Archive for Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Life imitates TV on ‘West Wing’

Actor says election, like his show, favored style over substance

December 20, 2000

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— It was a week ago at midmorning, to be exact that Bradley Whitford bit into a chocolate cream-filled doughnut and savored his life.

Seated in a Rockefeller Center coffee shop, he was a few steps from the "Today" show, where he had just appeared with Katie Couric (who called him a hottie), plugging the next night's "The West Wing."

An especially strong episode of the hit White House drama, it depicts Whitford's character, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, suffering an emotional meltdown many months after gunfire rained on President Bartlet and his senior staff.

Lucky Whitford! His character was the only one gravely injured in the ambush, which afforded him some gripping near-death scenes early this season.

And in the new episode, titled "Noel," he would show his stuff again, as Josh goes toe-to-toe with a trauma counselor played by Adam Arkin.

It's a terrific hour, even featuring the virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a Christmas performance.

But a week ago, Whitford might have been surprised to know that "Noel," which had brought him from Los Angeles for his whirlwind New York publicity swing, was destined to be bumped for real-life presidential drama and be broadcast this week instead.

Or maybe he wouldn't have been surprised at all. If the current political season has taught people anything, it's that plans change.

In any case, Whitford was here to say that he is pleased, proud and grateful beyond words to have a berth on "The West Wing" (airing on NBC Wednesdays at 8 p.m. CST), whose splendid ensemble also includes Allison Janney, John Spencer, Rob Lowe, Richard Schiff, Dule Hill, Janel Moloney and, of course, Martin Sheen as President Bartlet.

At 41, Whitford has paid his dues with roles in such films as "Awakenings," "Presumed Innocent" and "A Perfect World." He starred on Broadway in "A Few Good Men," whose playwright, Aaron Sorkin, created "The West Wing" a decade later and cast Whitford in it.

He loves playing Josh a wired, ascetic wag with more colors than the NBC peacock.

"This guy gets to be funny and he gets to be passionate. He's smart, he's oversensitive, he's full of rage," said Whitford, who nails every nuance.

From the next table, an elderly couple, apparently tourists, inquired (Josh being, after all, a Washington insider) if he had any updates on the election mess. "We've been on a bus," they explained.

"I can't believe George Bush might be president," said Whitford, not looking so happy as he echoed the thoughts of maybe half the electorate.

He had campaigned for Al Gore in Minnesota, Oregon and New Mexico, and in October traveled to his native state, Wisconsin, to introduce Gore at the biggest rally of the campaign.

"I'm not a politician, I just play one on TV kind of like George Bush," Whitford would tell audiences. "This election ain't no stinkin' TV show."

Wasn't it?

"For me," he recalled, "one of the most surreal moments in this election was after the third debate, when I heard a talking head say, 'Well, clearly, Al Gore won on substance, on the issues. But you have to give the victory to Bush, because he seems presidential.' I I almost spit my Pink Squirrel!"

He shook his head in disbelief. "SEEMS presidential? SEEMS presidential?! That's Martin Sheen's job, to SEEM presidential! When did SEEMING presidential ...?"

He sighed.

A few hours later, the race would be settled; 36 hours later, NBC's coverage of Gore conceding to Bush would pre-empt the "West Wing" episode Whitford was here to promote.

On Election Day, it was that episode he had been shooting, he recalled, with cast and crew gravitating to TVs after each take to catch the latest returns.

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