Sunday, December 18, 2005

John Spencer 1946 - 2005

I hate writing obituaries but sometimes there are people who you just have to write about. John Spencer, who died late on Friday, was one of those. He would have been 59 on Tuesday.

On TCM they sometimes have a brief segment following some of their movies called Damned Good Actors. It think that this is a description that fit John Spencer to a T. He made his television debut as a teenager on the second season of The Patty Duke Show. His character disappeared when production of the show moved from New York to Hollywood after Patty Duke turned 18 (New York Law was less restrictive with regard to the hours a juvenile actor could work than California law). He was a student at New York's Professional Children's School where some of his fellow students were Liza Minelli and Pinchas Zuckerman. Spencer worked in regional theatre and off-Broadway productions for much of the 1970s and '80s, winning an Obie for his role in the play Still Life and a Drama Desk nomination for The Day Room.

His film career began in the early 1980s with small parts, like one of the airman at the missile silo at the start of War Games, and often parts in cheap movies. In 1990 he had a major supporting role in the Harrison Ford movie Presumed Innocent which probably led to his first major break, the role of Tommy Mullaney on L.A. Law. He was perfectly cast as the gruff former prosecutor whose alcoholism had led to the end of his marriage and nearly the end of his career before he got a second chance with Mackenzie Brackman. Adding Spencer was a major - and positive - addition to the cast of L.A. Law and he was one of the outstanding figures on the show particularly after Susan Dey, Harry Hamlin and Jimmy Smits left the cast. Spencer's role on L.A. Law helped his career insofar as it got him a better class of supporting roles including parts in forget Paris, The Rock, Copland and The Negotiator although he still appeared in some pretty awful movies. In 1998 he was one of the leading characters in the short-lived NBC series Trinity, co-starring as Jill Clayburgh's husband.

It was with The West Wing that actor and character came together in one of those perfect fits that happen so rarely. Although Spencer said of Leo McGarry "He has qualities that I wish I had more of. I often say to Aaron [Sorkin], 'You're writing the man I'd like to be.' " the two men were close in a lot of ways. Like McGarry, Spencer was an alcoholic and a workaholic. In an interview for AP he said "Like Leo, I've always been a workaholic, too. Through good times and bad, acting has been my escape, my joy, my nourishment. The drug for me, even better than alcohol, was acting.'' Spencer was nominated for five Emmy Awards as Best Supporting Actor and won once in 2002. It always seemed to me to be a bit of a snub to nominate him in the Supporting Actor category as it always seemed to me that the role of Leo was very much the equal of Martin Sheen's Josiah Bartlett, and it seemed particularly strange in those years when Stockard Channing was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for doing far less. True, Bartlett was the showier part but in so many ways Spencer was the glue who held the show together, who linked Bartlett with the bulk of his staff. Indeed, if the original plan for the series had proceeded, where the President either wasn't seen or rarely seen, McGarry would have been the principal character even if Rob Lowe was getting more money per episode. Spencer brought the proper weight to the tough brilliant and occasionally troubled character of Leo. There are so many great scenes with Leo that John Spencer made live. My favourite Leo scene was one where Spencer made the words seem like his own experience. He's explaining to his lawyer - played by Joanna Gleason - that he can't have just one drink, that he can't understand people who can only have just one drink. It's a rivetting near soliloquy and one of his best performances on the show.

There is a certain irony to a couple of events on the show in light of John Spencer's death. In the sixth season episode "Birnam Wood" Leo suffered a near fatal heart attack which took him away from his job at the White House. The episode seemed to have an impact on Spencer. He stated that "I do not want to have a heart attack. Since (I shot that episode) I have taken much better care of myself. I did the thing I have been trying to do for years - I stopped smoking." Reportedly the next episode of The West Wing which was to air on January 6 was to feature Leo in a Vice-Presidential debate where the issue of health care comes up. Reportedly the character was supposed to say "By an overwhelming percentage, the first warning symptom of a heart attack is death. I'm fortunate to be here." There are no reports at the moment of how The West Wing will be handling John Spencer's death.

Spencer was an only child who was married and divorced in the 1970s. According to his publicist he is survived by "cousins, aunts, uncles, and wonderful friends." Not to mention a great many stunned fans.

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