This is the eleventh in a series of examinations of legends about television and the people involved in TV and whether they are true or false.
Click here to view an archive of the previous TV urban legends.
This week is a special “West Wing” theme week!
TV LEGEND: West Wing was going to somehow have Leo McGarry end up as the President.
TV LEGEND: Arnold Vinick was originally going to win the election until John Spencer died, and the producers decided they did not want Matt Santos to lose his running mate AND the election.
These are directly contrary of each other, so I figure I’ll run them both together.
The West Wing was a critically acclaimed drama that ran for seven seasons from 1999 until 2006. For the vast majority of the series, the show was about the staff of President Josiah Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen) and the President himself.
The sixth and seventh seasons of the show, though, held the spotlight a bit more to the two men running to become the NEXT President of the United States (Bartlett, of course, still had plenty of plots on the show), Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits)
Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda)
Santos ended up choosing as his running mate Bartlett’s long-time Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer)…
In any event, at the beginning of the first episode of Season 7, we flash forward three years into the future to see the dedication of the Josiah Bartlett Presidential Library. We then meet various characters from the show and see what they’ve been up to in the two years following the election. At the end of the opening sequence, we see “the President” roll up in a limousine and as he gets out, the opening credits begin.
Absent in this opening sequence was Leo McGarry, which led to rumors that this scene would be revisited later in the season and have it be revealed that it is Leo who is “the President.”
My pal Chad sent along the specific rumor…
The final season begins with a scene that takes place a couple of years in the future and, at the end, the president arrives, but we never see him. I heard the plan was, at the end of the season, to return to that scene and show that Leo McGarry was the president then (presumably taking over for Matt Santos somehow), but John Spencer’s death forced a change (and the scene was never revisited as a result).
Chad, though, sent along a SEPARATE (and contrary) rumor…
Arnold Vinick was originally going to win the presidency, but John Spencer’s death meant that Matt Santos would have lost both his running mate AND the election, and producers thought that would a bit too much to lay on the character, so they changed it to a Santos victory.
Obviously, these two rumors cannot co-exist.
So what was the plan?
Well, first off, if you wish to take a look at the opening sequence “teaser”, here it is from YouTube…
Now, first off, let me say that, without absolutely knowing what happened in that scene, I can say with almost complete certainty that “the President” in that teaser is not John Spencer nor Alan Alda and I’m pretty positive it is not Jimmy Smits neither. It is almost certainly a nameless actor working as a placeholder because the producers of the West Wing did not want viewers with DVRs or good VCRs to be able to pause it and know the result of the election (seeing as how this teaser is to episode number ONE).
Look at these screen captures of the scene (better yet to look at the video yourself)….
No way that’s Spencer or Alda, and almost certainly not Smits.
However, McGarry WAS conspicuously absent (well, conspicuous except for the whole “ruining the ending of the election” part), so WAS the original plan that he be revealed as the President only for that plot to be dropped when the actor tragically died of a heart attack with a few episodes left to film for the season?
For this, I think Jacques Steinberg’s 2006 New York Times article is the best source for this scenario.
From the piece:
Like many political campaigns, the presidential election depicted last night on “The West Wing” on NBC would have had a different ending had it been held four months ago.
But the reversal of fortune for Matt Santos — the Democratic nominee, played by Jimmy Smits, who was the victor — had nothing to do with any shift in opinion among voters.
Instead, Lawrence O’Donnell, an executive producer of the show, said he and his fellow writers had declared Santos the winner only after the death, in mid-December, of John Spencer, who portrayed Santos’s running mate, Leo McGarry. At the time of Mr. Spencer’s death, the plot for last night’s episode had been set: the election was to be won by Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick, a maverick Republican (modeled a bit on Senator John McCain), whom many Democrats (including the Democrats who write the show) could learn to love.
But after Mr. Spencer died, Mr. O’Donnell said in a recent interview, he and his colleagues began to confront a creative dilemma: would viewers be saddened to see Mr. Smits’s character lose both his running mate and the election? The writers decided that such an outcome would prove too lopsided, in terms of taxing viewers’ emotions, so a script with the new, bittersweet ending — including the election-night death of Mr. Spencer’s character — was undertaken by John Wells, executive producer of “The West Wing” and “E.R.”
However, O’Donnell appears to have been talking out of turn, and as it turned out, Santos’ victory was written before Spencer’s death. What it seems is that, according to O’Donnell, the writers began to doubt their initial Santos victory until Spencer’s death, at which point they decided to solidify Santos as the winner.
Thanks to Jacques Steinberg for the information and thanks to thanks to xtaline for the YouTube clip!
TV LEGEND: A perceived slight at an awards ceremony after Season 1 of the West Wing set off a chain of events that ended up with a plotline in a Season 3 episode.
After the first season of the West Wing, the show was rewarded with a plethora of Emmy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Drama and Best Writing for a Drama Series.
The writing award was given to writers Aaron Sorkin (creator of the West Wing) and Rick Cleveland for the Season 1 episode “In Excelsis Deo,” which is about staff member Toby Ziegler (played by Richard Schiff, who nabbed an Emmy that year for Best Supporting Actor) trying to secure a burial at Arlington for a homeless veteran of the Korean War.
Now, during the awards ceremony, Sorkin was the only one to speak.
A little bit later, Cleveland wrote an editorial where he complained about feeling as though he was basically ignored by Sorkin (Cleveland had also been let go from the West Wing at the end of Season 1). Cleveland wrote:
You might not remember me from that night. I was the guy wearing the little wire-framed glasses, standing directly behind Aaron Sorkin. I had a dumbfounded smirk on my face, and I imagine I must’ve looked a little like a member of Sorkin’s security detail. When he was done speaking, he kind of ushered me offstage with him, and, dumbly, I followed.
Backstage, at the table where they ask you to sign your name in the book so you can take your Emmy home with you, Sorkin was standing, busy watching [director, co-executive producer] Tommy Schlamme’s acceptance speech on one of the monitors. The nice lady behind the table looked at me and said, “Mr. Sorkin is going to have to sign for his Emmy.” I realized at that moment that she must have thought that I was Sorkin’s publicist or assistant. I looked at her kind of sheepishly and said, “Aren’t we supposed to get two of them?” She looked at her book and saw the second name in that category–my name. She looked back up at me and said, “Is Mr. Cleveland here this evening?”
Sorkin had been hanging out a little bit at a television website called MightyBigTV (which was very soon going to change its name to TelevisionWithoutPity) and on the West Wing message boards, someone asked about Cleveland’s piece.
Sorkin explained that Cleveland wrote a draft of an episode, but Sorkin found it quite wanting and then just rewrote it entirely and then gave Cleveland a co-writer credit as a courtesy. Sorkin then added that that was basically the same thing with ALL of the scripts from the first season of West Wing that had co-writer credits – they were there because Sorkin wanted to give each of the various writers a sort of token of his appreciation.
Well, naturally, Cleveland showed up on the message boards as well, and he and Sorkin went back and forth (Cleveland’s biggest point of contention was that he had a lot more to do with the episode than Sorkin admitted, primarily the fact that Cleveland’s FATHER was a Korean War veteran who died a homeless alcholic so that part of the episode was directly from Cleveland’s own life, but Cleveland also challenged the assertion that his name was on the script by Sorkin’s good will – Cleveland asserted that the script, like all other West Wing scripts, went to the Writers Guild of America for arbitration and he had been officially awarded a co-writer credit).
In the end, the two were on fine terms with each other, but by then, the mainstream media had picked up on it and, as is their wont, made it a much bigger deal than it was initially (and also painted the message board as a West Wing fan site, when it was a general TV site that just happened to have a message board for West Wing discussion). Sorkin claims that he is now basically “not allowed” to post on the board anymore.
Later on, though, during Season Three of the series, Sorkin got into another fracas of sorts on TelevisionWithoutPity (TWOP) over discussions about whether his work had some sexism mixed in there. Sorkin, naturally, felt that his work was not sexist at all and he was quite upset at the assertion that it did, so he took out his anger on some posters on the boards there.
And then “The U.S. Poet Laureate” happened.
A Season Three episode written by Sorkin, the episode has a sub plot where Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) discovers that there is a website out there devoted to him. When he stops by there, though, he also discovers that there are some views of him that he takes issue with. He gets sucked into it (and even drags his assistant Donna into it).
Then we basically get the whole situation from Sorkin’s perspective, including Josh/Sorkin ultimately being told to stay away from the message boards.
Sorkin basically did, although he did make a return of sorts at the end of Season 7, this time in a conciliatory fashion, after the death of John Spencer led to a heartwarming outpouring of condolences from posters at the West Wing message boards.
I did not follow Sorkin’s take on message boards for his next series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but I can’t imagine, if he had any dealings at all, that they would be pleasant ones.
TV LEGEND: Congressman Matt Santos was based on Barack Obama.
STATUS: I Tend More Towards False, But It’s Close
Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos’ campaign and ultimate election was the main plot of the last two seasons of the West Wing (and originally, was hopefully going to lead the show into a new Presidential term with a more or less brand new cast)…
In an amazing piece of seemingly life imitating art, the campaign of the charismatic young-ish minority Congressman (Smits) against the veteran Republican whose middle of the road ways endeared him to many Democrats (Alan Alda) seemed to repeat itself when Barack Obama took on (and defeated) John McCain.
Interestingly enough, though, the West Wing producers had contacted Obama’s people years earlier, when Obama was not even yet a Senator.
Jonathan Freedland had a great article about the connection in The Guardian back in early 2008…
For what those West Wing fans stunned by the similarity between the fictitious Matthew Santos and the real-life Barack Obama have not known is that the resemblance is no coincidence. When the West Wing scriptwriters first devised their fictitious presidential candidate in the late summer of 2004, they modelled him in part on a young Illinois politician – not yet even a US senator – by the name of Barack Obama.
“I drew inspiration from him in drawing this character,” West Wing writer and producer Eli Attie told the Guardian. “When I had to write, Obama was just appearing on the national scene. He had done a great speech at the convention [which nominated John Kerry] and people were beginning to talk about him.”
Attie, who served as chief speechwriter to Al Gore during the ill-fated 2000 campaign and who wrote many of the key Santos episodes of the West Wing, put in a call to Obama aide David Axelrod.
“I said, ‘Tell me about this guy Barack Obama.’”
Now here’s where it gets tricky.
As they also note in the article, Jimmy Smits had already been cast at this point as Matt Santos.
Had they seen Obama’s impressive speech at the Convention and said, “Hey, let’s come up with a character like this guy!” then sure, I’d say Matt Santos was definitely based on Barack Obama.
But they HAD the Santos character already.
So what happened sounds more like they used Obama’s real life qualities as an aid in writing and developing Santos, but I don’t really know if I would go as far as to say that he was BASED on Obama.
It’s mostly a semantic distinction, but one I think is important enough to give this a SLIGHT false. When I hear “They based Character X on Person Y,” I think of a chronology where Person Y influenced the very CREATION of Character X, not just informed part of his personality later on.
But, again, it’s a close call either way.
Thanks to Jonathan Freedland for the great quotes!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com
Tags: Aaron Sorkin, Alan Alda, Arnold Vinick, Barack Obama, Best Drama Series, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Writing, David Axelrod, Eli Attie, Emmy Awards, In Excelsis Deo, Jimmy Smits, John Spencer, John Wells, Josiah Bartlett, Lawrence O'Donnell, Leo McGarry, Martin Sheen, Matt Santos, MightyBigTV, Richard Schiff, Rick Cleveland, TelevisionWithoutPity, The West Wing, Toby Ziegler