something it's supposed to
do or be?

Ms. WOOD: (As Tobe) It's kind of a nice thought.

Mr. NORTON: (As Harlan) I sat here a lot of times. I looked at this tree, I
wondered if that branch had a purpose. Maybe it's there to provide shade.
Maybe it's going to get cut down and make somebody a nice piece of furniture
someday. Or maybe it's supposed to have a swing on it. I don't know. Maybe
it's just there so the tree can balance itself. I lean toward the swing. It
seemed kind of hopeful to me. Now I see you sitting up there, and I know I
was right.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: "Down in the Valley" sounds cornball, but without giving too
much away, I'll say that director Jacobson's vision is harder edged than it
first appears. When Harlan gives Tobe a ride on the horse of a rancher he
says he worked for, their afternoon is so transporting that she can't even
process it when the cranky old rancher, played by Bruce Dern, claims to have
no idea who Harlan is and then has him arrested.

How can a man like Harlan exist in this day and age when even the Western
movies he seems to spring from are dead. And what about the flip side of his
movie cowboy persona, the obsession with guns and gun fights.

Jacobson's touch is so airy, that no matter how creepy the undercurrents, you
can't help but hope that Harlan is for real, at least on some level. And
Edward Norton is a wonder. He gives his characters, even when they're
twisted, an emotional purity. Tobe and her little brother, played by yet
another Culkin, Rory, hunger for the hope that Harlan gives them. When the
point of view shifts from Tobe's to her father's, "Down in the Valley" becomes
increasingly surreal. The climax feels like a hallucination. It erupts on
the set of a movie Western, Harlan's last stand against the `real world.' The
movie is enchanting, appalling and like its central character, one of a kind.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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