Friday, January 20, 2006

Remembering John Spencer

From Back Stage:
"It was Election Day in the world of The West Wing. A somber-faced Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), the Democratic presidential nominee, spoke politely on the phone with his Republican adversary, Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), while in the background the televised election coverage was interrupted for a shocking, unbelievable announcement. "For those of you just tuning in to our election night coverage, we bring you breaking news--some would say heartbreaking news--at this hour. Once again: Leo McGarry has been pronounced dead..."

For fans of consummate actor John Spencer, who gave rich, full-blooded life to former White House chief of staff–turned–vice presidential candidate McGarry, the Election Day Part II episode of this critically acclaimed show was heartbreaking indeed. Spencer unexpectedly died of a heart attack in a Los Angeles hospital Dec. 16, just four days short of his 59th birthday. The actor's death not only changed the course of The West Wing's final season but also left fans, friends, and fellow actors in a state of stunned sorrow and disbelief.

One of Spencer's great gifts, as an actor and as a human, was his ability to empathize and be fully alive and in the moment. One had only to look at his wonderfully careworn face, which seemed to have the map of his life spread across it, to understand that he intimately knew all the extreme pains and joys of life, as well as all the in-betweens. His character could be glowering in disgust at some Republican ridiculousness one minute, then offer a compassionate arm of support to a faltering friend in the next. Despite the years that draped his countenance, there was also a youthful energy about him. And when he turned on the charm and flashed that pixyish grin, it seemed impossible he could be mortal enough to die.

But mortal he was, with all the purities and flaws, strengths and weaknesses, and successes and failures we all have. And he never tried to hide any of that life experience. Like his fictional West Wing counterpart, Spencer was a recovering alcoholic, and he knew the cost of living with and battling that demon. But actor and character were known for being deeply loyal, generous, and devoted to their chosen professions, in which they found great joy and personal satisfaction at being able to be of service in ways great and small. "Like Leo, I've always been a workaholic, too," Spencer told The Associated Press during a 2000 interview. "Through good times and bad, acting has been my escape, my joy, my nourishment. The drug for me, even better than alcohol, was acting."

Spencer brought it all with him when he performed, using what was needed at the time to infuse the roles he inhabited with an unparalleled honesty that brought him the respect of his peers; the appreciation of millions of fans who saw him work onstage, on television, and in film; and plenty of recognition at awards time.
"John was a first-rate actor and a real class act as a human being," commented Joshua Malina, who played Will Bailey on West Wing. "He was funny, biting, and compassionate. He was the paragon of the actor's actor: He ate, drank, lived, and breathed the craft. This was never more evident than in his reaction to the work of others. He always had something insightful and positive to say about another actor's performance."

As Charlie Young, the former personal aide to the president who later moved up to assistant to the chief of staff, Dulé Hill worked with Spencer from the very beginning of the show. Like Malina and many other cast members who were extensively quoted at the time of Spencer's death, Hill holds his friend in great esteem. "John was an amazing individual who was dedicated to his work," he said. "Whenever you were in a scene with John he always made you better. It was so easy with him. I couldn't help but react whenever I was in a scene with him. The things I will remember most about John is his laugh, his smile, and his flip-flops. I will miss him greatly, but more importantly, I am glad that I had the honor of knowing him, and I am forever thankful that I was blessed enough to have a chance to work with someone as remarkable as John Spencer."

In a Sept. 16, 2000, interview with Terence Smith of the PBS website Online News Hour, Spencer ex-plained his approach to creating the role that he will surely be most remembered by: Leo McGarry. "It's always important for me, as an actor, to reflect human behavior for a sense of reality," Spencer explained. "So this role is no more or less important than any other role, concerning the reality factor. I mean, I think art, at best, holds up a mirror to humanity. And unless we are real human beings, something's phony there, and it's not going to be as effective.

"I had no idea how the public would respond," he continued, in answer to a question about how audiences would react to the issue-based drama. "I heard two trains of thought. One was that people, with the [Clinton] impeachment trials, would be fed up with government issues. The last thing they'd want to watch is a show about government. Another point of view was, well, they'll kind of be 'jonesing' for, you know, another injection of governmental issues. You're just going to be coming in at the right time. I had no idea. In the arts, you do your best. You put it out there. You have your own belief about the quality of what you're doing. And then, what the public is going to do or not do is sort of just up in the air. You never know.

"I've done good things, or things I've thought were good, that found no audience. And I've done things that I thought were so-so and have found a great audience. So you can't predict that. That's the sort of chance unknown in the equation. It's a little scary. All you can do is do the best job," he concluded.

And that Spencer most certainly did."

From WENN:
"Broadway star KRISTIN CHENOWETH is still living with the ghost of her THE WEST WING co-star JOHN SPENCER - four months after the beloved actor died.

The actress/singer claims she has been visited by Spencer's spirit on various occasions since he died of a heart attack on 16 December 2005.

Whether it's

finding her late pal's favourite candy in her pockets, or tuning into his TV movies, Chenoweth is convinced Spencer is always with her as she struggles to cope with his death.

She says, "The minute I got the phone call about his death I lost it. After about five minutes of pulling myself together I turned on my favourite TV channel, Lifetime, and there was a TV movie and John Spencer was on the screen. No lie.

"I thought, 'That is you visiting me.'

"Then, one night on the set of The West Wing, we were freezing on the tarmac pretending to get to an airplane that didn't exist and they put a coat on me and the pocket was full of Jolly Ranchers candy, which was John's favourite. "I just feel like there's little ways he talks to me all the time." (KL&RXM/WN/SC)"

From Contact Music:
"Tragic THE WEST WING star JOHN SPENCER got his dying wish to pass away quickly, according to co-star and friend KRISTIN CHENOWETH. The actress reveals she had many conversations with "deep" Spencer about death before a December (05) heart attack claimed his own life. Chenoweth is convinced the reason why his death was so sudden was because the actor didn't want to live if he knew he'd suffer or struggle with life. She explains, "We had a conversation one day on set where we were talking about dying and he asked me how I wanted to go. I said, 'I heard drowning. They say that drowning is the best way to go.' "He said, 'I want to go quick.' I think he knew in that moment (when he died) that he would probably hang around but he wouldn't be the same. I'd like to think that he was like, 'I'm out of here.'""

From Federal News Radio:
"To most of the world, John Spencer was Leo McGarry, the confidante and chief of staff to President Bartlet on NBC's The West Wing. To the Partnership for Public Service, he was a friend and advocate. John Spencer died December 16, 2005, of a heart attack. He was 58 years old.

Producers and cast members of "The West Wing" revealed a government that addressed complex problems. John Spencer knew that playing Leo allowed him to be a positive role model, and he worked with the Partnership to promote federal service as a noble career.

In 2002, Spencer came to Washington to honor America's top civil servants at the Service to America Medal gala. Spencer took the stage with the real White House Chief of Staff Andy Card to offer words of praise for our federal workers and a moment to remember for all in attendance.

The following year Spencer and his "West Wing" colleagues were honored by the Partnership with the first Theodore Roosevelt Award for the Advancement of Public Service.

John Spencer will truly be missed, but his legacy of public service lives on. "

Lawyerchyk posted on Television Without Pity:
"On another board, someone who claims to have attended the "very moving" memorial service reports as follows:

"Almost ALL of the West Wing cast, past and present, as well as producers, directors, etc, were there. Almost all cast members got up and gave tributes to John, Even former LA Law cast members were there.

Chenowith sang 'For Good' from 'Wicked' and closed the ceremony."
FYI, I followed up on the "almost all" comment to ask who was not there from The West Wing cast. The poster reported that Richard Schiff did not attend because of the show he's doing back east, but he sent a letter that Bradley Whitford read. He reported further that Rob Lowe did not attend."

And pungster1 posted about a Shakespeare sonnet performed at the memorial service.

On Air America's Al Franken Show, Lawrence O'Donnell had some words about John Spencer. You can listen to the January 17 segment here. The part about John Spencer is about the last 1/5 or 1/4 of the show.

Excerpts from the Janury 9 People Magazine interview:
"John Spencer only played a Washington insider on TV, yet "I've been asked to host [FOX News Channel's] The Beltway Boys, I've been asked to debate [Bill] O'Reilly," a bemused Spencer told PEOPLE in 2003. "I always remind these people that [politics] is not my arena."
**Still, no one could have anticipated that the coronary the character suffered last season-and survived to run for Vice President-would be followed by Spencer's. "This was a complete shock," says his friend and publicist Ron Hofmann. Regarding who will replace Leo on the campaign trail, NBC rep Joe Libonati says, "We have episodes shot until March, so there's no need to rush."

Spencer won't easily be replaced in the hearts of his friends and family. The day he died, he'd been expected to fly from his L.A. home to New York City for his birthday and to prepare for the New Year's Eve party he threw every year. "We had dinner and theater plans. Twenty of his best friends were going to take him out for his birthday," says his longtime girlfriend actress-choreographer Patti Mariano, 60. "I was wrapping his last Christmas present when my sister called and said, 'He's in the ICU. Start praying.'"
Mariano had known Spencer since both were students at Manhattan's Professional Children's School in the 1960s.
Openly proud of his sobriety ("I wear it like a medal," he said), Spencer still had an addiction to smoking. "He had quit a year ago, and we were all relieved," says Hofmann. But early, on Dec. 16, he was admitted to the hospital after having trouble breathing. He died while costar Stockard Channing was visiting him. On Christmas Eve West Wingers Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff and Nicole Robinson all attended Spencer's funeral. "No matter how difficult it was,people changed their plans and came," says Mariano. "John was one of the good guys. He was the best."
Spencer considered Wing costar Martin Sheen (on an' 05 episode) "the brother I never had."
"He loved to act. That was his No. 1 passion," says Mariano"

You may be able to access the complete article in databases through your public library or your university.

Mary Louise Parker paid tribute to John Spencer after winning a Golden Globe for "Weeds":
"And I'd also like to pay respect to a really great great actor who was so elegant and so wonderful and worked so hard to make it look so easy, John Spencer, this one's for you."
(as transcribed by Justalurker at Television Without Pity)
The awards show is rebroadcast in a number of foreign countries. In the United Kingdom LivingTV2 is rebroadcasting it at 9PM GMT. (although various foreign broadcasters might cut the show for reasons of timing or to fit in commercials)

whatsnext04 posted at Television Without Pity:
"Way too short of an Allison Janney interview on The Late Late Show, but she did talk about John Spencer :tear:, and called him the anchor of the show. Very sweet."

From USA Today:
"PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Still mourning the loss of her beloved West Wing co-star John Spencer, who died of a heart attack Dec. 16, Kristin Chenoweth enjoyed a much-needed laugh Sunday night at a party at the home of her pal Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm).

"He was like my father," said Chenoweth, who not long ago enjoyed a conversation with Spencer about their own mortality. "We talked about how we wanted to die, and John said, 'I just want to go quick.' And he did."

Just a few days after Spencer's death, on what would have been the Emmy-winning actor's 59th birthday, the whole West Wing crew and cast gathered at Spencer's empty house for an impromptu memorial. "It was very helpful for us to talk about him — and we even had a birthday cake for John."

West Wing writers had been laying the groundwork for a red-hot romance involving Chenoweth's character, Annabeth Schott, and Spencer's Leo McGarry. Just last week, Chenoweth was still shooting scenes alluding to a developing romance.

"They had me all happy, singing," Chenoweth said. "It was very awkward. I think the writers are frantically planning something appropriate to honor him, but we don't know what."

Chenoweth and Hines appear together as the wives of Jeff Daniels and Robin Williams in the comedy R.V. It's due in theaters in March."

From EOnline:
"HE'LL BE MISSED: NBC announcing that series regular John Spencer's death after a sudden heart attack last month will be acknowledged at the start of Sunday's new episode of The West Wing."

Someone on eBay is selling 3 tribute ads to John Spencer which ran in Daily Variety this last Wedneday (January 4) (To purchase another copy of these ads, seach for "john-spencer-memorial" or "john spencer memoriam" on eBay:

From the Associated Press:
"NEW YORK - We fans of “The West Wing” will tune in Sunday night armed with more knowledge than we really want.

Its first new episode in weeks, the White House drama will be focusing on vice presidential candidate Leo McGarry as he preps for a high-stakes debate with his Republican rival. This is also the first new episode to air since the death of John Spencer, who had given life to Leo since the series began in 1999. (“The West Wing” airs 8 p.m. ET on NBC.)

The outcome of this presidential campaign — a secret well-protected by the show’s producers — now faces their urgent reappraisal.

But for the audience Sunday, such narrative concerns will be upstaged by an actor whose personal narrative was cruelly cut short. Spencer’s death from a heart attack on Dec. 16 — four days shy of his 59th birthday — was news no viewer could avoid or dismiss. That’s one mean spoiler.

It is also a reminder of how powerfully we bond with our friends on TV.

Appreciating his ‘extra innings’
From the first episode of “The West Wing,” we loved Leo. Honest, tough but a softie, with a mischievous grin only sparingly deployed, he was (or shouldn’t we say “is”?) world-weary yet tireless — whether as chief of staff to the incumbent president (Martin Sheen), or more recently as running mate alongside the Democratic presidential hopeful, played by Jimmy Smits.

There were obvious parallels between Spencer and McGarry: Driven and passionate in their chosen careers; both known as good men.

They both were also alcoholics, although this likeness was only by chance, Spencer told me during a June 2000 interview (by which point he had logged 11 years in recovery to McGarry’s eight).

“Just the fact that I am here today is a miracle,” he said, clearly grateful for kicking his habit. “It’s extra innings.”

Those extra innings included playing Leo on “The West Wing.”

Spencer will appear on two more episodes after this Sunday, according to NBC. Because of pre-emptions for Winter Olympics and other specials, the last of the five episodes now wrapped won’t air until March 19.

Then what? Maybe, as with Spencer, a heart attack will spell his character’s doom. (In an eerie foreshadowing, Leo suffered a nearly fatal coronary on an episode that first aired in fall 2004.) Just how the campaign plotline, and the series overall, should be retooled to give Leo a graceful send-off is the sad creative challenge with which “West Wing” producers have now begun to grapple.

Meanwhile, we must get used to thinking of Spencer in the past tense, even as he plays before our eyes."

"West Wing" writer Lawrence O'Donnell gave a small tribute to John Spencer while hosting the December 30 edition of "Left, Right and Center" on KCRW. You can listen to the show here. His tribute is at the end.

From the Burlington Free Press:
""Wow!" exclaims Christopher Misiano, an executive producer on "The West Wing." "John Spencer!"

On the phone from California, he's remembering the acclaimed actor whose fatal heart attack Dec. 16 left the NBC series about politics reeling. The 58-year-old Spencer portrayed Leo McGarry, the Democratic candidate for vice president. Spencer figures prominently in "Running Mates," the first new episode of 2006 that airs at 8 p.m. Sunday.

"John was brilliant," Misiano says. "If there were last-minute changes on the script, sometimes he would stay up till 2 or 3 a.m. to be letter perfect the next day. The term 'pure professional' defined him."

Spencer invariably demonstrated support for his fellow thespians, says Misiano, who also directed dozens of "West Wing" episodes. "He was so enthusiastic about everybody else's work," he says. "John would praise others even in scenes that didn't even involve him."

Martin Sheen, who plays outgoing President Jed Bartlet on the show, echoed the sentiment. "After we learned that John had died, Marty was telling people: 'Nobody loved to act more or loved actors more,' " Misiano recalls.

Spencer underscored that notion during a mid-2005 interview. "I'm blessed with an amazing ensemble of actors, and America tunes in," he said. "We get to watch the journeys of a lot of different characters. It's voyeuristic."
In "Running Mates," directed by Paul McCrane (an "ER" doctor for several seasons), McGarry is preparing for his first televised debate. The completed episode was too short, however, so Misiano shot a new opening teaser to accommodate the hourlong time slot. "I directed the last scene John ever did," he notes. "It was just one week before his death."

Complex world issues have driven "The West Wing" since its 1999 debut. The Bartlet team is decidedly liberal, an outlook that Spencer -- an acknowledged "fan of Bill Clinton" -- said he shared with many of his colleagues.

"We're all political junkies," he pointed out. "On the set, we're always asking each other: 'Can you believe what so-and-so said last night?' When everything seems too depressing, I shout back at Fox News."

Spencer was mindful that Aaron Sorkin, the program's creator, wanted to maintain a fair-and-balanced approach. Vinick, for example, is presented as a compelling opponent rather than a villain.

"Aaron insisted that this is not an eat-your-vegetables show," Spencer said, referring to the effort to avoid political correctness. "The characters might be excited by a remarkable idea, but it's an awesome responsibility. We have to play by the rules, follow the Constitution. And, with 20 million viewers, you know that some in our audience are Republicans."

Although the private lives of Bartlet and company are in evidence, "we don't dwell there very long," Spencer continued. "That's used as just a dash of salt for the dish."
Spencer soon began a stint that would last until 1994 as feisty attorney Tommy Mullaney on NBC's "L.A. Law." Guest spots on other television series, such as "Nash Bridges" and "ER," followed. He was hired as the male lead in "Trinity," a 1998 family drama canceled after one month.

That's how Spencer first met Misiano. "I was new as a director then," he says. "In one scene, John asked me, 'Why am I doing this?' And I was, like, 'Uhhh.' I'd come from 'Law & Order,' where people didn't ask questions about motivation."

In 2001, Spencer returned to the theater as an aging jazz musician in "Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine." The drama received mixed reviews, but The New York Times praised him for bringing "beautiful pace and variety to the long retrospective monologues."

Misiano's take? "He was fabulous."
John talked honestly about his problems," Misiano says. "I think acting was the one place in life he felt most at peace with himself."

While no decision has been made yet about plot changes to compensate for Spencer's sudden death, Misiano suspects there'll be a memorial service in mid-January. "And the first day back on the set, we'll probably have a long lunch together to say goodbye."

The network might say goodbye to "The West Wing" at the end of the season in May. Asked about this possibility six months ago, NBC entertainment President Kevin Reilly warned that, "long-in-the-tooth shows can end up running on fumes. You've got to know when to stop. Nothing lasts forever."

Nonetheless, Spencer had faith that new cast members, such as Smits and Alda, were ushering in a spirit of rejuvenation. "I think the audience, and our writers, have been re-stimulated by these developments," he said. "This is a venue, like 'Law & Order,' that could carry on and on and on. The storytelling is wonderful. People like the fact that we allow them to peek behind the White House curtain."

From CaseyO posted at Television Without Pity:
""People Magazine recently published a very nice piece on John Spencer's death. It mentioned that his funeral was on Christmas eve and that Bradley [Whitford], Richard [Schiff] and Nicole [Robinson] went.

I emailed his publicist after reading memorial services were going to be held on both coasts...

"A memorial on both coasts is still being planned...a private funeral will take place this weekend. I will let you know as details become available.

Thanks." "

That was the 21st, I'll probably follow up shortly after the new year. Being from New Jersey and all I wouldn't dare miss a memorial for John Spencer if it was in my home state."

Information removed by special request of person involved.
*** has a guestbook which fans of John Spencer can sign.

westwinger247 posts at Television Without Pity that "The Jan 2-8 issue of TV Guide has a beautful 3/4 page tribute to John, with a lovely picture of him and a smaller picture of Leo and Bartlet."

Allison Janney writes in Entertainment Weekly:
"I was introduced to John seven years ago on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank at the read-through for the pilot episode of The West Wing. It was a little daunting because he was one of those seasoned actors with a long background in New York theater. But we became good friends, and acting opposite him became one of my greatest pleasures. Our relationship as C.J. and Leo was so complicated, but in real life it was easy. We'd always travel together from L.A. when our show headed to film in Washington, D.C. We both had a fear of flying, and John was my airplane buddy. He'd hold my hand during the flight and because of that I just knew everything was going to be okay. John was a gentleman. An old-school gentleman. (Spencer died of a heart attack in Los Angeles.)"

Former "West Wing" Consultant Gene Sperling writes at
"Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) -- While my greatest joy during my four years as a consultant and occasional story writer for NBC's ``West Wing'' was meeting my wife (then a writer for the show), one of my smaller joys was finding that even in a business renowned for ego and narcissism, you could still meet some gems. John Spencer was one of them.

For many television viewers, Spencer had the distinction of acting in what many of us consider among the two best shows of our era: ``LA Law,'' where he played lawyer Tommy Mulroney, and ``The West Wing,'' where he played Leo McGarry, the fair, but tough-minded White House chief of staff who recently became the unlikely running mate of fictional Democratic presidential nominee Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits.)

When I found myself at a Los Angeles gathering with several of the ``The West Wing'' actors and writers the night after his death on Dec. 16, I was not surprised by the shock and somber mood and the remarkable consistency with which he was described as the ``sweetest person I ever worked with.''

What really struck me was the sense of loss I heard repeatedly the night before at a Washington party and through e- mails from friends, all of whom ended their sad notes with the caveat, ``of course I had never met him.''

At first, one might be tempted to view such mourning of the death of a television actor as an occasion to critique our culture as overly focused on celebrity and television. Why, after all, should people actually mourn a person they had never heard speak an unscripted word outside of a television show?

Personal Connection

With Spencer, I think, there is a reason for this sense of a personal connection. For many of us who operate in the worlds of finance or politics, we live in a world where people desperately put on brave faces to hide any sense of weakness or vulnerability.

In Washington just a few months ago, people actually discussed whether it was a character flaw that Democratic Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu cried on camera at the sight of hundreds of her constituents losing their homes, livelihoods, and even lives amid the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

Into this world, through our televisions, Spencer entered: a child of blue-collar workers and a recovering alcoholic.

Spencer never steeled himself with a persona of invulnerability. He was never afraid to share the weakness or lows he had experienced and overcome with both his real friends and the millions who made up his viewing audience.

Spencer's Struggles

One has to remember that it was only because Spencer the person was so comfortable and open about his personal bouts with alcohol that ``The West Wing'' creator Aaron Sorkin had the permission to write Spencer's past pains into Leo McGarry's character.

And so if Spencer's portrayal of McGarry struggling to overcome his demons in his Emmy Award winning 2002 season seemed extraordinarily real to millions of ``The West Wing'' fans, it was no doubt because Spencer was sharing more of himself with his television viewers than many friends and close work colleagues ever choose to share with each other.

In one of my favorite scenes, viewers could see McGarry almost merging with the actor who played him. In the ``Noel'' episode in the program's second season, he tells a down-trodden Josh Lyman (played by Brad Whitford) the story of a man who falls in a dark hole he cannot get out of. When he sees a friend, he yells. ```Hey Joe it's me, can you help me out?'' And the friend jumps down in the hole. Our guy says, ``Are you stupid? Now we are both down here.'' The friend says, ``Yeah. But I have been down here before, and I know the way out.''

Helping Hand

You get the feeling that there are a lot of people who never met Spencer who would have jumped in a hole to help offer him a hand.

Perhaps that says something about our tendency to be overly enamored with celebrities. Or perhaps it is a reminder that the willingness to openly share personal frailty is not only a sign of strength, but a way to forge deeper connections with those around you who want the permission to admit that they've been in a deep hole before, too.

To contact the writer of this column:
Gene Sperling in Washington at"

From Newsday:
"And now "The West Wing" goes into mourning.

The show's producers, writers and other stars are expected to attend the funeral of John Spencer, who died Friday at 58. But Ron Hofmann, Spencer's personal publicist, said Monday that while funeral arrangements are pending, services will be held this week in Spencer's home state of New Jersey -- possibly as early as today -- and a memorial service is likely to be held in Los Angeles early next year."

"John Spencer" and "West Wing" are some of the top gaining queries on Google this past week.

From the Detroit News:
"I always had a special affection for the Leo McGarry character on "The West Wing," thinking the part was so well cast and acted by John Spencer, they just might be one and the same.

It wasn't until news of Spencer's death that I realized how much Spencer mirrored the show's former chief of staff to President Josiah "Jed" Bartlett.

Spencer died Friday after suffering a heart attack. Though he appeared to me to be older, he was only 58.

Likeminded men

In one sad parallel, Leo suffered a heart attack in a past episode. I remember watching in disbelief, thinking they could not be writing him off the show. They didn't. Leo recovered and was picked as a running mate to Democratic presidential contender Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits.

In another parallel, Spencer and Leo were recovering alcoholics, which explains how Spencer seamlessly depicted battling the demon of alcoholism and its stigma so effortlessly on the screen. But there were other similarities, I think that may be more imagined than real, but I doubt Spencer would mind.

Leo was an intense workaholic who when asked by his wife which mattered more to him, the White House or their 30-plus years of marriage, he chose the job and lost his marriage. Spencer, unmarried and with no children at the time of his death, said in a 2000 interview on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer": "Like Leo, I've always been a workaholic, too. Through good times and bad, acting has been my escape, my joy, my nourishment."

In the complex personal relationships between Leo and those in his charge in the West Wing, the savvy and often gruff chief of staff who would bark "Margaret!!" to his secretary. He could, on occasion, lace an errant C.J., Toby or Josh to the point of verbal abuse. It was an unlikely blend of brilliance and warm heart.

This, too, was the sentiment for Spencer, as reported by MSNBC. Said Richard Schiff, who plays Toby Ziegler: "He was one of those few personal treasures that you put in your knapsack to carry with you the rest of your life: a rare combination of the divinely gifted and incredibly generous."

The show must go on, but how?

It is not known what creative implications Spencer's death will have on the show. NBC said five new unviewed episodes had been completed, but the actors and writers were so stunned by Spencer's death, they would need to grieve before they could address the fate of his character.

When John Ritter died of an undetected heart ailment in 2003 during production for the second season of ABC's "8 Simple Rules," Ritter's character was written off in a car accident, new characters were introduced and the show aired for two more years.

We can probably expect from such a successful drama series as "The West Wing," a strongly written farewell for its beloved Leo. I only hope it's sooner rather than later, because watching Leo McGarry in Spencer's absence is too much like watching the real thing, long admired and now sorely missed."

Both Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, and The Insider had features on John Spencer last night. Some of them reported that Stockard Channing was with John Spencer when he died. Read a transcript from Entertainment Tonight here. Extra reported that the whole cast will have a say in the resolution of the continuing storyline. During last night's "West Wing" broadcasting on Bravo, there was a small photo tribute to John Spencer during commercial break.

BW Manilowe posted at Television Without Pity:
"For anybody who wants to catch what was said about John on E! News, which airs (of course) on E! Entertainment Television, that will be repeated TOMORROW (Tuesday) from 11:30AM-12 Noon. It was short, but nice... including comments from Corbin Bernsen & Wendie Malick, who've worked with him in other projects, as well as the interview the show's host, Giuliana Depandi, did with him following his win at the 2002 Emmys."

From the Sacramento Bee:
" It's sadly ironic that the death of John Spencer last week might be something "The West Wing" is positioned to handle.

Spencer, who died at age 58 after a heart attack, played the tough but beloved Leo McGarry on the NBC series, and he was a lot like his character, particularly the beloved part.

Even before his death, cast members and producers regularly talked about Spencer as one of the nicest, most generous actors they knew. And as the show's creators, Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, said in a press statement, he was, simply, "an uncommonly good man."

Spencer and McGarry also shared a history of health problems and alcoholism. Last season, in an early episode, McGarry suffered a heart attack, which is why speculation around Hollywood, as tragic as it sounds, is that producers may decide to explain Spencer's sudden absence by giving Leo another, this time fatal, attack.

Warner Bros. Television, which produces "The West Wing," would not comment on plans, but a spokeswoman said the show is on a break and executive producers John Wells and Lawrence O'Donnell were not scheduled to start production meetings until the first week of January.

They have five unaired episodes already shot, Warner Bros. said, although the first new "West Wing" episode is not scheduled until Jan. 8. Because NBC will carry the Winter Olympics in February, those finished episodes will last until mid-March.

"The West Wing" and NBC now face a number of decisions, and it starts with whether the show will end after this season. Its ratings have been down after a move to Sunday nights _ it ranks in the low 50s, averaging about 8.2 million viewers _ and the series was on thin ice before Spencer's death.

The loss of a critical _ and popular _ character is always hard on a series, although as a candidate for vice president on the ticket with Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), McGarry was less critical lately to the storyline.

Wells and O'Donnell said they haven't decided who will win the fictional election _ Santos or his Republican opponent Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). But the show spends most of its time with Santos and his people, and it's hard to believe they would opt for Alda to star in future seasons when they have the younger-appealing Smits.

However, if Wells and his crew are convinced NBC won't renew the series, that might change their decision on the election. The story stands now with Santos a bit behind Vinick and the election a few weeks off.

Producers could write in McGarry's death as something that brings sympathy to Santos, and puts him over the top. Or they could construct it as a hardship for the Democrats, one that brings Santos' judgment into question because he picked a vice president who already had concerns about his health.

But the truth is, no one right now wants to be thinking about plot turns. Spencer was as respected, and as liked, as any actor in Hollywood, and people on the show have said there is no way to describe how much he will be missed.

Over the years, I've seen Spencer in press conferences and on "The West Wing" set, and he was never anything but humble, open and kind. He seemed to always have a slight grin during press sessions, as if he got a kick out of the questions and the media interest in a show that he was on.

I watched him on the set a couple years back, on a day he had a long, somewhat complicated scene. It was also a day when, for some reason, there was a steady parade of visitors, including a couple of people who, I think, won the visit in a radio contest.

Everyone was nice _ that's the kind of crew on "The West Wing" _ but Spencer, who was probably working the hardest that day, went out of his way to engage the visitors. He made them feel like his friends.

It is sad for "The West Wing" to lose such a quality actor. It is more sad for all the people who knew John Spencer to lose such a quality man."

From the Akron Beacon Journal:
"Hole left in `West Wing'
Actor John Spencer, who died last week, played central role
By R.D. Heldenfels

When John Spencer of The West Wing died on Friday, it marked the passing of a fine actor.

Spencer, who played Leo on the NBC drama, was also a great guy, someone I enjoyed talking to over the years.

Spencer's death was also stunning because earlier in the week, I had written about him in my blog at Here's what I said (with a couple of edits for space and clarity):

Dec. 12 -- The West Wing has been about a lot of people. President Bartlet, a little-seen figure in the series pilot, has constantly stepped center-stage. Josh has had a lot of emotional moments, and I hope we haven't seen the last of Toby. But when we sit down to write the complete history of The West Wing, Leo should be at the center.

We saw that again in a recent episode, where Leo was featured not only as a vice-presidential candidate but also the smartest guy in the room when the issue is politics, the one man who can validate anyone and end any argument.

Yes, there is a huge fantasy at work in the show, including the idea that someone with Leo's terrible past could end up being a vice-presidential candidate. But even that selection played off the notion that, if anyone had to hold the hand of an underdog and maverick presidential nominee in a rough campaign, then Leo was the one to do it.

Can't say I really liked the episode. Entertaining stuff here and there, including Josh's tortured expression and Bartlet's phone tantrum. And every time Spencer gets on-screen with Martin Sheen as Bartlet, it's just a joy to watch.

But the campaign stories are still much more interesting than anything the White House has going now; the show keeps having to pound war drums, like a real-life president trying to get attention by starting a war somewhere. So for all the wedding business, I wanted to be back in the rooms with Josh and Santos -- and, of course, Leo.

That ends the blog. I don't know what The West Wing will be like without him, but it will be diminished by his absence. The only consolation is that we still have the DVDs and the reruns, including an episode with Leo airing at 8 p.m. Sunday."

From the Daily Record (UK)
"IN this era of Strictly Come, Easy Go disposable TV, I was saddened to hear of the death of American actor John Spencer over the weekend.

He was best known for playing White House Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry in the most thought-provoking and best written television programme of the last five years - The West Wing.

Despite the fact that the show contains so many consistently good performers, his absence will be a major loss.

If we're going to talk about people with "the X factor", let's save if for those with real quality"

From the Sydney Morning Herald:
"Leo McGarry -- or, more precisely, John Spencer, the brilliant actor who played the White House chief of staff in the US drama The West Wing -- died a couple of days ago. To me, Spencer portrayed on screen that which we are unlikely to see in real life -- a politician of true principle.

I always thought it was impossible to surpass The West Wing's lead character, President Josiah Bartlet, so convincing was Martin Sheen in the role. Call me a hopeless dreamer, but Sheen just radiated this authentic presidential aura, so much so that in recent years there has been a concerted effort to get Sheen to run for office as a Democrat. (The guy has more real-world political experience than Ronald Reagan when he ran for California governor.)

But Spencer could easily rival Sheen. What's more, his McGarry character represented what so many of us yearn for in a progressive politician. He was hard-nosed enough to be effective and yet never lost sight of the progressive vision -- economic justice, workers' rights (in the show he was a former Secretary of Labour), civil rights.

Remember the first season of The West Wing, where Bartlet has been vacillating and backsliding? Just like in 1993, Bill Clinton's first year in office, it looks like his presidency is doomed barely into the first term. It was McGarry who ultimately told his president that he must be willing to sacrifice the chance of a second term for the chance to achieve real reform. He told Bartlet he must rediscover the original progressive values that spurred him into public life and to take a risk. His advice, written on the back of a table napkin, was straightforward: "Let Bartlet be Bartlet."

In another episode, Bartlet, desperate to prove his mettle as a warrior, wants to bomb to smithereens a middle eastern city. It is McGarry whose counsel then resonates in real life today.
I know, I know, it was only a TV series, no matter how brilliantly conceived and executed. But I see it as a corrective parable for the cynicism and the depressing absence of principle that characterises modern politics, here and in the United States. The West Wing was supposed to be the Clinton presidency as it should have been: progressive, moral, willing to take on its political enemies, rather than capitulate. As Tennyson said, "Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."

And John Spencer, the brilliant empathetic Emmy Award-winning actor, playing the hard-nosed conscience of a Democratic administration, did his own little bit to keep the dream alive."
According to the Yahoo Buzz, John Spencer is number 10 on the list of top searches for actors and actresses.

Transcript from "Countdown with Keith Olberman" on MSNBC (December 16th):
"OLBERMANN: And where politics and art overlap tonight, an untimely passing to report. Many people probably truly believe that Leo McGarry was the White House chief of staff, or at least many of them wanted him to be. For an actor, there could be no greater praise. Now it is a greater legacy.

Actor John Spencer of “The West Wing” has died today of a heart attack in Los Angeles, his publicist releasing no further details. In the most depressing instance yet of “The West Wing” not just imitating life but forecasting it, the character of Leo McGarry had suffered a heart attack, one from which he recovered in season six of the series.

Others will no doubt remember John Spencer‘s work as attorney Tommy Malaney (ph) on the hit 1980s series “L.A. Law,” John Spencer‘s work on “The West Wing” earning him an Emmy in 2002. He was nominated five times. “The West Wing” creator, Aaron Sorkin, and his colleague Thomas Schlamme saying in a statement tonight, “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, and his fans, for whom he always had time.

John Spencer was 58 years old.
That‘s “Countdown.” I‘m Keith Olberman. We‘ll dedicate this newscast in memory of John Spencer, the actor who passed away today of heart attack in Los Angeles at the age of 58. He would have been 59 next week. He was a great man."

From the Rocky Mountain News:
"John Spencer seemed to be aware that life imitated art or vice versa.

I was sitting with him during an NBC Hollywood cocktail party in January of 2004 when the subject turned to alcoholism.

Sipping a club soda, Spencer recalled the first time he looked at background material about Leo McGarry, his character on The West Wing.

"It was weird," Spencer said.

"Leo McGarry is an alcoholic and so am I.

"When we began shooting the series, it felt, at times, like I really wasn't acting, particularly during scenes that dealt with Leo's battle with alcohol."

Spencer recalled a vivid flashback episode when McGarry's alcoholism almost ruined his political career.

Spencer said that his acting career "saved my life."

"Acting, rather than alcohol, became my drug of choice.

"And I always feel that Leo's driving career in politics was his life saver."

Spencer's death on Friday, four months short of his 59th birthday, produced another parallel.

Last season on The West Wing, McGarry, President Jeb Bartlet's chief of staff, suffered a heart attack and had to leave his high-profile position.

A heart attack killed Spencer.

Spencer's portrayal of McGarry has been one of many outstanding, ongoing performances on the NBC political drama in its seventh and probably final season.

Spencer gave McGarry a definitive "old pol" personality that so many identify with Democratic politics.

Combative and fiercely loyal to his president, McGarry never backed away from a verbal brawl.

And underneath this tough demeanor was a sentimental, often lonely man.

Spencer's portrayal earned him a 2002 Emmy as best supporting dramatic series actor. He was nominated four other times.

The strong onscreen bond between McGarry and Bartlet seemingly extended to real life.

When notified of Spencer's passing, Martin Sheen (who portrays Bartlet) said: "He was my brother."

Spencer injected a feisty personality into every role he played.

Before The West Wing, he was a key performer in L.A. Law, the honored NBC series, playing tough lawyer Tommy Mullaney for four seasons.

And here's an item for trivia buffs:

Spencer was the main guest star in the first episode of Law & Order, aired Sept. 13, 1990, portraying a distraught father who believed his daughter died in a New York hospital because of medical malfeasance.

Spencer was not the first key actor to die while a popular TV series was being filmed.

John Ritter, star of 8 Simple Rules, died during the 2003 season and Jerry Orbach, the former star of Law & Order, passed away a year ago after filming two episodes of Law & Order Trial by Jury.

Nick Colasanto, the funny, dense bartender on Cheers, passed away in 1985.

And loyal Hill Street Blues fans will recall the 1984 death of Michael Conrad, who portrayed Sgt. Phil ("Let's be careful out there") Esterhaus.

While such passings produced obvious production problems, the death of Spencer creates a more significant one in the story line.

Leo McGarry is the vice presidential running mate of Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), with the election being the key part of the winter and spring episodes on The West Wing.

Five future episodes already have been filmed, with the series scheduled to return on Jan. 8 with an hour titled "Running Mates," in which Spencer's character has a key role.

The production staff, on a holiday hiatus, faces a story revamping, perhaps even major editing of the completed episodes, depending on the presence of Spencer.

Many story lines probably will be rewritten with the Santos political camp searching for a new running mate.

The death of Spencer obviously will produce more than an aside mention in future episodes.

Look for an hour detailing the passing of Leo McGarry.

In a sadly ironic twist, Spencer's death will lead to an infusion of new, dramatic story lines and possibly higher ratings for the series, which has not found audience success in its early Sunday-night time period.

I'm left with the feeling that Spencer would appreciate the fact he made such a contribution. "

From the Hollywood Reporter:
"It's the season of giving, in case you hadn't heard, and in that spirit it seems a fine time to be handing out presents in celebration of the holiday (whether one observes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or some politically mandated, culturally enriching equivalent).

As we all understand, however, it's not the price of the gift but the thought that counts. With that in mind, here is what I'm telling Santa Claus and his Jewish counterpart, Santa Cohen, to deliver to some very special people in the entertainment business:
-- For the late John Spencer of "The West Wing," who passed away at 58 on Friday: An appointment as God's chief of staff."

From the Philadelphia Daily News:
"Missing the man and actor

Friday's news that actor John Spencer had died of a heart attack came as sort of a double shock, as I find myself at once mourning the actor and the character he played.

Spencer, like Leo McGarry, his splendid alter-ego on NBC's "The West Wing," was a recovering alcoholic, and as we now know, they apparently shared heart problems.

But more importantly, they also shared a love of, and deep belief in, the work they did. Spencer, like most members of what's probably one of the brightest casts on television, knew how to communicate that.

One of my fondest memories in this job is of an evening several years ago in Pasadena, Calif., after a Television Critics Association function, when the chain-smoking actor talked with some of us about Leo, the work and why he'd chosen to return to the stage - in a play, "Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine" that his Variety obit reminds me had him playing an aging jazz musician with addiction issues of his own - while filming "Wing." It was a schedule that probably should have killed him right there.

My sense, then and now, was that he couldn't help himself.

And television, richer for his addiction to the work, will be poorer without him."

From the New York Daily News:
"John Spencer's Leo McGarry wasn't the star of NBC's "The West Wing."

He was more than that.

He was the show's connective tissue, the man who linked the President to everyone else and who, as the President's chief of staff, had to figure out where good ideas and hard, cold political reality could intersect.

Because "West Wing" at its best explored precisely that idea - politics as the art of the possible - Leo seemed in many ways its most irreplaceable character.

Now, with John Spencer's tragic death last week at the age of 58, we'll find out - and find out at a time when "West Wing" has dropped so far from its ratings heyday that it was already considered a long shot for renewal beyond this season.

Personally, I still like "West Wing." I'm willing to tolerate its missteps, like the terrible idea of a live debate between presidential candidates Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, because it still does a number of things well.

But if the show was facing third-and-13 before, the loss of Leo moves that back to third-and-20.

"The West Wing" worked from the beginning because it illustrated how power works.

Because Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlet has a country to run, he cannot be friends with those who work for him. When Jed played chess with Richard Ziff's Toby Ziegler, they were separated by a gap the size of Greenland - because Toby understood exactly who the President is.

So Jed had Leo, and while Leo, too, respected Jed's position, he was grandfathered in as a personal friend. Jed could chat with Leo and Leo could relay his messages and directives to the staff, whose subsequent efforts to implement them created the core of the show.

Looking over the current cast, there's no other Leo in sight.

Bradley Whitford's Josh Lyman might get there someday, but he's still got mistakes to make. He also still has to have that affair with Janel Moloney's Donna, who's been drooling all over him for six years.

Alison Janney's C.J. Cregg, while likable enough, was already tossed into water way over her character's head when she got named to Leo's old chief of staff position.

The idea that any press secretary could step right into high-level international policy decisions is the kind of credibility-sapping move that explains why "West Wing" viewership has dropped by half from the better years.

Spencer's death may not leave the same hole in "West Wing" that John Ritter's death left in "8 Simple Rules," or Freddie Prinze's in "Chico and the Man." But it may be just as hard to fill.

When your challenge is to illustrate the art of the possible, John Spencer made Leo McGarry into exactly the guy you wanted holding the brush."

From the The Guardian (UK)
"Chief of staff Leo McGarry, the rock on which The West Wing's Jed Bartlet built his presidency, survived his heart attack. Off screen, alas, the actor John Spencer has not; he died at the weekend. Today would have been his 59th birthday.

Many problems attend the sudden death of an actor integral to a television series (in addition to the obvious difficulties faced by his colleagues, who have to carry on working throughout their own bereavement). Perhaps fortunately, The West Wing, which is in production on its seventh season and is thought to have got two or three episodes in the can before Spencer died, is an ensemble show. So it is unlikely to founder in the same way or as quickly as, for example, the sitcom 8 Simple Rules did after the unexpected death two years ago of its star John Ritter, or suffer as rapid and ignominious a cancellation as The Royle Family did a few episodes after its raison d'etre, Redd Foxx, was felled by a fatal heart attack.

Article continues
But Leo McGarry was central to one of the show's main storylines, running as vice-president on the Democratic ticket with congressman Matt Santos. The campaign against Republican nominee Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) begins in season six, currently showing on More 4, and was due to be the central plank of the seventh, now being filmed. The writers and producers may be able to buy some time with technical wizardry - a digital Oliver Reed appeared frequently in Gladiator after he died halfway through filming; previously discarded footage kept the celluloid James Dean alive until they had finished cutting Giant; and in an even closer parallel, Nancy Marchand was given a posthumous final scene as Tony's fearsome mother in The Sopranos thanks to computer imagery, spare shots and a body double.

But sooner rather than later, the West Wing team are going to have to come up with a narratively satisfying end for McGarry that also constitutes a fitting farewell for Spencer. The most obvious option would be to use the established history of ill-health for the character to write in another heart attack, but this might hit too close to home for cast and viewers alike. Then again, Leo McGarry was ever the voice of reason when it looked like his president was about to make a sentimental choice instead of serving the greater good, so maybe his voice will guide those who this time have to find a real-life way between the two."

From the Syracuse Post Standard:
"John Spencer, who succumbed four days short of his 59th birthday, was known to millions of television viewers as Leo McGarry on "The West Wing." At the time of his death, his character was running for vice president on the ticket toplined by Jimmy Smits after a long term as chief of staff to President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

Spencer segued into "West Wing" from his role as Tommy Mullaney on TV's "L.A. Law." That part earned him his first Emmy. "West Wing" put the second on his mantel.

Flash back to the winter of 1988, and Syracuse Stage audiences were introduced to the actor in the Central New York premiere of Terrence McNally's hit "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."

This is what this reviewer wrote about Spencer's performance: "Johnny is a tougher part than Frankie. His chatter must annoy theatergoers, just as it does Frankie. At that, he's succeeded. He has captured, too, the character's nutty humor, with his absurdist flights of adulation and botching of Shakespeare. It's the vulnerability that needs work. It lacks conviction and fails to touch the heart as it should."

The actor also will be remembered from the Stage production for going "the full monty" long before the term was coined."

Video from CNN. (This might require Windows Media and Internet Explorer)

There are reports that he will be remembered tonight on "The Insider" and "Entertainment Tonight" with clips of celebrity reactions. In the New York City area these are broadcast from 7PM to 8PM on CBS.


Anonymous said...

When John Ritter died, they didn't kill his character off in a car crash. He had a heart attack in the grocery store while getting milk. Check your facts.

newsjunkie said...

Well, I didn't post that I thought that, but quoted what the original article said. It would be more useful to point the mistake to the Detroit News (
I never claimed that there article was correct, I just posted what they reported. While I usually add a comment when I know a fact to be untrue (especially when it's "West Wing" related, I am usually not doing my own reporting but reprinting excerpts from other articles and I cannot always vouc h for their content. That's why I always name the source of my information - I clearly wrote that the Detroit News was reporting this information. Thanks however for pointing out the error (to me and to other readers). Readers are welcome to use the comments for that purpose. I would strongly suggest that you write to the Detroit News.

Anonymous said...

While home with a bug early this week I watched an episode of West Wing and pondered how they could compensate for John Spencer's untimely death. I think of all the characters, his loss will likely have more impact than any. Just a few days before I had read a nice piece about him in People Magazine. Seeing the episode put me in a pensive mood, probably amplified by being a bit under the weather. When I got to feeling better, I jotted down some thoughts that were on my mind and sent them off to TWW. They aren't very profound but I thought they might be of some interest:

"We were all greatly saddened by the untimely death of John Spencer ("Leo"). That loss was just driven home again as I watched the episode entitled "Twenty Five" and realized how central John was to the show. The line "Leo will know what to do" was used several times. He was a father figure, and an anchor of stability for many episodes. I've seen him interviewed and the lines on his face, every word he uttered, reflected strong character. It was fitting that John was the first one cast for the show, as he was an actor of consummate skill. I understand that Stockard Channing was at the hospital visiting him when he died. We are sorry for all those who were close to John. He will be missed, not only on "The West Wing" and by its cast and crew, but also by the many who mourn the loss of an exceptionally fine human being."

Anonymous said...

Just seeing the previews of next weeks episode - the beginning of the end for 'Leo' has made me sad again. It's going to be gut wrenching to watch. I feel silly having such strong feelings about this person I didn't know..but I do. And it makes me sad that he has to die...again.

Anonymous said...

It's mind-blowing that after all this time, I still feel the void caused by John Spencer's passing. Not just because of the WW but because of the many more roles he will never get to play on stage or screen.

After a long wait, I purchaed WW Season 7 today, and part of the reason is that I had the vain hope of a re-release with a Spencer tribute. I stumbled on this page while trying to find an article explaining why that is. Maybe he didn't want it that way, maybe there was too much inside baseball at WB, who knows. Anyway, I echo the sentiment of all these compiled articles: that although many of us never met Spencer, he emulated a quality that makes you believe that the you and your world can be made better, conquering adversity is possible, and of course there was his wry "Noel Cowardesque" wit ;-).

He will continue to be missed by so many. One in a million.

Anonymous said...

Nov 19th, 2007. I knew about the existence of West Wing, but until two weeks ago I had never watched an episode. In the past two weeks, I watched them all. All 7 seasons. Now I have finished watching everything, I am so sad that it's all over. But I felt even more sad about John Spencer's death. It is kind of weird that I al living through all of this two years after it happened. But that is also the reason that I have the utmost respect for whoever created this website, with all the posts/interviews about John's death. It is a great tribute and I thank you for putting it up here. Must have been a lot of work. I just read it all. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

So sad I just read of his death while watching the west wing on DVD - an incredible actor with inspirational performances - shocked ..,