John Spencer Loves `West Wing' Life

Tuesday, October 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — It was an unsettling scene last May, to say the least.

President Bartlet, his lovely daughter and her boyfriend, and all the White House bigwigs you adore were blasted by gunfire in a Virginia parking lot.

Then a slow fade to black for the ``West Wing'' season finale, and a 4 1/2 -month wait to see if everyone made it.

You could have analyzed that wrenching scene frame-by-frame, like poring over the Zapruder film. But even if you did, the questions remained: Who were the shooters? Who was their intended target, and why? Who was hit? How badly?

In the choppy, blurry ambush, everybody was seen lurching or hitting the ground. But there were no telltale wounds or blood. No obvious casualties.

Obvious not even to the actors getting fired upon, including John Spencer, who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry.

``One or more of us could have taken a bullet,'' Spencer acknowledged last June. ``But who among us did, we don't know. We were all supposed to panic and drop as we heard the shots.''

No one with the series or NBC has been talking since, except in recent days to taunt ``West Wing'' fans with incessant promos asking ``WHO'S BEEN SHOT?''

At long last, the answer is shared with viewers Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT on a two-hour ``West Wing'' season opener. But during a Manhattan visit weeks before production began in Los Angeles, Spencer, still in the dark, wasn't worried about Leo.

After all, ``The West Wing'' is enjoying a sky-high approval rating. In its freshman year it scored big audiences, critical raves and a Peabody Award. In September, it reaped a record-setting nine Emmys, including best drama.

Besides, it has a near-perfect cast, boasting Martin Sheen (as President Bartlet), Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and the incomparable Richard Schiff, to whom likewise-nominated Spencer lost the Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.

In short: This was a series with no need either to prune its ranks or inflate its ratings with a shoot-'em-up stunt.

No need at all. Instead, this was something of an artistic whim. ``Aaron had started playing with the idea of an assassination attempt months before,'' said Spencer, referring to ``West Wing'' guiding light Aaron Sorkin. ``When we heard about it, we were surprised.''

From its beginning, ``The West Wing'' has been fueled by the element of surprise, including the biggest surprise of all: that a weekly TV series about Washington politics could be funny, moving, smart and inspirational.

On the other hand, there could never have been any doubt that Spencer would prove as vital to the show as Leo McGarry to the Bartlet administration.

Best known until, oh, about a year ago as the freewheeling, street-smart Tommy Mullaney on ``L.A. Law'' in the early 1990s, Spencer embodied McGarry from the first moments of ``The West Wing's'' pilot episode.

In a glorious scene that tracked his arrival at work, McGarry swept through the West Wing hurling orders, making pungent declarations and even telling his assistant to get the New York Times crossword editor on the phone.

``Tell them that `Khaddafi' is spelled with an h and two d's and isn't a seven-letter word for anything,'' he growled.

``Is this for real or just funny?'' his assistant hesitated.

``Apparently,'' said Leo, looking even more hangdog than before, ``it's neither.''

He is fair, honest, tough as nails, with a mischievous grin he only sparingly deploys. He is world-weary yet tireless in the service of his president. He is also a recovering alcohol and drug addict. He is a survivor of the highest order.

``Leo, I think, is a better man than me,'' Spencer said. ``He has qualities that I wish I had more of. I often say to Aaron, `You're writing the man I'd like to be.'''

Even so, Spencer can easily find parallels. For starters: He, too, is an alcoholic (logging 11 years in recovery to McGarry's eight).

``Like Leo, I've always been a workaholic, too,'' he went on. ``Through good times and bad, acting has been my escape, my joy, my nourishment. The drug for me, even better than alcohol, was acting.''

Now 53, Spencer grew up in Paterson, N.J., the son of blue-collar parents. But with his enrollment at the Professional Children's School across the river in Manhattan, he was sharing classes with the likes of Liza Minnelli and budding violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

As a teen, he landed a recurring role on ``The Patty Duke Show'' as the boyfriend of English twin Cathy. Stage and film work followed. Then his big break: playing Harrison Ford's detective sidekick in the 1990 courtroom thriller ``Presumed Innocent.'' That role delivered him to ``L.A. Law.''

Now, Spencer plays right-hand man to the president of the United States on TV's most celebrated series. It's the American dream. Including Wednesday's nightmare.


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Elsewhere in television ...

`TITANS': Zillionaire industrialist Richard Williams (Perry King of ``Melrose Place''), who was married to Gwen (Victoria Principal of ``Dallas''), soon will wed yummy gold-digger Heather (Yasmine Bleeth of ``Baywatch''). But on meeting Dad's bride, hunky fighter-pilot son Chandler (Casper Van Dien) realizes she's the babe he hooked up with on vacation in Hawaii a few months ago. Now, as he walks her down the aisle to her waiting groom, Heather lets Chandler know she's carrying his child. And that's only the beginning when ``Titans'' premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT. But who cares? Dumb and overdrawn, this soap from Aaron Spelling will quickly go down the drain.


Frazier Moore can be reached at