I wrote an article recently about the most powerful moment of my tenure on the writing staff of The West Wing, one of the most highly acclaimed television shows in history. It was about a story I developed that dealt with a brewing genocide in a fictional African country.
Today I’m going lighter by highlighting five experiences I had on the show where I had to pinch myself to make sure they were actually happening. Without further ado, here they are, in reverse order of pinchiness.
5. LUNCHING WITH THE “FRIENDS” WOMEN
The West Wing was produced on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California. WB’s biggest hit in 2002–2003, when I worked there, was Friends.
One day our writing staff had lunch on the lot at the WB restaurant. Midway through lunch all three Friends women walked in and sat right next to us — Jennifer Aniston (Rachel), Courtney Cox (Monica) and Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe). We had some fun “Hey, love your show,” “Love yours, too” chit-chat then it was back to lunch. I’m not going to lie — I was pretty starstruck.
4. CHATTING WITH ROB LOWE
The writing staff used to work from 10 a.m. until 1, then break for lunch until 3. Most days I’d head straight to the WB gym and workout, then grab lunch.
One day I was working out there and I saw none other than Rob “Sam Seabourne” Lowe pumping iron in a Princeton tee shirt. I hadn’t met him yet so I went over and introduced myself. My excuse was that I was the one person on staff who went to Princeton, which is where his character went.
The Rob Lowe salary skirmish
Two cool things about this. First, there was a roiling controversy at the time over the actors and pay raises. Four of the main actors (Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, Brad Whitford and John Spencer) were getting raises from $40,000 an episode to $70,000, which is where Rob had been the first four seasons of the show. He was a much bigger name than the other four in the beginning so he got more money. But after 3 ½ seasons the producers felt that parity was merited. (BTW, Martin Sheen made $300,000 an episode.)
Rob didn’t like this one bit. So what did he do? He immediately launched in with ME saying exactly that. He said he would refuse to be the only actor who didn’t get a raise. Why did he do that with little old writer me? Because he knew that I would go back after lunch and tell my boss (who was also his boss), Aaron Sorkin, about his tirade. Which is exactly what I did.
The postscript to the story is that Rob stuck to his guns and left the show at midseason. Which was a shame because I, and most of the fans, thought he was great for the show.
Best looking human ever
The second cool part of the story is that as he was chatting away about the pay situation, this was the thought going through my mind: “This guy has to be the most physically perfect human being on planet Earth.” His eyes, skin, body…everything was perfect. It was bizarre.
Interestingly, not a lot of women put him on their hottest/sexiest/favorite hunk list. Why? They think he’s too perfect looking. Go figure.
3. READING A SCENE WITH MARTIN SHEEN
Every time we finished a script the entire cast and writing staff would gather at a huge conference table on the set and do what’s called a table read. Most shows do this as a way of hearing how the written script sounds.
It was tons of fun. We’d get a bunch of food and eat lunch while reading through the script.
I played President Nzele
Because none of the guest parts had been cast, Aaron would dole those out to the writing staff. On my African genocide script Aaron gave me the part of President Nzele, the leader of Kundu.
I got to read a scene where Bartlet (Martin Sheen) pressures Nzele (me) to prevent the looming genocide. So I say a line, Martin responds, and on and on. I couldn’t believe it. I was reading a scene with the star of Apocalypse Now!
Funny sidebar. Martin was notoriously bad at pronouncing difficult names. So he would stop and look at me and say, “Is it, Nzelly?” And I’d say, “Nzaylay.” Then he’d butcher it again. Then do it again. And again.
Martin shows his huge heart
Final note about Martin. My sister-in-law had a friend going through a tough bout with cancer who happened to be a huge fan of the show, and specifically, of Martin. So she asked if I could get him to sign a script for her.
So I asked him at one of the table reads if he’d sign the script. He didn’t hurriedly sign the script and move on. He looked up at me and started asking questions about the woman and what would be a really good thing for him to write that would be helpful. If you’ve ever wondered, Martin Sheen is an incredibly sweet, decent man.
4. SEEING RELIGIOUS COSTUMES ON THE WARNER BROS. LOT
When you write a movie that actually gets made (one in a thousand, at best), from the time you finish it until the time you see it being made is at least a year and can be as long as twenty years. Television is different. You write scripts and they go right into production.
So my partner on the Kundu story, Gene Sperling, and I come up with this big story. And it starts off at the National Prayer Breakfast, a real-life annual event that gathers all of the religious traditions together at the Washington Hilton. Every president since Eisenhower has attended.
A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk down the street…
We came up with the prayer breakfast scene idea sometime in late December. A few weeks later I’m walking from our offices on the Warner Bros. lot to lunch and what do I see? Five actors walking together, all dressed in religious outfits — an Imam, Priest, Rabbi, Buddhist.
It was mind-blowing. To think that just a month earlier we’d dreamed something up out of thin air and now a bunch of guys were wearing costumes carrying out the idea. When I got back to the office I immediately called Gene who lived in Washington, D.C. We gave each other a hearty, telephonic high-five.
5. GOING TO THE EMMYS…TWICE
The Emmys are the television equivalent of the Oscars. Held every September, it’s a really big deal for the TV biz.
In September of 2002, Aaron invited the whole writing staff even though the awards were for the previous season, which most of us didn’t work on. It’s a black-tie affair with the red carpet and the whole shebang.
“And the winner is…”
The coolest thing by far that year came at the end when the two big Emmy awards for best drama series and best comedy series are announced. So when Rudy Giuliani (at the time a big hero because of 9/11; Now? Not so much.) said, “And the winner is…The West Wing.” we all literally had to get out of our seats and walk down to the stage. It was surreal. I loved every second of it.
The second cool moment came after we won. The people who’ve just won are ushered into a huge press/media room where all the stars get interviewed. So we’re in there for a few minutes when the winners of best comedy series, Friends, start streaming into the press tent. And that meant one of biggest celebrity sightings I’ve ever had: Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. [A close second was seeing Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen strolling past us at the Louvre in Paris.]
When we went in September of 2003, most of us weren’t writing on the show anymore, including Aaron. But he got us all tickets anyway, which btw aren’t cheap at around $700 if memory serves.
My full-court press at the Emmys
I took my now-wife. After dating for a year or so, we had split for a year. I was trying to win her back and thought a night at the Emmys couldn’t hurt. So I bought her a dress ($$$) and shoes ($$$$$$$$$$$$$) and off we went.
And we won again! So I head down to the stage. Aaron gives a speech. And we were the last category so all of the other winners are asked to come up to the stage to close the evening.
This was amazing. So I called Steph on my cell phone from the stage to her seat and told her to come up. I said no one is going to check. “Just get up here!” She resisted, being the consummate rule-follower she is.
So I ask the guy standing next to me if he wouldn’t mind telling my girl to get her butt up here. The guy says sure. Takes my phone and starts haranguing Steph to get a move on. That guy? Jon Stewart! The Daily Show had won for best late-night show. He couldn’t have been nicer.
So there it is. My top five pinch-me moments from working on The West Wing.
No grand spiritual message here. Just gratitude for the opportunity to experience these special Tinseltown moments.