“It is rare in your career to see [a pilot] that absolutely must make it to air. The West Wing was one of those rare instances.” — Garth Ancier, president of NBC Entertainment
The West Wing was a wildly popular political drama that enjoyed a seven-year run (still too brief for its rabid fans), from 1999 to 2006. Here are some of our favorite facts about the show!
West Wing Facts
In a season six episode, General Alexander makes reference to “the Kingdom of Syria.” In fact, Syria is a republic.
38. End of an era
The season four episode called “Twenty-Five” is the last episode that Aaron Sorkin wrote. Aaron never disclosed his reason for leaving The West Wing.
37. It took a little time…
The West Wing wasn’t a hit until its second season. Friends, Will & Grace, ER and Law & Order all bested West Wing in the ratings. In fact, West Wing wasn’t even in the top five of NBC’s shows in the first year.
36. Role reversal
Bradley Whitford was first offered the part of Sam Seaborn. Aaron called him up and said, “You got it. You’re in the show. You’re playing Sam.”
Bradley took a deep breath and responded, “Thank you, and God, yes, I want to do it, but… I’m not the guy with the hooker.”
Aaron later called him back and offered him the part of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman instead.
35. From West Wing to Apple Pie?
Eugene Levy was considered for the role of Toby Ziegler.
34. Getting bang for your buck
The Oval Office used in The West Wing was the same Oval Office that was used in the movies Dave and The American President, which were also written by Aaron Sorkin.
33. Hey, Aaron, how about stepping up the girl power?
Madeleine Albright once accosted Aaron Sorkin when the crew was filming near her Georgetown house. Allegedly, the former secretary of state came out onto the street in a bathrobe at three in the morning to see what all the commotion was. When she encountered Sorkin, she told him that the show needed more high-ranking women on it.
32. A little recognition, please
With 26 wins, The West Wing is tied (with Hill Street Blues) for the most Emmy wins ever.
31. Double take
Producers actually shot two versions of season seven’s debate episode—one for each coast. Alas, only the West Coast’s version is available for viewing.
30. The Qumar fallacy
The characters frequently refer to Qumar over the course of the show’s run. The interesting thing about Qumar: it doesn’t exist.
29. Office romance!
The relationship between C.J. Cregg and Danny Concannon was actually based on the real-life relationship between Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers (who was a consultant on The West Wing) and her husband, New York Times reporter Todd Purdum.
28. Gail, the immortal goldfish
Rarely mentioned, but always there, Gail the goldfish first arrived on C.J.’s desk in the series’ ninth episode. Allison Janney was under the impression that it was the same goldfish every episode for seven years.
When asked about this, Aaron said, “Don’t break her heart and tell her we went through a couple of hundred of them.”
After hearing the news, Janney said, “They never told me. I didn’t want to know,” she says. “As far as I was concerned, there was only one Gail and she worked from start of work to end of picture. She had a running contract and it was the same goldfish.”
27. The gold fish bowl’s ever-changing décor…
The decorations in C.J.’s goldfish bowl changed frequently, and were used as sly references to the plot of the episode. Decorations included a submarine in “Gone Quiet,” where the Bartlet fears a sub has gone missing; a flag-draped coffin in the episode where Bartlet attends a former president’s funeral; and a sign that read “That’s All Folks,” in the series finale.
26. That looks familiar…
The shot of President Bartlet in the opening credits closely resembles a famous photo of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s widely known that Kennedy was one of the main inspirations for Bartlet.
25. The course of history
Matt Santos was originally going to lose the presidential election to Arnold Vinick in season seven. The writers changed their minds after John Spencer (who played Santos’ running mate Leo McGarry) died partway through the season.
Even though Josh was shot and had extensive open-heart surgery in the second season, in a scene depicting Josh and Donna in bed together, his chest is free of scars.
23. Enter Bartlet
Originally, The West Wing was to be a show that focused on senior White House staff. President Bartlet was initially only supposed to make occasional appearances in the show. When everyone realized how great Bartlet was, they doubled down on the character.
22. Mailing it in
In the season 7 “Election Day” episode, Josh talks about people going to the polls in Oregon. Attention-paying viewers cringed at this, as the entire state votes by mail.
21. Life imitates art
In the “King Corn” episode of season six, a train wreck news story plays on TV in the background of all three candidates’ experiences. The day the episode first aired, a suicidal man caused the worst train wreck in a decade.
20. All that Political Speak is Hard!
The plural form of “State of The Union” is used incorrectly several times. Characters on the show say “State of The Unions.” In fact, it’s correct to say “States of The Union.”
19. Quit your day job
When Janel Moloney scored the part of Josh’s assistant Donatella Moss, she kept her hostessing job at a Bevery Hills restaurant until the third episode. At that point, she said, “I knew that they were never going to get rid of me.”
18. Walk and talk
Aaron Sorkin is widely credited for the popularization of the “walk and talk,” which became a big deal during the show. In fact, however, it director Thomas Schlamme who first tackled the walk-and-talk—in Sports Night. After West Wing, Sorkin went on to feature the theme in Studio 60 and The Newsroom.
17. I think we lost one…
In the West Wing universe, NASA only has two space shuttles. In reality there are three: Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavor.
16. The first president
The role of the president on The West Wing was originally offered to Sidney Poitier, but his fee was too high. Jason Robards and Alan Alda were also considered for the role.
15. Big bucks!
Each episode of The West Wing had a budget of $6 million.
14. Moment of silence…
When President Bartlet’s secretary Mrs. Landingham died on the show, a real-life San Francisco assemblyman named Kevin Shelley was so broken up about it that he adjourned a session of the California Congress to grieve for her. He called Landingham a “great American” whose “contributions to the nation were too numerous to count.”
13. Martin’s signature blazer maneuver
Martin Sheen puts his jacket on like a boss because of an injury he suffered as a newborn. When Sheen was born, his left shoulder was injured by forceps, limiting the use of his left hand.
12. An epic lineage
President Bartlet is meant to be a descendant of Josiah Bartlett, who’s a real-life signer of the Declaration of Independence.
11. A brisk stroll…
The longest “walk and talk” the show ever did was three minutes long. It involved close to 500 extras.
Josh Lyman got his name from a character in Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury. A framed copy of one of the strips hangs in TV Josh’s office.
9. Prankster on set
Josh Malina, who plays Bailyer, was quite the prankster when the cameras weren’t running. He used to change the language on people’s iPods, tear the last pages out of books they were reading, and, on one occasion, sent Jimmy Smits Valentine’s Day flowers on behalf of Bradley Witford.
8. Pretty cheesy…
Leo McGarry’s story about Andrew Jackson having a big block of cheese is (mostly) true. The Jackson White House did have a 1,400 pound block of cheddar cheese—a gift from a New York dairy farmer. Though Jackson loved cheese, he couldn’t eat all of it, so he offered it to the people during his last public reception. It was gone within two hours.
7. Thanks, George!
Sam Seaborn was based on George Stephanopoulos. However, Stephanopoulos has said that his real role in the Clinton White House was more like Josh Lyman’s.
6. In solemn memory…
Mrs. Landingham probably wouldn’t have been killed off if actress Kathryn Joosten hadn’t casually mentioned to Aaron Sorkin that she was up for a role in another pilot.
5. Big sets
The main set of The West Wing was so large it originally had to be split across two stages. Later, the crew got enough space to build a single set in one area.
4. Way to go, dad!
Despite the fact that her father was the show’s creator, and at its head for four seasons, Aaron Sorkin’s daughter has reportedly never seen a single episode of The West Wing.
3. Dictator in the White House
When Aaron ran the show, he really ran the show. Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman) dais, “I always joke with Aaron—and it goes for Tommy too—that The West Wing was a great show about democracy run by a couple of Kim Jong-ils.”
2. Goodbye, Rob
The show changed drastically after Rob Lowe left the West Wing. He was reportedly unhappy about his salary and that his character wasn’t getting as much screen time as he’d like. Though Lowe had started out as one of the highest-paid actors, earning $70K per episode. In the end, Martin Sheen earned four times that amount. When the studio wouldn’t increase his pay, Lowe decided to leave.
Reflecting on the time, Rob said, “In the end, I could have lived with the fact that everyone on the show had gotten a raise but me—if I felt that we really knew what the story lines were going to be.” He added, “I mean, I’m so blessed to have been part of something great. The last thing anybody wants to hear is that John Lennon hated Paul McCartney. They just want to hear ‘Hey Jude.’ ”
1. Welcome back!
Aaron Sorkin makes an appearance in the show’s final episode, “Tomorrow.” He can be seen in the crowd during Santos’s inauguration. Sorkin had left the show three seasons prior.
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