Saturday, December 17, 2005

THE HAT SQUAD: JOHN SPENCER

I'm a big fan of back-room political intrigue stories. I read a lot of Fletcher Knebel in high school, loved the movies 'Advise And Consent', 'Seven Days In May', and 'The Best Man', and I sat riveted for mini-series like 'Vanished', 'The President's Plane Is Missing', and 'Washington: Behind Closed Doors'.

I really enjoyed 'The American President', written by Aaron Sorkin, but when 'The West Wing' was announced, I was planning to give it a pass. I had already seen 'SportsNight' and really was never that impressed. I think it was over-hyped, and I felt that 'The West Wing' would be more of the same, but in the White House.

I'll admit that the late addition of Martin Sheen to the cast was part of the allure, but I was mainly coming to sample the show because of John Spencer. For me, he was one of the reasons 'L.A. Law' re-invigorated itself in the early 1990s, when he joined the cast as maverick lawyer Tommy Mullaney. Here was a guy who was the antithesis of the slick, pretty, "cool" litigators who had been the backbone of the series during the first half of its run.

As Leo McGarry on 'The West Wing', Mr. Spencer sealed the deal as one of my favorites among current character actors (a calling that's becoming rare nowadays).

In the last new episode before the holiday break, the leaders of the Democratic party in that alternate TV dimension came to their Vice Presidential candidate, in hopes that he would take over the reins of the campaign. They knew that as the man who ran both campaigns for Jed Bartlet, Leo was the only man who could do the job properly.

Once he realized they were talking about him, Leo (who had resigned his previous job as White House Chief of Staff after a near fatal heart attack) just said, "You guys are trying to kill me."

At the time, it was a sweetly humorous line as we all remembered how he barely survived that heart attack in the woods of Camp David.

But I didn't have a clue that Life would imitate Art.

Or maybe I was just ignoring it. As soon as he uttered that line, I suddenly noticed how old and tired he was looking - not just in character, but as a person. He looked drawn, as if he had lost some weight; his neck was the biggest giveaway that something was taking its toll on him.

Richard Schiff, in an interview upon hearing of the death, said that Mr. Spencer did have some health problems of late, but that he had overcome them.

Maybe in a few weeks, probably after the holidays, I might take the time to ruminate here about what his death in real life will mean to the show's alternate world. But now's not the time. Right now I just want to remember a great character actor who provided two of my favorite characters in Toobworld (two different dimensions) in the past fifteen years.

Leo: "My generation never got the future it was promised... Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don't even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped."
Josh: "The personal computer..."
Leo: "...Where's my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?"

I wish Mr. Spencer could have been around to see that future, whenever it arrived.

This is a tip o' the hat to you, John Spencer.

TV SERIES
"The West Wing" (1999) TV Series .... Leo McGarry
"Trinity" (1998) TV Series .... Simon McCallister
"L.A. Law" (1986) TV Series .... Tommy Mullaney (1990-1994)
"Another World" (1964) TV Series .... Mr. Julian (1988)
"The Patty Duke Show" (1963) TV Series .... Henry Anderson (1964-1965)

TV SEQUELS
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Grimacing Governor (1994) (TV) .... Al Rhinehart

TV MOVIES
From the Files of Joseph Wambaugh: A Jury of One (1992) (TV) .... Mike Mulick
When No One Would Listen (1992) (TV) .... Walter Wheeler
In the Arms of a Killer (1992) (TV) .... Det. Vincent Cusack
Cocaine and Blue Eyes (1983) (TV) .... Joey Crawford

TV GUEST APPEARANCES
"Celebrity Poker Showdown" playing "Himself" in episode: "Tournament 1, Game 2" (episode # 1.2) 9 December 2003

[It's actually quite Zonk!ish, but I couldn't resist including it. It's such fun to see the cast of the show just hanging out as themselves.]
"The Outer Limits" playing "Col. Wallis Thurman" in episode: "Summit" (episode # 5.13) 21 May 1999
"L.A. Doctors" playing "Dr. Edmund Church" in episode: "The Life Lost in Living" (episode # 1.20) 22 March 1999
"Early Edition" playing "Howard Banner" in episode: "Jenny Sloan" (episode # 2.4) 18 October 1997
"Tracey Takes On..." playing "Ray Weggerly" in episode: "Crime" (episode # 2.9) 19 March 1997
"Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" playing "Hank Landry/Mr. Gadget" in episode: "Lethal Weapon" (episode # 4.12) 5 January 1997
"F/X: The Series" playing "Carl Scofeld" in episode: "High Risk" (episode # 1.3) 23 September 1996
"Touched by an Angel" playing "Leo" in episode: "The Driver" (episode # 2.4) 14 October 1995
"Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man" playing "Agent Dennehy" (voice) in episode: "Not So Easy Riders" (episode # 1.8) 30 April 1994
"Law & Order" playing "Howard Morton" in episode: "Prescription for Death" (episode # 1.1) 13 September 1990
"H.E.L.P." playing "Valery"
in episode: "Are You There, Alpha Centauri?" (episode # 1.2)
in episode: "Fire Down Below" (episode # 1.1)
"Spenser: For Hire" playing "Joe Moran" in episode: "Home Is the Hero" (episode # 2.7) 22 November 1986
"Miami Vice" playing "Lt. Ray Atkins" in episode: "The Good Collar" (episode # 3.5) 24 October 1986
"Ryan's Hope" playing "Doctor/Orderly" (uncredited) 24 September 1976

TOOBWORLD POZZ'BILITIES
"The West Wing" (1999) TV Series .... Leo McGarry
"Touched by an Angel" playing "Leo" in episode: "The Driver" (episode # 2.4) 14 October 1995
It's the Toobworld Central belief that in Earth Prime-Time, the main TV Land, Josiah Bartlet didn't go into politics, but into medicine. (Dr. Josiah Bartlet is mentioned in an episode of 'St. Elsewhere'.)

Other characters from 'The West Wing' must also have alternate lives in Toobworld Basic. And like Bartlet, maybe their lives didn't follow the same path.

One such character is probably Leo McGarry. In the 'Touched By An Angel' episode, Leo is a detective who's investigating a hit-and-run accident that was caused by a friend of his, TV reporter Debra Willis.

Because they are friends, we never learn what the detective's last name is, because she only addresses him as "Leo".

So why can't it be that in the main TV Universe, Leo McGarry did not go into politics, but rather pursued a career in law enforcement?

"L.A. Doctors" playing "Dr. Edmund Church" in episode: "The Life Lost in Living" (episode # 1.20) 22 March 1999
"Ryan's Hope" playing "Doctor/Orderly" (uncredited) 24 September 1976
As the 'Ryan's Hope' appearance was a one-shot, the writers obviously felt no need in giving his character a name. So it's no problem to say that two decades later Edmund Church was living in Los Angeles after being in New York.

BCnU....
Tele-Toby

1 comment:

CogSci Librarian said...

Rest in peace, Mr. Spencer.

Thanks for the tribute, Toby!