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Monday, December 19, 2005

John Spencer

I was devastated to learn over the weekend of the sudden death of actor John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry on fictional White House drama The West Wing. Spencer has always been the best actor on a brilliantly acted show and The West Wing will struggle to recover from his loss.

In a case of life imitating art, his character was also a recovering alcoholic and suffered a massive heart attack. For the first five years on the show, Spencer played the savvy, world-weary Chief of Staff to President Bartlet (Martin Sheen). In the course of that period, Spencer had many great moments but two stand out in particular. In an episode from the first series, Leo had to come clean on his former drink and pills addictions after a young staffer leaks the information to the press. Later in the episode, Leo meets the staffer and tries to explain to her what being a recovering alcoholic means. It was the most intelligent and honest discussion on alcoholism that I have ever heard and Spencer was amazing in those scenes.

His finest hour, however, arrived in the third series, in an episode entitled 'Bartlet for America'. In this installment, Leo is facing the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating the White House's concealment of Bartlet's Multiple Sclerosis during the election. In flashback, we see how Leo first convinced Bartlet to run but the main thrust of the epiosde is to show how Leo once fell off the wagon and got drunk during a crucial primary debate. It was quite simply amongst the finest screen acting I have ever seen and Spencer was awarded an Emmy award for that episode.

In the sixth series, his character became the catalyst for huge change in the White House and the series as a whole. After suffering a massive heart attack, Leo resigns and is replaced as Chief of Staff by press secretary CJ Cregg (Allison Janney). This causes a whole rejigging of the staff and major new characters, storylines and dynamics were then introduced. Leo returned in a smaller capacity as an adviser but the sixth series ended with Leo becoming the Vice Presidential candidate alongside Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits). The seventh series, currently airing in the US, was continuing the campiagn between the Santos-McGarry ticket and Republican Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda).

The show, which many presumed would end after the current series, now faces huge challenges in writing Leo out of the series for good. Spencer was a gifted, worldly actor and will be truly missed by West Wing fans the world over.

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