By Kathy Blackwell | June 13, 2016 | People
Here's what went down at The West Wing reunion during this weekend's ATX Television Festival.
Melissa Fitzgerald, Joshua Malina, Dulé Hill, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney, Director Thomas Schlamme, Series Creator Aaron Sorkin, and moderator Lawrence O’Donnell.
ATX Television Festival took us all to a better place and time this past weekend, at least for an hour and a half, with its highly anticipated reunion of The West Wing's stars and creators. The show, which ran for seven years and racked up 26 Emmy Awards, was centered around the White House of erudite President Jed Bartlet and his impassioned, idealistic staff. Marking the 10th anniversary of its final season, creator Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme were joined by stars Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Janel Moloney, Dulé Hill, Joshua Malina, and Melissa Fitzgerald on a panel hosted by political journalist Lawrence O'Donnell, who was also a producer and writer for the show.
Although the festival is known for its reunions of beloved shows, bringing together key players from this ratings hit and cultural phenomenon took it to another level. The full house of fans and festival-goers at the Paramount were treated to a panel full of reveals, witty quips, and, of course, long, thoughtful answers from Sorkin. Here are some highlights.
Monica Lewinski happened "minutes" after Sorkin wrote the pilot, so he sat on it for a while. Then, after the pilot was made, it didn't test well, Sorkin revealed. But Warner Brothers created a new test audience of specific demographics, including households with internet access, which for 1999, was new territory. The strategy worked.
The opening sequence of which was shown before the panel "summarizes the show perfectly and predicts the next 154 episodes," said O'Donnell. Other notes about the pilot: Martin Sheen hadn't been cast yet as Bartlett when it was shot, and Schlamme, who is his own worst critic, said that when watching those few minutes of the pilot (which won an Emmy) before the panel made him feel "proud for the first time."
Moloney had decided to quit show business after trying to make it for 10 years, just weeks before being cast as Donna, Josh's assistant. "But I hadn't told my agent yet!" she said. Even then, she was hired on a per-episode basis and had to act her way into the cast. She told a sweet story about Whitford helping her during a particularly key "walk-and-talk" scene the show was known for. "Do you want another?" he whispered. She did, and the scene was re-shot to her liking.
The dry, witty actor sat in between Whitford and Hill, munching on a big tub of popcorn. After praising Sorkin's mastery of the "music of language," he revealed: "Toby was the oboe." (To which Scandal star Malina, after a lot of joking from the cast, said: "I was clearly the triangle.")
"There's still no distinction between my political point of view and Josh Lyman's," said Whitford, who like other cast members missed no opportunity to praise Sorkin and refer to the show as his career highlight ("It's the first line of our obituaries"). "A lot of the script you didn't have to act."
Joshua Malina, Janel Moloney, Bradley Whitford, Dulé Hill, Melissa Fitzgerald, and Richard Schiff.
"Big ideas have to get small," says Sorkin. The multiple sclerosis five-story arc has its origins in a comment Schiff made to Sorkin that he wanted Toby to have a scene where there's a crisis that leaves him at a loss for what to do, so he bounces a Spaldeen on his desk as an ode to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. And remember C.J. singing "The Jackal?" Allison Janney would sing it in her trailer; one day it showed up in the script.
She's now the senior director of Justice for Vets. "We're living up to the characters Aaron created," she said before showing a video for the nonprofit, which starred all the panelists (sans Malina, to much ribbing) as well as Sheen, Janney, and Rob Lowe (the three regrettably couldn't make the reunion).
The brilliant Larry David, who also left Seinfeld mid-series, had warned him not to, although Sorkin (thinking David was just "professionally miserable,") did give the first episode of Season Five a few seconds. "It's like watching somebody make love with your wife."
For Hill, it was being a young actor showing up for work and seeing Sheen, Lowe, and other stars in the Oval Office on set, and realizing his trailer faced the trailers for Friends. For Schiff: Watching Hill tap dance to Yo-Yo Ma, who appeared in a pivotal episode. Sorkin recalled actor Karl Malden asking to bring his own bible for his guest starring role on Take This Sabbath Day. "It was the bible from On the Waterfront."
"No human being will ever do" what Aaron Sorkin did again, writing 22-episode seasons for four years about something that really mattered, said Whitford. If the standing ovations were any indication, the crowd agreed.
photography by Jack Plunkett; Frank Micelotta