No ranking das melhores séries de televisão de sempre, o West Wing (ou Os homens do Presidente) está lá em cima. Talvez mesmo no top 5. Numa altura em que a oferta é maior do que nunca – e em muitos casos com um nível cinematográfico – muitos já não se lembram de que houve um tempo em que fazer televisão nos Estados Unidos era para actores de segunda. Até que houve algumas que desafiaram conceitos: pela qualidade dos actores, da escrita, da linguagem. E colocaram a TV na moda. O West Wing foi um deles. E no mês em que se assinalam os 15 anos da estreia, a The Hollywood Reporter Magazine publicou uma história oral que revela muito do que se passou nos bastidores – da escolha dos actores aos motivos que levaram à saída de alguns deles.
‘West Wing’ Uncensored: Aaron Sorkin, Rob Lowe, More Look Back on Early Fears, Long Hours, Contract Battles and the Real Reason for Those Departures
Sidney Poitier was the first choice for president; Bill Clinton was a fan; and Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme created a show “about democracy run by a couple of Kim Jong-ils”: an oral history of the heady, liberal, poli-sci fantasy, 15 years after NBC greenlighted it.
NBC executives stood before a sea of media buyers in Avery Fisher Hall 15 years ago this month and unveiled a series they hoped would defy television’s odds. The show, titled The West Wing, from Sports Night producers Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, would explore the personal and professional lives of those in the White House who worked directly for the President of the United States. And if viewers embraced it, the drama would become the first White House drama in the medium’s history to succeed.
The following May, that same Madison Avenue audience would rise to its feet when the West Wing cast, led by Martin Sheen, took the upfront stage, this time at the Metropolitan Opera House. “A standing ovation. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is a phenomenon,’ ” recalls Warner Bros. Television chief Peter Roth. Although the unapologetically liberal drama only would crack Nielsen’s top 10 one season in its seven, it was showered with awards (26 Emmys, including four best drama series wins), critical praise and a high-profile fan base that included President Clinton.
Over the course of its run, The West Wing weathered its share of loss, both onscreen (Rob Lowedeparted midway through season four; star John Spencer died during season seven) and off (Sorkin and Schlamme exited after season four).
Here, the cast, creators and executives involved look back at the series that paved the way for a new generation of political series from Scandal to House of Cards.
‘I’D LIKE TO DO A SERIES ABOUT STAFFERS AT THE WHITE HOUSE …’
AARON SORKIN: I didn’t really know anything about television beyond watching a lot of it, and my plan was to come up with an idea for a new play or movie, but my agent wanted me to meet with John Wells, and I said, “Sure.” The night before the meeting, there were some friends over at my house, and at some point [Akiva Goldsman and I] slipped downstairs to sneak a cigarette. Kivi knew about the meeting and said, “Hey, you know what would make a good series? That.” He was pointing at the poster for The American President. “But this time you’d focus on the staffers.” I told him I wasn’t going to be doing a series and that I was meeting with John to meet John — I wanted to hear stories about China Beach and ER, and I especially wanted to hear about his years as stage manager for A Chorus Line. The next day I showed up for the lunch, and John was flanked by executives from Warner Bros. and agents from CAA. John got down to business and said, “What do you want to do?” And instead of saying, “I’m sorry, there’s been a misunderstanding. I don’t have anything to pitch,” I said, “I’d like to do a series about staffers at the White House.” And John said, “We’ve got a deal.”
JOHN WELLS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: I had a deal at NBC because they wanted me to continue to be involved in ER. So we developed West Wing there, but they didn’t want to do it right away. “The American audience isn’t interested in politics” and “there’s plenty of that on Sunday morning television” were some of the things I recall hearing. But I insisted on getting it made if I was going to stay with ER.
SORKIN: Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield were running NBC at the time the pilot script was delivered. Sitting in a meeting in Warren’s office with John, my sense was that the network executives were respectfully underwhelmed. Referring to one of the stories in the pilot that was about Cuban refugees fleeing to America on inner tubes and should we or should we not send the Coast Guard out to help them, one of the execs suggested that it might be better if [Bradley Whitford‘s character] Josh Lyman went out and saved them himself. I tried not to make it an awkward pause before I said, “You mean actually swim?” He said, “No, that would be ridiculous. I mean he rents a boat. A motor boat, a skiff, but the boat’s too small to get all the refugees on board and he has a moment like Oskar Schindler where he’s saying, ‘I could have rented a bigger boat! I could have saved that guy over there and those kids over there!” It was hard to avoid the awkward pause then because I honestly didn’t know if I was being messed with or not, and I didn’t want to insult the executive or appear to be difficult to work with (even though I badly needed the network to pass because by this point ABC had ordered 13 episodes of Sports Night) so I said, “That’s worth thinking about.” Sometime in the middle of shooting the first season of Sports Night, Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield were replaced at NBC by Scott Sassa, who took The West Wing out of the drawer.
SCOTT SASSA, THEN-PRESIDENT OF NBC ENTERTAINMENT, WEST COAST: I was inexperienced enough in that job that I didn’t know why I should not like it, so we set it up.
PETER ROTH, WARNER BROS. TV EXECUTIVE: I joined Warner Bros. in February 1999, and the script had already been written. My introduction to Aaron Sorkin was when I called him and said, “I think this is the most brilliant script I’ve ever read, but you should know that in the history of television, there has never been a successful series set in Washington, D.C., on broadcast television.” To which he said, “Why should I care about that?”
FILLING THE WEST WING
SASSA: It was one of the first shows greenlighted that season but the last one cast. One of the things we got crap for was not having enough minorities, but what people didn’t realize is we had offeredSidney Poitier the president role.
SORKIN: Those talks didn’t get far. Next was Jason Robards, but Robards was in bad health, and it was determined that if the pilot got picked up for series, he wouldn’t be able to handle the schedule. We also read Hal Holbrook and John Cullum, and they were both great, but one day John Wells called and said, “What about Martin Sheen?” I’d loved working with Martin on The American President but didn’t think we had a shot at him for this. A few minutes later Martin called and said he’d read the script and he’d like to do it. At the outset, I’d imagined that the president was a character we’d only see once in a while, and so Martin was originally signed to a contract that would have him appear in four out of 13 episodes.
WELLS: Martin was the highest-testing character in the pilot, by far. The network said, “We probably want to have more of him.”
SORKIN: I offered Brad [Whitford] one of the leads in Sports Night, but he was also offered a lead in a Carsey Werner show [Secret Lives of Men]. The Carsey Werner show had a guaranteed pickup andSports Night didn’t, and Brad had recently gotten married and his wife was pregnant with their first child. So Brad, wisely, took the show with the better prospect of long-term employment. The Carsey Werner show was canceled.
BRADLEY WHITFORD (JOSH LYMAN, DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF): It’s hilarious looking back because my biggest concern [about doing Sports Night] was that Aaron, Mr. Big Feature Writer, would have nothing to do with the day-to-day writing. I always joke with Aaron — and it goes for Tommy, too — that The West Wing was a great show about democracy run by a couple of Kim Jong-ils.
SORKIN: I had no idea Rob was coming in [to read for Sam Seaborn], and once I saw that he was, I was determined not to cast him. Tommy, John and I were putting together an ensemble, and 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. 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.
ROB LOWE (SAM SEABORN, DEPUTY COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR): Sam was the only role I ever wanted to play, and I was told that I would have to audition for it. My thought was, “Great.” When I’m given the ammo to kill in the room, I’m all about it.
SORKIN: I told Tommy and the casting directors, “We need someone like John Spencer” [for President Bartlet’s chief of staff Leo McGarry]. Tommy asked, “What about John Spencer?” Toby came down to a two-man race between Richard Schiff and Eugene Levy. Levy was fantastic — strong and sad and very compelling — but you couldn’t take your eyes off Richard.
RICHARD SCHIFF (TOBY ZIEGLER, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR): I ran into [Eugene] at a party years later and he told me, “I was sure I was going to get it because I put my ear to the door when you auditioned and I couldn’t hear anything.”
SORKIN: For C.J. [Cregg, press secretary] it came down to Allison [Janney] and CCH Pounder. The only thing I’d ever seen Allison in was Primary Colors, and she’d made an immediate impression on me with a simple trip on a flight of stairs. Pounder’s auditions were great, but looking back, it would be hard to argue we made the wrong decision casting Allison, who became the heartbeat of the show.
ALLISON JANNEY (C.J. CREGG, PRESS SECRETARY): I remember going back to the hotel I was staying in, the Montage, and I had a huge bouquet of flowers in my room. They were from Aaron, welcoming me to the pilot.
SORKIN: Moira Kelly didn’t have to audition; she was offered Mandy [Hampton, political consultant]. Moira was a joy to work with, a total pro who understood as time went on that for whatever reasons — and those reasons had nothing to do with her considerable talent — it just wasn’t working. She was a model of graciousness. Janel Moloney came in to read for C.J., but when it became clear that Allison was going to get the part, we asked her if she’d like to help us out and play the relatively thankless role of Donna [Josh’s assistant] because who knows? We may see her from time to time.
JANEL MOLONEY (DONATELLA MOSS, JOSH’S ASSISTANT): I was hostessing at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills called Il Pastaio, and I kept my job at the restaurant at first. But by the third episode, I knew that they were never going to get rid of me.
ELISABETH MOSS (ZOEY BARTLET, PRESIDENT’S DAUGHTER): The girl who was on The Wonder Years, Danica McKellar, was in the waiting room as well, and I was like, “I’m screwed. She’s totally going to get this.” [McKellar later was cast as Will Bailey’s stepsister in season four.] I was 17 at the time.
DULE HILL (CHARLIE YOUNG, PERSONAL AIDE TO THE PRESIDENT): I hadn’t done much TV, and I was definitely overwhelmed. 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.
STOCKARD CHANNING (ABIGAIL BARTLET, FIRST LADY): I was on a layover in Calgary when my agent called. 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.”
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