Aaron Sorkin (creator and writer) I dreamed up the show at a time when you didn’t talk about politics and religion at the dinner table and you definitely didn’t do it on TV. We talked about both in the first 10 minutes. I didn’t think there was going to be a second episode.
John Wells (executive producer) Not many people thought it was the right time for a political drama. It was around the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I think the scandal ended up being very useful, because we could remind the audience of what kind of integrity should be expected of our leaders.
Richard Schiff (communications director Toby Ziegler) When I auditioned, I saw Allison Janney sitting there. I thought: “Oh my God, if they cast her, these guys know what they’re doing. But they’ll never be smart enough to.”
Allison Janney (press secretary CJ Cregg) I kept seeing Richard at my callbacks. Neither of us thought we’d get the roles. I wasn’t even sure I was ever going to do television. So to then get the part was mind-blowing. These people almost became more my family than my family.
Wells We were already picking a difficult subject. Then NBC started worrying that the cast weren’t attractive enough. Would viewers want to see these people? It is useful in those conversations to have a movie star like Rob Lowe [deputy comms director Sam Seaborn] on board.
Stockard Channing (First Lady Abbey Bartlet) I was about to go on a five-day hiking trip in a remote part of Canada when I got the call offering me a part. I had to get straight on a plane to Los Angeles. So I arrived there in full hiking gear and boots. It was 95 degrees and I didn’t know what I was doing, other than I had to wear an evening gown, which scared the crap out of me.
Wells Martin Sheen was only partially interested to begin with. We told him Jed Bartlet would only be in six episodes. Then, after the pilot, everybody wanted Martin in every episode.
Channing I had never met Martin before. When I arrived for the first shoot, he was outside this mansion in white tie having a cigarette break with 500 extras all dressed up. Just before our first take, I said: “Hi, so how long have we been married?” He said: “Oh, I think 25, 30 years.” Then they said: “Action!” After take one, he said: “And we have a grandchild!” “A grandchild?” I said. “What do you mean we have a grandchild?” And they called “Action!” The days were like that.
Lily Tomlin (executive assistant Deborah Fiderer) Martin is a darling man. Before every scene, he would take off his real wedding ring, bless it and put it in a drawer.
Dulé Hill (the president’s personal aide, Charlie Young) I only had a month and a half of rent money left when I got the job. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) had had an issue with the whole cast on the show being white. Thankfully, they spoke up, thankfully the entire team understood, and thankfully they made some changes.
Sorkin After an episode in the first season where Zoey Bartlet (the president’s daughter, played by Elisabeth Moss) kissed Charlie, I got a letter from an outraged woman that read: “Lincoln only meant to free them – he didn’t mean to glorify them.” I went back and forth about whether to show it to Dulé. It felt wrong not to, so I took the letter to his trailer. He taped it on the wall. It was the first of many.
Hill I can vividly recall Aaron reading those letters out loud at read-throughs. It was like Zoey was the real president’s daughter. The idea that people could respond that way really shocked me.
Sorkin I already knew there would be an assassination attempt at the end of the first season, but the hate mail gave me an idea: they weren’t shooting at Bartlet – they were shooting at Charlie.
The 9/11 quandary
Channing I was on the set early on 9/11. I was in the makeup trailer and they had the TV on when the Washington stuff happened. Everyone was sent home. Everyone was hysterical.
Sorkin The next day, I asked NBC to postpone our season three premiere indefinitely. Josh and Donna flirting, CJ fretting over her role in the cover-up of the president’s multiple sclerosis, Bartlet’s re-election campaign – it would all seem such small potatoes if it wasn’t set against the same backdrop the rest of us were living through. The network wasn’t able to, so I wrote the standalone episode Isaac and Ishmael. We didn’t mention 9/11 or Bin Laden, but there was a sense something terrible had happened. Looking back, I’m sure I wasn’t thinking clearly. Eighteen years on, I still don’t have any better ideas.
Joshua Malina (Will Bailey, various positions) It’s a bold piece of television that addressed a national tragedy in a matter of weeks. And a lot of adults today say: “I was young when it came out and it explained a lot to me.”
Channing After 9/11, security was tightened up at the studio. There were metal detectors to scan under the cars.
Pranks and parties
Sorkin Brad Whitford (deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman) and Dulé enjoyed a practical joke, but when Joshua Malina joined, all bets were off.
Hill Joshua once put a whole bunch of West Wing memorabilia in the trunk of Brad’s car, then security stopped him on the way out.
Malina It was low-level humour: leaving a piece of fish hidden in Allison’s trailer, an onion here and there, tweaking the Post-its Brad would put up in his trailer to say: “Don’t worry, the camera actually takes off weight.”
Schiff I was the worst offender of the giggle fit. My losing it usually had to do with Martin flubbing a line. The president’s first scene – where he comes in and says, ‘I am the Lord our God’ – was this grand, beautiful entrance. He walked round the room, then tells the Christian right to get their fat asses out of his White House. He has a clown side: between every take, he would go to the catering table and stuff his face with chicken. There’d be people trying to do his touch-ups and both his cheeks were full and he had grease all over his mouth. I’d have to run to the next room to let out the laughter.
Janney Once Richard started laughing, it was trouble. Sometimes, on Air Force One, I would say, “Come on, it’s always a smooth ride. Let’s pretend it’s bumpy!” So Richard and I would act like there was turbulence, which would set us off.
Schiff On Friday nights, we’d all get giddy. One Friday, it was Allison’s birthday and all of her friends came to the trailer. She showed off her lip-syncing talent and we all got involved with air guitars and air drums. Aaron came over at two in the morning to listen. That’s how CJ ended up lip-syncing to The Jackal in one episode.
Whitford When we were doing the Christmas episode in the second year, Yo-Yo Ma walked into a room full of hundreds of extras and wanted us to hold and touch and play his $6m cello. In between takes, he started improvising and Dulé – who is one of the best tap-dancers in the world – started tapping along.
Prince Andrew pops by
Sorkin The most surreal moment involved Prince Andrew. He was in LA and he’d requested a tour of our set, so the British consulate set it up. In one part of the West Wing, the walls are decorated with framed photos of the president with world leaders and heads of state – the president with the pope etc. I was leading Prince Andrew down one of our hallways when I saw that he’d stopped and was staring at a picture he couldn’t figure out. It was Martin Sheen as President Bartlet engaged in a conversation with the prince’s mother, the Queen. I got to tell him what Photoshop is.
Sorkin West Wing scripts weren’t finished – they were confiscated. Tommy Schlamme (executive producer) would come into my office and say: “Pencils down.”
Schiff I wanted Toby to be someone who didn’t speak unless he had to. I don’t think they’d ever experienced an actor who didn’t want more lines.
Janney Aaron did an amazing job writing for women. He’s had a bad rap for that – and I think it’s unfair. The Women of Qumar was a key episode. I loved it any time CJ spoke truth to power or dressed down a four-star general. I long to be like that in real life.
Schiff Towards the end of his tenure, Aaron was late with scripts. Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to shoot. And that’s expensive. The pressure of becoming a factory is tough.
Malina When I learned Aaron was leaving, my jaw was on the floor. It was such a bomb. I remember Richard’s voice breaking.
Whitford I cried like a baby.
Janney It felt like our parents were telling us they no longer wanted to be our parents.
Wells I didn’t want Aaron to go but he was exhausted. Taking over was daunting. I called him and said: “What was going to happen next? Because I have to write the second part of this two-parter after Zoey got kidnapped.” He said: “I have no idea.”
Sorkin In popular culture, our leaders, by and large, are portrayed as either Machiavellian or dolts. I wanted our characters to be competent and committed, like the doctors and nurses on hospital shows and the detectives on crime shows. I wanted the show to be romantic and idealistic, but also quietly subversive. For an hour every week, I wanted to reclaim the word “patriotism”.
Schiff The first time we got invited to the correspondents’ dinner in Washington DC, it was like Elvis had come back to Memphis! We were surrounded by hundreds of reporters, congressmen, senators and ambassadors who couldn’t get enough of us. I missed a private meeting with President Clinton because I couldn’t get through the crowd.
Janney People would say “Mr President! Mr President!” and Martin would put up his fingers in a peace sign like Nixon.
Channing I remember getting on a plane to Washington with Martin and people were like: “We admire you so much.” I was like: “You don’t know me! You admire Abigail Bartlet.”
Hill They gave us a real motorcade in DC one time. For me and most of the cast, it was really exciting. Martin didn’t like it at all. He thought we needed to never forget we were actors.
Tomlin In the last episode, when Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) is about to take over as president, I cried.
Wells Our political consultants all said a “minority president” was much more likely to be elected before a woman was. People started mentioning this extraordinary junior senator from Illinois. So Santos was modelled on Obama before Obama was Obama – and that made us look really good.
Schiff In 2007, I was out campaigning. I’d be surrounded by 300 Obama foot soldiers at each stop in the caucus states. They would say: “You’re the reason we’re here.” And when you look back at that election, the difference was in those states. Maybe these foot soldiers, who were there because of The West Wing, are the reason Obama pulled off that primary victory and became president. That’s pretty awesome.
Wells John Spencer [chief of staff Leo McGarry] died just before Christmas in 2005. He was the glue that held us together. His sudden death came just as we were trying to decide whether to continue. We were all grieving and it seemed the appropriate time to end it. We could have done several more years, but sometimes something happens and the heart goes out of it.
Whitford People used to ask: “Could you make this show about a Republican administration?” I always say no: a) because Republicans aren’t sexy or funny; and b) you could never have characters high-fiving and saying, “We got a tax cut for the 1%! We’ve got migrant children in cages!”
Wells The last day on set, they used these little mini-bulldozers to tear everything down, which was particularly brutal. They saved the Oval Office though. Within weeks, it had been turned into the Ocean’s Thirteen casino.
• The West Wing is available on Sky Atlantic. See the West Wing Weekly podcast live on 18 December at the Eventim Apollo, London.