Round Two this week.
John Spencer, an actor who received an Emmy Award for portraying the flawed but efficient chief of staff who anchored the large ensemble cast on NBC-TV’s "The West Wing," died on Friday December 17th.
He was 58.
John Spencer’s portrayal of Leo McGarry was brilliant, completely faultless. He brought a huge array of acting talent to bear on scenes that demanded anything from cranky humour or heartfelt kindness through to gut-wrenching sadness or pounding fear – all with understatement and subtlety. A lovely character, a lovely man, and possibly one of the greatest but undervalued actors of our time. In a show with an outstanding ensemble cast, John stood apart with his acting always being sheer perfection.
 From his entrance into The West Wing, through the story of his alcoholism in Bartlet for America, from his reaction in Twenty Five to the scarily accurate heart attack scene in The Birnam Woods, Spencer managed to make Leo a real person and not just a character in a television show.
With all the great scenes that have been shown on the West Wing, I think one of the most memorable Leo moments was the scene in "18th and Potomac" when he hears of Mrs. Landingham’s death, and realizes he’s going to have to give the president this unbearable news. In that long, long close-up, Spencer gives the equivalent of a heart-wrenching monologue using nothing more than facial expressions.
For those of us that watched the West Wing religously you made us laugh, you made us cry, you made us believe.
The world has lost a wonderful actor, and the West Wing has lost its heart and soul.
West Wing Analogy
A dark-horse candidate comes from behind to win his party’s nomination. As if to spite the pollsters and talking heads, the frank and brilliant former governor, Jed Bartlet, captures the White House to become President of the United States.
Surrounding himself with the best and the brightest, the president chooses his staff from the team responsible for putting him in the White House. Leo McGarry, the president’s oldest friend — and the man who convinces Bartlet to run — is named chief of staff. One of the most powerful men in his party, Leo presides over the West Wing of the White House with a firm hand and a fatherly tone. With uncanny prescience, Leo puts his faith in Toby Ziegler, the only original staff member to make it through the campaign. Despite six previous failures, Toby’s work along with a new team of friends and strangers, helps get Bartlet nominated and elected. Now, as the communications director for the White House, Toby holds an important role in crafting the president’s word.
Using the power instilled in him as an old family friend, Leo McGarry brings Josh Lyman to the campaign with a simple request to come hear Jed Bartlet speak. In a VFW hall in Nashua, New Hampshire, the skeptical Josh does come and is amazed to finally find a candidate to believe in. Convinced that the man should be president, Lyman gets his friend Sam Seaborn to quit his job at a major law firm where he is about to become a partner and join Bartlet’s campaign. Gladly serving at the pleasure of President Bartlet, Sam is now the White House deputy communications director and his friend Josh is the deputy chief of staff. Two men from different backgrounds from opposite ends of the country are united not just by friendship but by their devotion to the president.
Leo Quote
Season 2, Episode 10
"This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’  
Spencer died after suffering a heart attack, said Ron Hofmann, his publicist. He said the actor had fallen ill at home and died at Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles.
"We’re shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden death of our friend and colleague," Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, executive producers of "The West Wing," said in a statement. "John was an uncommonly good man, an exceptional role model and a brilliant actor."
On the Emmy-winning hourlong drama that began airing in 1999, Spencer’s character, Leo McGarry, is running for vice president on the Democratic ticket with Rep. Matthew Santos, played by Jimmy Smits.
Art sadly imitated life for Spencer. His "West Wing" character was chosen as a running mate despite a recent heart attack and a history of alcoholism. The actor openly acknowledged that he had struggled with alcohol addiction since high school
In a statement, Smits said, "I am honored to call John Spencer a friend, and his death is a loss that will be felt for a long time to come. Working with him was a privilege…. John was a true pillar of a man."
The death of an actor while a series is still in production challenges the producers and writers to find a logical plot line for the character’s sudden absence. "The West Wing" will have to deal with the loss because the fictional election is central to the story line.
David E. Kelley, a writer and executive producer on "L.A. Law" when Spencer joined that show in 1990, was too upset to speak but issued this statement: "We are all deeply saddened."
James Mangold, who directed Spencer in the 1997 film "Cop Land," said he first noticed the "brilliant" actor when he played a street-smart attorney on "L.A. Law" on NBC.
"He was a kind, sweet, funny man … a man who made your words come to life in ways you would never expect," Mangold said.
Spencer was born John Speshock on Dec. 20, 1946, the only child of a working-class family. Most sources give his birthplace as New York City, but some say New Jersey.
His mother, Mildred, was an occasional waitress and homemaker who dropped out of school in the eighth grade. His truck driver father, John, never finished grammar school.
"They wanted me to be educated, a doctor or a lawyer. They weren’t happy that I chose the arts," the gravelly voiced Spencer told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. "They wanted me to have a good life. It’s ironic that I made the leap in a different way," he said.
As a student at the Professional Children’s School in New York City, he sometimes took classes with Liza Minnelli.
At 16, he left his home near Paterson, N.J., to pursue acting in New York City and took Spencer as his stage name.
"I lived at the YMCA," he recalled. "My mom would meet me at the bus station and slip me $10."
In the early 1960s, he landed his first television role, on "The Patty Duke Show" on ABC. He played Henry Anderson, the boyfriend of Cathy, the British twin.
"I had big ears and was quite tall for the show, 5-foot, 6 inches," Spencer recalled in 2000. "I looked like a toothpick with ears."
After that, he attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and later New York University but dropped out to return to acting.
Most of his early work was on the stage, where he established himself as a character actor in regional theater.
He toured with Gloria Swanson, playing her blind son in "Butterflies Are Free." In 1982, he received an Obie for his portrayal of a returning Vietnam veteran in the Emily Mann off-Broadway play "Still Life."
Mann also offered him the role of killer Dan White in "Execution of Justice," her stage re-creation of the 1978 murders in San Francisco of political figures George Moscone and Harvey Milk.
"Still Life" led to his first film role, as a military grunt in 1983’s "WarGames."
His big break in the movies came in the 1990 film "Presumed Innocent." He played Harrison Ford’s detective sidekick, the man who tosses the incriminating piece of evidence overboard at the end of the courtroom thriller.
"My life changed overnight," he told Time magazine in 2000.
From there, he went directly to the NBC hit "L.A. Law." Casting director Ronnie Yeskel knew Spencer’s work from the theater.
"He’s dangerous and interesting, not your typical pretty boy, and he’s got great humor," Yeskel said in 1992. "We were looking for somebody different from the cast, an older guy, maybe with a little more ‘street.’ "
Although Spencer was hesitant to join the series, Kelley’s script convinced him otherwise.
"I got five pages into it, and it was one of the best scripts I’d read. David had got inside my head. He wrote it like I thought," Spencer told the Chicago Tribune.
He joined "L.A. Law" in 1990 as maverick lawyer Tommy Mullaney and stayed until the show’s end in 1994. Spencer claimed Mullaney’s rumpled look was based on his own wardrobe.
Spencer, whose grandfathers were both alcoholics, said he woke up one morning in 1989 and decided to quit drinking. He called a cousin to take him to a rehabilitation center. A decade later, Spencer gave up smoking.
In his 40-year career, he also worked with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery in the action-suspense film "The Rock" (1996) and with Paul Newman in the 1998 private-eye yarn "Twilight."
After appearing in the short-lived NBC series "Trinity" in 1998, Spencer swore off doing hourlong dramas but once again changed his mind when his agent showed him the pilot script for "The West Wing." The role would bring him five Emmy nominations, including a win in 2002.
Right after he signed the contract for the pilot, his agent called again to say he’d just come across "the best new American play" he’d ever read, called "The Glimmer Brothers," Spencer told The Times in 2001.
Again, it was a role that Spencer felt he couldn’t pass up.
He played Martin Glimmer, a dissolute trumpet player who’s about to pay the final dues of a hard life, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts during "The West Wing’s" summer hiatus in 1999.
Two years later, he revived his well-reviewed role in "Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine" — same play, different title — at the Mark Taper Forum while filming "The West Wing."
During the play, his role on the show was cut back, but Martin Sheen, who portrays President Josiah Bartlet on "The West Wing," told The Times in 2001 that he noticed no difference in life on the set with Spencer.
"He’s extremely energetic; he’s got it down — I can barely keep up with the show," Sheen said. "I don’t know how he does it, but man, he’s doing it."
The Crackpots and these Women
“It is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention. I know the more jaded among you see this as something rather beneath you. But I assure you that listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely not the people’s servants.”
Let Bartlet be Bartlet
"You want to see me orchestrate this right now? You want to see me mobilize these people? These people who would walk into fire if you told them to. These people who showed up to lead. These people who showed up to fight… That guy gets death threats because he’s black and he dates your daughter. He was warned, do not show up to this place. You’re life will be in danger. He said to hell with that, I’m going anyway. You said no. Prudent, or not prudent, this 21 year old for 600 dollars a week says I’m going where I want to because a man stands up… Everyone’s waiting for you. I don’t know how much longer."
"If we want to walk into walls, I’d want us running into ’em full speed… And we’re gonna lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues. We’re gonna put them front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy."
John Spencer


Posted on December 19, 2005, in In Memoriam and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: