36 Secrets About The West Wing—Including What's Next

Let's drink from the keg of glory, because the cast of NBC's beloved political series The West Wing is reuniting. Then prep for their HBO Max return with this primer.

By Sarah Grossbart Oct 15, 2020 7:00 AMTags
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For years now, Aaron Sorkin and the cast of his 26-time Emmy-winning, impeccably written, politically minded creation have been inundated with the same question: What's next? 

As in, would we ever again get to peek inside the most aspirational of White Houses, into a place that gave people hope a world of politics could exist that coupled the requisite dirty dealings and one-upmanship with bipartisan cooperation and the ever-present desire to actually do good. 

"It's nice to think about," Allison Janney told Jimmy Kimmel in January of slipping back into C.J. Cregg's suits for another term in The West Wing cabinet. "I think everybody wants to think about it now because, you know, it was a Camelot administration on The West Wing. It was the way you hope that people in government [would be]."

It was rousing, motivational; it showcased the best of people; it taught us that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. And for many—against the backdrop of the current divisive climate—revisiting all seven seasons on Netflix feels as heartwarming as the first time we saw President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) give Charlie (Dulé Hill) his family's knife set. So, really, Aaron, can a fan get a reboot up in here? 

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Finally, in late August, he answered our pleas

The West Wing is returning...for one night only Oct. 15, with Sheen, Janney, Hill, Rob LoweBradley Whitford and Janel Moloney reprising their roles for A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote, a staged version of season three's "Hartsfield Landing" episode. The HBO Max project was created to support Michelle Obama's nonpartisan get out the vote initiative.  

And while Sorkin was very clear during the cast's appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert Oct. 9 that this is not a reunion ("Reunion shows have a certain stigma attached to them, that you feel like it's going to be A Very Brady Christmas"), but it's not nothing. So, game on! Let's drink from the keg of glory and enjoy the finest muffins and bagels in all the land!

Related: Allison Janney's Reading Takes a Surprising Turn

Also, the fact that Sorkin tapped Sterling K. Brown to step foot into Leo McGarry's presumably hand-cut Italian leather shoes—filling in for the late John Spencer who passed during the series' final season in 2005—means there's still a sliver of hope for the next-chapter plot that Sorkin floated in 2017. One that elected Brown as a commander in chief facing "some kind of jam, an emergency, a very delicate situation involving the threat of war or something" that only former President Bartlet could solve.

We're here for anything that brings the gang back together and we are more than ready to embrace our (fictional) American heroes as they reach for the stars. So let's celebrate the new release by grabbing some New England crab cakes, firing up "The Jackal" and studying up on our favorite West Wing trivia. Ginger, get the popcorn!

1. Okay, this one is not so much a secret, but Martin Sheen has called his seven seasons as the eloquent, principled President Josiah Bartlet "the most satisfying thing I've ever done in my acting career," telling Entertainment Weekly in August, "I always think of it with gratitude and humility."

And the avowed Democrat would feel that same reverence if his alter ego had been a conservative. "I'm often asked would I have done it if the president had been a Republican. I responded even today to that question the way I did 20 years ago and said, 'If Aaron Sorkin wrote him, I would play it.' Because the chief part of the character that I responded to and I think is projected in almost every episode is a level of humanity, a level of compassion, a great sense of curiosity and self-effacement."

2. The whole concept of the Bartlet administration was conceived during a cigarette break. Fresh off 1992's A Few Good Men and 1995's The American President, Sorkin "had never thought of doing television," he admitted to Empire in a 2014 oral history. Until his agent suggested he meet with ER producer John Wells. "The night before the meeting, some friends were over for dinner and Akiva Goldsman and I slipped downstairs to the basement so we could sneak a cigarette," Sorkin continued of his screenwriter pal. "He said, 'You know what would make a good television series? That.' And he was pointing at The American President poster."

A seed was planted. "The next day I walked into the restaurant and immediately saw this wasn't what I thought it was going to be," Sorkin shared. "This wasn't just a 'hello, how are you?' meeting, because John was sitting with a couple of agents and studio executives from Warner Brothers. Right after I sat down, he said, 'So what do you want to do?' And instead of saying, 'I think there's been a misunderstanding, I don't have an idea for a television series,' which would've been honest, I said 'I want to do a television series about senior staffers at the White House'. He said, 'Okay, you got a deal.'"

3. But Bill Clinton almost messed the whole thing up. As Sorkin was busily crafting the pilot episode, pulling from the unused bits of  The American President screenplay, then-president Clinton was having sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. "It was hard, at least for Americans, to look at the White House and think of anything but a punch line," Sorkin recalled to Empire. "Plus a show about politics, a show that took place in Washington, had just never worked before in American television. So the show was delayed for a year."

4. Convinced to move forward after seeing underrated 1998 sitcom Sports Night, execs at NBC and Warner Bros. were still wary of the concept. (Yes, they've since had to sit there in their wrongness and be wrong.) But Sorkin was determined to craft the fantastical world of politics we've come to know and love. 

"The whole idea behind The West Wing was that in pop culture, our elected officials are portrayed either as Machiavellian or dolts," he explained to EW. "So I wanted to create this very unusual workplace: the White House where the people who work there were as competent as the doctors and nurses on a hospital show or the detectives on a cop show or the lawyers on a lawyer show. And they were going to lose as much as they were going to win. And they were going to slip on banana peels from time to time, but we were going to be certain of two things: One, they're hyperconfident; and two, they wake up every morning thinking about how to do something better."

5. Sorkin and Wells ignored a number of strategies en route to filming their pilot. In episode one, as Deputy Communications Secretary Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and Deputing Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) were working to rescue a group of Cuban refugees, "The note from NBC was, 'We need to get Sam and Josh in the water,'" Whitford shared. 

Another idea that was floated was to model Bartlet after then-Minnesota governor and former wrestler Jesse Ventura. "The network kept saying, 'We don't want to do something about a liberal Democrat. We need a populist, somebody who's a wrestler or a race car driver or a football player coming in from the outside and shaking things up,'" said Wells. "We chose not to do that."

6. It took a minute to assemble the cabinet of stars. For a moment, with producers unsure if Lowe would sign on, the part of Sam was actually offered to Whitford. "I got a phone call saying that I was in the show but I was playing Sam," Whitford told Empire. "I remember I was in a gas station in Santa Monica and I had no right not to be thrilled but I called Aaron and I said, 'I'm not Sam! I'm not the guy with the hooker, I'm the guy bashing the Christian right!'"

7. But Sorkin realllllly didn't want to cast Lowe. "While it was all right with me that the president was being played by a movie star, I thought having one play Sam would throw the balance of the cast out of whack," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 of his desired ensemble cast. "And then he read the first of three scenes he'd prepared. I don't remember the second or the third because he'd already gotten the part a page into the first, and I was thinking of stories for a character who has no idea he looks like Rob Lowe. 'Pay him whatever he wants,' I said."

8. We also almost saw CCH Pounder (who eventually guested as HUD Secretary Deborah O'Leary) embodying press secretary turned chief of staff C.J. Cregg, Eugene Levy as Communications Director Toby Ziegler and legendary Oscar winner Sidney Poitier as Bartlet. "We couldn't get that deal started," Sorkin explained, "it was just too rich for our blood."

9. And, at the time, it wasn't the lead role we know it as now. "When I started it was just a peripheral character—the focus was to be on the staff, not the First Family," Sheen explained to Empire about signing on for "maybe three or four episodes every season." Then they shot the final scene of the pilot that saw the commander in chief simply demolish his adversaries with one speech and an instruction to get their "fat asses" out of his White House.

"Aaron's whole thing was that he didn't want the pomposity of the presidency. He didn't want everybody to do exactly what, in the final scene, everyone does, which is stand still and be respectful and just listen to what the President has to say," director and executive producer Thomas Schlamme noted. "But once we cast Martin and we realized Martin's incredible accessibility, nothing felt pompous or aloof. If the show is about all the planets, let's end it with the sun." Plus, as Well shared with The Hollywood Reporter, "Martin was the highest-testing character in the pilot, by far. The network said, 'We probably want to have more of him.'"

10. Just out of view in that scene: Richard Schiff (Ziegler) trying desperately to maintain his composure. "That was one of the last scenes we shot and it was the first time I had met Martin," he explained. "When I first saw him coming to rehearsal for his entrance, both of his cheeks were like a chipmunk: full of food and greasy. He had a piece of chicken in his hand and he was chewing. He just cracked me up laughing. Then he does his big entrance, 'I am the Lord your God!' and I could still see the grease the make-up people didn't get off his face! I was just gone. 

During each take, when the camera panned off him, he'd run two sets over and attempt to tamper down his giggles. "That was my first day of working with Martin," he reflected, "and I don't think there was a day in the next seven years that I didn't enjoy as much as that with him."

11. And Schiff wasn't the only cast member often plagued with a case of the giggles. "The worst offenders were Richard and Allison," Sorkin told THR. "If they had a scene together they'd be serious geniuses for three takes and then they'd lose it. It got to the point that where we were doing single coverage, we'd have to move one of them out of the room. Many of the best moments of Toby talking to C.J. are Toby talking to the Script Supervisor."

12. With the opportunity to renegotiate his contract once it was clear he was going to be a regular, Sheen made two demands. "That they make Bartlet a Catholic—because I wanted him to form all of his opinions from a moral frame of reference and as a Catholic myself, that's the way I framed all of my actions," Sheen told Empire. "And I also asked that he be a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Aaron agreed to both of them and they became a staple of the character."

13. His character's multiple sclerosis diagnosis was as surprising to him as it was to the voters that put Barlet in office. At a 2016 ATX Television Festival panel, Sorkin revealed that the major plot point came about simply because he wanted to do an episode about the president taking a sick day and he needed a situation severe enough to bring the First Lady, Dr. Abigail Barlet, rushing back to his bedside. "Whatever he's got, whether it's the cold or the flu, should also exhibit signs of something else that Abbey is worried about," Sorkin explained. Not long after he made his choice did he realize how deep he was in. Days later, at a TCA presentation, he recalled, "All kinds of hands went up and said, 'Aaron, where are you going with the whole MS storyline? What's going to happen now?'"

14. The NBC series wasn't just a plum gig for an actor. A slew of Washington D.C. insiders—Clinton press secretary Dee Dee MyersGeorge H.W. Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling, and Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan—served as consultants and others even earned a spot in the writer's room. With Jimmy Carter staffer Pat Caddell and Al Gore speechwriter Eli Attie on hand, "It was an intimidating room to be in, and I was very nervous my first day," co-executive producer Kevin Falls told THR. "Some of these people answered to American presidents and about the only subject I could address with confidence was when we'd break for lunch."

15. Given the part of Josh's assistant Donna Moss after her audition for C.J., Janel Moloney initially didn't quit her day job. Warned hers would be more of a recurring guest part, "I was hostessing at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills called Il Pastaio, and I kept my job at the restaurant at first," Moloney told The Hollywood Reporter. "But by the third episode, I knew that they were never going to get rid of me."

16. She also called Donna's future romance with the boss well before the season seven payoff. "The whole basis of my character, before I even started on day one, was 'Donna is drop-dead, head-over-heels, 100 percent would die for Josh," she described at the 2016 ATX Festival. "Every file I signed, every policy I asked about, the subtext was 'I just love you so much, I would do anything for you at any moment.'"

17. With political operatives often approaching Allison Janney to share that watching her as C.J. Cregg changed the direction of their career, the actress told EW,"She is my favorite character I've ever played because she's someone that I aspire to. She's a wonderful character, she's not afraid to speak truth to power. She's a woman in a traditionally male-populated arena in the White House and she was given the president's ear. And it's a great role to champion women. She's such an amazing character. She's the one I most want to be like and who I'm most not like."

18. Because, actually, mastering Cregg's mouthfuls of dialogue wasn't always the easiest task for the seven-time Emmy winner. But "The Jackal"? That she had down cold. "Richard Schiff and I would constantly think of terrible ways to spend our time waiting to work," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "We started doing just ridiculously silly things in my trailer like playing air guitar and lip-syncing to crazy songs. We made Aaron come in to see us do 'The Jackal,' and then he put it in the show."

19. Those not dreaming of standing behind C.J.'s podium put themselves in Josh Lyman's well-worn shoes. Such aspirations came at a cost, though, Whitford joked. "The last time I was in D.C., an exhausted young guy who was clearly a Hill staffer came up to me and said, 'I just want you to know that you're the reason I went into politics,'" he shared with EW, "and I said, 'Oh, that's really sweet. I appreciate that.' And he said, 'Actually, I'm exhausted, I'm broke, and I don't think I'm ever going to kiss Mary-Louise Parker.'"

20. Be still our hearts: The father-son-like relationship between President Bartlet and body man Charles Young (Dulé Hill) began with the most heartwarming of gestures. "I hadn't done much TV, and I was definitely overwhelmed," Hill recalled to THR. "But the first time I met Martin, he taught me the handshake that Laurence Fishburne had taught him during Apocalypse Now. The relationship that Charlie and the president had started [first began] offscreen with myself and Martin."

21. Sheen charmed his onscreen wife as well. "I was on a layover in Calgary when my agent called," Stockard Channing told THR of her first day. "I was literally wearing hiking boots and a coat, changed planes and went to Los Angeles. The next morning, I was thrown into an evening gown on the set. Martin was sneaking a cigarette, and they shouted, 'We're ready for you.' We had to descend a staircase, and I said, 'Hi, how do you do?' never having met him before. He said, 'Oh, hello, we've been married like 35 years, and we have three children.'"

22. Moloney loved a good walk-and-talk as much as the rest of us. They were "the easiest scenes to do, because you don't have to act," she recalled to EW. "All you have to do is say [your lines] and not run into the cameraman and it's just like you're brilliant." For Janney, Schlamme's invention offered a particular thrill each time. "I f--king loved it!" she told Empire. "You were in a relay race and if you had to come in on the third hallway pass and you f--ked up, it was like, 'Oh my God!' It was this really exhilarating game and the perfect way to keep a show about politics active, exciting and fast-paced."

23. Having lowered their rates to take on the project, most of the main cast were eager to renegotiate after two successful seasons. But much like their network companions over at Friends, "It wasn't every man for himself: John, Allison, Brad and Richard wanted to negotiate as a group, and they all wanted to be paid the same," Sorkin recalled to THR. "Brad said, 'I don't want to be doing a scene with Allison and know that I'm getting paid more than she is because I have a previous quote and she doesn't.'"

24. Lowe's departure following season four ("It was one of those moments that I think people have where you can stay static or you can invest in yourself, and both choices are legitimate choices," he explained to THR) was a blow. But it opened the door for Joshua Malina's Will Bailey (and paved the way for he and Hrishikesh Hirway's eventual fan favorite podcast, The West Wing Weekly.)

Having worked with pal Sorkin on Sports Night, "I sent [Aaron] an email, the contents of which basically were: 'What about a less well-known, less good-looking actor who would work for less money?'" Malina told THR. "It was shameless, but to my surprise, Aaron's response suggested that he had already talked to Schlamme about the idea. I drove to meet him at the Four Seasons for lunch, and he said, 'Here's the character I'm thinking of for you.'"

25. Then Schlamme and Sorkin followed Lowe out the door, with Sorkin telling THR, they "knew that it was time to do whatever we were going to do next and give the show to fresh legs." The announcement was devastating, Janney recalled, "We all felt kicked in the stomach. We felt like we were being abandoned by our parents. We didn't understand it, we didn't want it to happen and there was nothing we could do about it."

26. The show's youngest fan might just be Mary McCormack's then-week-old daughter. Pregnant when she was cast as Deputy National Security Advisor Kate Harper, she returned to work seven days after giving birth "and everyone held her," she reflected in EW. "I held a rosary that Martin gave me when I gave birth to her. And then I came back and it was such a family. And I still consider them my family. We're still all in touch all the time. And we're activists together and we help each other, we're at funerals and weddings and baby showers."

27. For all of their endless fond memories from filming, the day-to-day process was actually hard AF. "The hours on that show were so bad. I mean, just horrible," Whitford recalled to THR. "I remember going to Tommy and saying to him, 'The invisible carnage of the unf--ked wives and the children not being read to is just wafting out.'" Though Schlamme joked, "I think Brad thought of that line later and wished he had said it to me," he acknowledged that the schedule—that saw them remaining on set well past three in the morning—wasn't the best. "Fortunately, our children are still standing, though my three still call it 'the West Wing years.'"

28. Still, it's hard to beat work days that end deep in the bowels of the actual White House. Shooting on location one night, "Somebody had recognized Brad and said: 'We're doing night duty in the situation room downstairs. When you guys get done, come down and have a drink,'" Schlamme revealed to THR. "Next thing we know, we've wrapped and we're in the situation room at 2:30 in the morning drinking vodka."

29. Or the time Falls accompanied Sheen to the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. "So we go downtown, and we have to walk a quarter-mile to Staples Center, and as we're walking, everyone recognizes Martin—hard hats, delegates, everybody—and Martin is embracing it," he shared. "Martin thinks he's president. He's waving, signing autographs. It was surreal."

30. Or when they shot the epic, engrossing season two double episode "Two Cathedrals" at the actual National Cathedral. "During rehearsals there were a number of clergy standing around watching," Sorkin shared. "I walked up to a priest who was standing nearby and said, 'Excuse me, Father? I think you should know that in the scene we're about to do Martin Sheen is going to curse at God.' He smiled and said, 'I know, it's gonna be great.'"

31. But, yeah, the weren't always the most efficient bunch. Months in advance, Sorkin had conceived his idea for the season two opener and, working backwards, came up with season one's jaw dropper of a cliffhanger. He just hadn't quite figured out it was [redacted] that would end up shot in the melee following Bartlet's event. And so Schlamme was tasked with shooting the chaotic exterior scene in Virginia—in which white nationalists attempt an assassination—"in such a way that it wouldn't disqualify anyone," shared Sorkin. "And instead of shooting both the last scene of the last episode and the first scene of the first episode all at once—which would have made sense—Tommy had to go back and re-create every square foot of every frame in the scene." Leo's hyper-organized assistant Margaret would never!

32. Yes, they did. Jimmy Smits' 2005 turn as unlikely victor Matt Santos was, indeed, inspired by a rising senator by the name of Barack Obama. "We spoke to political consultants about what a minority campaign would look like," Wells told Empire. "They said, 'Well there's this young senator out of Illinois that people are talking about a little bit,' which turned out to be Barack Obama. They basically laid out for us what they thought the campaign strategy would have to be for him to ever run for president, although they kept telling us the whole time, 'It'll never happen, of course.'" 

33. As for his adversary, pro-choice, principled moderate Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), he "was based on John McCain and a number of possible centrist Republican candidates," explained Wells. "The 2008 election was very odd. We called the political consultants we'd worked with and said, 'You guys kind of knew what you were talking about!'"

34. Even down to the unlikely ending, it turned out. With former chief of staff and party elder Leo McGarry (John Spencer) as his running mate, Santos was still meant to lose out to likable California senator Vinick. Then Spencer died midway through the season in December 2005. "Up until his death, the Republican was going to win the election," Sheen told Empire. "Jimmy Smits would be defeated and that wonderful actor Alan Alda would win. But with John's death they said no and, against history, the Democrats would continue."

35. An eighth season—focusing on the early days of the Santos administration with Bartlet popping in as advisor—was possible as well. "But when John died, they folded the tent," said Sheen. "It was over, and we thought, 'No, we can never go back there.'"

Instead they paid tribute to Spencer and McGarry with season seven's "Requiem," a slew of former guest stars returning for the party giant's funeral. "The episode where we actually had to carry his casket because his character had died," Hill told THR, "it was an empty casket, but it wasn't an empty casket."

36. After departing the series following season four, Sorkin truly never looked back. Kinda. "Larry David had left Seinfeld a few seasons before the show ended and he called me and said, 'You can never watch The West Wing again. Either the show is going to be great without you and you're going to be miserable, or the show is going to be less than great without you and you're going to be miserable,'" he recounted to Empire. "I thought, 'Well, this is Larry David; he's kind of professionally miserable.' So I had them send a tape of the first episode that I didn't do. I put it in the VCR and I don't think I got 15 seconds in before I leaped up and slammed it off! It felt like I was watching somebody make out with my girlfriend."

He did make one return home, though, appearing on stage at Santos' inauguration in the series finale. So, again, we ask: What's next? 

(Originally published Sept. 22, 2020, at 2 p.m. PT)